Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 2011
Craig Ashley Hanson The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 344 pp.; 12 color ills.; 62 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780226315874)

To the modern day reader, hospitals and scientific societies might seem to be unlikely settings for exhibiting and discussing contemporary art. In The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism, Craig Ashley Hanson shows how it made perfect sense that such venues would foster art theory and practice in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. The leading role in this book is played by the figure of the virtuoso, whose eclectic interests were united under the umbrella of curiosity. Encompassing activities as wide ranging as medicine (learned and unlearned), classical studies, and art collecting, patronage, practice, and theory, Hanson’s study of English virtuoso culture makes an important contribution to an understanding of the intellectual foundations of art scholarship and writing. In illuminating the complex world of the virtuoso, this insightful book also shows how early forms of interdisciplinarity actually worked. Drawing connections between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The English Virtuoso provides an opportunity to reflect on the ways that boundaries were often blurred between intersecting areas of knowledge.

Chapter 1 focuses on art theory and its intersections with antiquarianism and medicine during the early seventeenth century. The issue of the relationship between theory and practice arises in Dr. Richard Haydocke’s 1598 edition of Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Trattato del arte della pittura, scultura, ed architettura (1584). Combining his medical expertise with his knowledge of color theory leads Haydocke to make the unexpected recommendation that women avoid the use of chemical preparations—cosmetics—to enhance their appearance. This intersection of medicine and art shows that Haydocke’s ideas on color were grounded in bodily and material practice. Another meeting of medicine and art as well as theory and practice comes in Haydocke’s arguments for the therapeutic value of art.

Theory and practice collide, or sometimes meet uneasily, in chapter 2, which examines the virtuosi of the Restoration period, concentrating on John Evelyn. As a writer, member of the Royal Society, and medical adviser, Evelyn embodied the qualities of the Restoration virtuoso, and art, medicine, and antiquarianism informed his activities in many ways. A fascinating example of this interchange is the series of panels depicting the veins and arteries of the human body. Evelyn commissioned the panels, which were made out of actual veins and arteries mounted on wooden boards, in order to demonstrate his belief that the veins and arteries existed as separate systems, contradicting William Harvey’s theories. Hanson details the complex history and changing significance of the panels, which were eventually gifted to the Royal Society by Evelyn, pointing out that the panels were pervaded with a sense of conservatism, “and in the end Evelyn’s tables show us no brave new world, but force us instead to marvel at the past” (69). Evelyn’s antiquarian and intellectual pursuits brushed up against the concerns of commerce and trade when he worked on the Royal Society’s History of Trades project. The project sought to collect and disseminate useful knowledge on a wide range of subject areas, but Evelyn lamented that his research was hindered by the inadequate explanations provided by craftspeople of their trades.

Theory, practice, and the market both separate and unite the two figures that are the main subject of chapter 3, Drs. William Aglionby and William Salmon. Both men practiced medicine and published books on art in the late seventeenth century, but only Aglionby possessed formal training as a physician. Aglionby’s book was very much “an art history primer for the English well-to-do” (104), and one of his aims was to encourage patronage of the arts in England. Hanson shows that the crucial context for understanding Aglionby’s Painting Illustrated (1685) was his membership in the Royal Society, for at that time the society served as the “institutional focal point” (98) for the fine arts in England. In contrast to Aglionby’s book, Salmon’s Polygraphice responded to the rising interest in art among the middle and lower classes. This intriguing book, published in eight editions between 1672–1701, was mostly a compendium of material drawn from other authors. Salmon was regarded as a quack by many of his contemporaries (and competitors), and Hanson demonstrates that the charge of quackery was not limited to those in the medical profession. Members of the medical community “found themselves wrestling with the same issues at play in the visual arts” (125). Like medical practitioners, art collectors and connoisseurs were also concerned with questions relating to authority, authenticity, and the distinction between theory and practice.

