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An Iconic Painting Turns 100
On its centennial anniversary, we explore the intriguing backstory of one of America’s most famous medical masterworks.

John Singer Sargent’s “The Four Doctors” depicts, from left, Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly. The portrait hangs in the Welch Library.

On the evening of Jan. 19, 1907, dignitaries gathered at the University’s McCoy Hall to see for the first time John Singer Sargent’s “The Four Doctors.”

As the portrait was unveiled, School of Medicine founders William Welch, William Halsted, Sir William Osler and Howard Kelly appeared in solemn splendor, looking more like vaunted European academics than the practicing American physicians they actually were. Attired in black academic robes, they posed before a massive Venetian globe and a replica of an El Greco painting with an original 1515 edition of Petrarch on the table.

Following brief remarks by philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett, who had commissioned the work, and an acceptance speech by University President Ira Remsen, Welch told of sitting for the portrait in the famous artist’s London studio in the summer of 1905. When work began, Welch said, Sargent had not been happy. “It won’t do,” he declared. “It isn’t a picture.” Then the artist brought in the globe. At the next sitting, he quickly sketched in its silhouette and stood back. “Now,” he pronounced, “we have got our picture.” 

The doctors sat together, not separately as was once thought. Coordinating schedules and setting sitting dates began a full two years in advance. From Sargent’s point of view, these complex logistics were probably far easier than dealing with Garrett and her friend M. Carey Thomas, whose portraits he had already completed. With them, Sargent said, “I felt like a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor.”

“The Four Doctors” was treasured from the start. Although it was almost immediately loaned to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and then sent to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, it was soon decided that it would never be loaned again. The portrait’s immense size (10 feet 9 inches by 9 feet 1 inch) and complex construction on four separate canvasses made moving it too risky. During World War II, the portrait was covered with a protective screen. The glass, under which it had been put in 1938, was removed for fear it would shatter and damage the work if bombs fell on Baltimore. 

“The Four Doctors” is part of the major portrait collection of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, the official repository for the major records of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health. No one knows what Garrett paid Sargent to paint the portrait. When it was shipped from London, however, it was insured for $10,000.

“The Four Doctors” has been restored three times, most recently in 2001. Before this painstaking, $38,000 project, Halsted had been lost in the shadows. Some believed Sargent did not like the surgeon and had intentionally obscured his features. That, though, proved a myth when layers of grime and dirt fell away and Halsted emerged in all his glory. Today “The Four Doctors” looks just the way it did when it was unveiled 100 years ago.

Anne Bennett Swingle



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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