Rare surgeon portrait acquired by Wellcome Library
18 May 2011
The Wellcome Library in London has added to its collection
of drawings with the acquisition of a magnificent portrait drawing
of the French surgeon Ange-Bernard Imbert-Delonnes
(1747–1818) by Pierre Chasselat – a
portrait with a distinctive feature.
The drawing is unusual in that in addition to its more
conventional features, the minutely detailed interior includes, on
the right, a gruesome souvenir of Imbert Delonnes's proudest
achievement: a gigantic testicular tumour (sarcocele) which
– in a controversial operation –
Imbert-Delonnes removed from Charles-François Delacroix, the French
The drawing in black chalk is signed by the artist and dated
"L'an 8" (year 8 in the French Revolutionary calendar, meaning
1799–1800). The portrait itself, and the identity of
the man portrayed, were discovered by the firm of Didier Aaron,
from whom the drawing has been purchased by the Wellcome Library
with the aid of grants from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and
the Art Fund.
The drawing is both a work of art and a historical document. In
accordance with Imbert-Delonnes's self-image, it shows him sitting
in a lordly pose in a fashionable interior at the dawn of the
Empire period. In his professional life, he was a fearless and
forceful surgeon who made his name in the French Army serving under
Napoleon at the battle of Marengo (1800). In the drawing, he is
holding his pen as if putting the finishing touches to a manuscript
of the "Progress of the art of healing". The operation on Delacroix
proceeded despite seven of his eight medical advisers counselling
against touching the tumour, which weighed some 28 pounds.
The seemingly incongruous display of excised body parts on a
plinth in an elegant interior makes the drawing a vivid witness to
the sensibility of the surgical elite of the time –
and the sarcocele has its own subplot.
Its unwilling owner, Charles-François Delacroix, was nominally
the father of the painter Eugène Delacroix, although he was almost
certainly not his biological father, owing to this very tumour.
Eugène Delacroix's biological father was reputed to be
Charles-François Delacroix's successor as French foreign minister,
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, to whom Eugène bore a strong
Simon Chaplin, Head of Wellcome Library, says: "This
extraordinary drawing is an outstanding addition to the Wellcome
Library's collection of medical portraits. Like a general
surrounded by the trophies of battle, the depiction of
Imbert-Delonnes' reminds us of an age when every operation was an
ordeal for the patient, and every success a triumph for the
Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of Modern History at King's
College London, says: "For centuries medical practitioners have
been interested in portraiture; they have commissioned and
collected, bought and sold, displayed and reproduced many important
works of historical and aesthetic interest. Portraits shaped and
disseminated professional identities; they often resulted from
significant collaborations between artists and sitters. This
gorgeous portrait is a major acquisition for the Wellcome Library,
not least in extending its holdings of portraits of French
practitioners. Although the role that portraits have long played in
constructing the image of medical practitioners is well known, its
detailed, scholarly study is still young. This portrait will
provide historians with rich food for thought, especially
concerning the status of surgeons in the Revolutionary and
The Wellcome Library is situated in the Wellcome Collection
building and is open to the public free of charge. The drawing may
be seen in the Library's Rare Materials Room.
Further information about the drawing can be found at its entry in
the Library catalogue.
NOTES TO EDITORS
Senior Media Officer
T 020 7611 8612
The price paid by the Wellcome Library for the portrait was
£28 000, including a grant of £8000 from the MLA/V&A
Purchase Grant Fund and a grant of £5000 from the Art Fund.
The Wellcome Library has a French Collection, which was created
by the founder of the Wellcome Library and Wellcome Trust, Sir
Henry Wellcome (1853–1936). It contains memorabilia,
manuscripts and portraits of eminent French figures such as
Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, Hyacinthe Vincent and Etienne-Jules Marey.
For his work in creating the collection, Wellcome was appointed to
the Légion d'Honneur.
Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund that helps regional
museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and
Wales to acquire objects relating to the arts, literature and
history. It was established at the Victoria and Albert Museum
(V&A) in 1881 and continues to be part of its nationwide work.
The annual grants budget, currently £600,000, is provided by the
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). Each year, the
Purchase Grant Fund considers some 250 applications and awards
grants to around 100 organisations, enabling acquisitions of around
£3.5 million to go ahead.
The Art Fund is the
national fundraising charity for works of art and plays a major
part in enriching the range and quality of art on public display in
the UK. Supported by some 80,000 individual members, it campaigns,
fundraises and gives money to museums and galleries to buy, show
and share art, and offers many ways of enjoying it through the
National Art Pass. As well as supporting the buying of works of
art, initiatives under its funding programme include: sponsoring
the UK tour of the ARTIST ROOMS collection so that it reaches
several million people across the UK each year, and fundraising:
two recently successful campaigns include bringing in £6 million to
save the Staffordshire Hoard for the West Midlands and Pieter
Brueghel the Younger’s The Procession to Calvary for Nostell
Priory, in partnership with the National Trust. Over the past year,
the Art Fund has given £24 million for works of art to 248 museums
and galleries. The Art Fund is funded entirely by its art-loving
and museum-going supporters who believe that great art should be
for everyone to enjoy.
Wellcome Library is one of the world's major resources for the
study of medical history, and provides access to a growing
collection of contemporary biomedical information resources
relating to consumer health, popular science, biomedical ethics and
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curious. Located at 183 Euston Road, London, Wellcome
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in the past, present and future.
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