Louis Pasteur and the Pleasures of Art

Pasteur portrait and inscription, The Historical Medical Library of The College of PhysiciansLast night I had the pleasure of attending a talk here at the College by Bert Hansen, PhD, Professor of History Baruch College, City University of New York. Hansen has long written about the visual arts and the history of medicine, and his talk last night focused on the role of the visual arts in Louis Pasteur’s life and on Pasteur’s influence on artists and their work.

Pasteur studied drawing as a young man, and Hansen showed examples of his portraiture — nicely wrought depictions of Pasteur’s mother and father. (About 30 of Pasteur’s charcoals, pastels, and other works survive.) After he ended his art studies, Pasteur continued to participate in the lively visuals arts world in Europe, traveling to other countries to visit museums and exhibitions and attending the annual exhibitions and salons in Paris. Pasteur was not alone in his devotions; the government-sponsored exhibitions drew crowds of more than half a milion people each year.

Our most recognized representation of Pasteur was painted by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), a Finnish artist Pasteur met when he was in his sixties. The painting, shown above and exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay, depicts Pasteur contemplating an object in a glass jar. Edelfelt painted the portrait in the spring of 1885, just a few months before Pasteur would use his rabies vaccine successfully for the first time on a human.

In the biography Pasteur’s son-in-law, René Vallery Radot, wrote, he describes the pose and setting as serendipitous. “…After many sketches, [Edelfelt] caught Pasteur unnoticed, deep in observation, an experimental card in one hand, in his right, a specimen of spinal marrow of rabies.” Hansen asserts that this is likely a bit of mythmaking. In Edelfelt’s letters to his mother, he describes the many hours he spent finding an appropriate place to set the portrait, and he tells her that Pasteur gave him the suggestion of putting in his hand the piece of spinal cord. Indeed, Pasteur told Edelfelt that the significance of the material was not presently known, but would be known in the future. Thus, Pasteur was staging the scene in anticipation of his success with rabies vaccine. When we look at the portrait now, Hansen urges us to see it as not commemoration of an accomplishment, but a hope of success.

The Paris Salon of 1886 exhibited three paintings of Pasteur: the Edelfelt won the Legion of Honor at the salon and was also popularly thought to be the best of the three. All three showed Pasteur as a man of science. But this representation would change in the next salon. In 1887 Lucien Laurent Gsell (1860-1944) showed Pasteur in a very different light, as a healer and not in a lab. Gsell’s scene, in which Pasteur stands by as a doctor gives the rabies vaccine to a child, evokes traditional religious motifs of the Madonna with child and the circumcision of Jesus.

Hansen suggests that Gsell’s painting reinforces the image of Pasteur as a secular saint of modern science, far different from the earlier representations as an experimenter and man of science.

The talk ended with a quick visual tour of all the ways that images of Pasteur are present in Paris, from statues to a Metro station.