The topic of chapter 4, the “empirical legacy” of Don Quixote, brings together art, medicine, and antiquarianism around the question of perception. Hanson uses Don Quixote as “a lens for thinking about the vital role sensory perception played” in the discourses of medical legitimacy and antiquarianism (128). Practitioners in both fields struggled with the tension between reading and experience, and were often criticized for relying on outdated, historical book-learning. Hanson traces the reception of Cervantes’s book in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, showing that its popularity was a broad cultural phenomenon appealing to educated groups in general, but holding special importance for physicians. Hanson argues that empiricism—and the questions and tensions surrounding it—was at the heart of the practices of art, medicine, and antiquarianism in the early eighteenth century. An example is a 1742 edition of Don Quixote, which served as a platform for another physician, Dr. John Oldfield, to discuss his ideas on art. Oldfield’s essay became an important text for art theory more generally. Oldfield advised artists to focus on details of gesture, expression, and nuances of relationships that were not easily conveyed in words. In this way, images could function as sources of empirical data, subject to methods of analysis similar to those used by physicians, who looked to exterior signs for indications of interior realities (148). Cervantes’s text thus “provided a vocabulary for addressing basic dilemmas growing out of the empirical reorientation of English learned culture” (149).

This reorientation toward empiricism sometimes would put practitioners in a bind when trying to negotiate between the old ways of doing things and the new. Dr. Richard Mead, the subject of chapter 5, elegantly sidestepped the issue when confronted by his mentor, Dr. John Radcliffe, who seemed both offended and challenged by Mead’s interest in reading Hippocrates. “You, sir, have no occasion, you are Hippocrates himself,” Mead assured Radcliffe (168). Mead’s ability to successfully defuse this potential conflict stemmed from his immersion in the virtuoso culture of his day. Art, medicine, and antiquarianism informed many of Mead’s activities. His art collection reflected his overlapping interests, and included paintings of distinguished doctors, historical works with healing, anatomical, or medical subject matter, and drawings encompassing both antiquity and natural history. Hanson’s analysis of a sculpture of the infant Hercules is especially informative for showing how Mead’s interests were intertwined. The sculpture appeared in a commemorative medal and in several published illustrations, and was valued as an art object within the community of virtuosi while also functioning as an emblem of Mead’s knowledge of antiquity. The shared interest in empiricism within this community means that the actual venues and networks for art in Mead’s time centered on hospitals, which became “the first venues for the public display of contemporary art” and “the seeds of full-blown public exhibitions and a state-sanctioned academy” (188). William Hogarth’s and other artists’ paintings for the Court Room of the Foundling Hospital were therefore the locus of exploration of a new model of how to use the past to inform the present, and the hospital itself provided a sense of community and identity for artists.

One question that arises with regard to the physicians and medical practitioners discussed in The English Virtuoso is to what extent they were interested in art and antiquities in particular versus their interest in these topics as part of their pursuit of intellectual matters in general. For the most part, Hanson makes a compelling case that it was the former, though some figures such as Mead and Evelyn seem to exemplify the interconnectedness of art, medicine, and antiquarianism more than others. Even with Evelyn, however, there are some interesting discordant notes. In the example cited above, Evelyn’s frustration suggests something of a disconnect between the culture of the virtuoso and that of the artisan. One imagines Evelyn pressing the “mechanical capricious persons” he interviewed for proprietary information and receiving a reluctant or angry response. Hanson argues convincingly that art, medicine, and antiquarianism were not separate endeavors for virtuosi such as Evelyn. But for other people, those who were not virtuosi or did not aspire to the designation, such activities might have remained separate for practical (or commercial) reasons.

The difference between art and medicine also surfaces in a section on art metaphors in medical texts. For some writers, art was used as a negative example: unlike a poorly trained painter, a poorly trained physician could do great harm. Thus, for some of the figures discussed in this book it may have been necessary for separate interests to remain compartmentalized. On the other hand, Hanson makes only passing reference to artists who worked primarily in the field of nature and natural history. More discussion of the ways that the wide-ranging interests of artists such as Eleazar Albin, George Edwards, Mark Catesby, and Maria Sibylla Merian intersected with those of Mead, Hogarth, and others would help to further illuminate the unresolved conflicts that Hanson shows were at the center of the virtuosic tradition. The establishment of boundaries between the interconnected areas that Hanson so skillfully investigates is one of the many compelling questions raised by The English Virtuoso.

Janice Neri
Associate Professor, Art Department, Boise State University

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