A Portrait of Medicine

Illustrated by Sophie Laye

Medicine has been associated with the humanities for years, but a more recent relationship is that between medicine and art. More specifically, within the field of the art of medicine, the creation of portraits of sick patients has been shown to have compelling effects on medicine and care in a health setting. Dr. Mark Gilbert, a Canadian artist and researcher, explores the role of portraiture in medicine and conducts medical humanities research to support his ideas that portraiture has potential to be instrumental in how medicine is practiced.  

Gilbert is not only an artist, nor is he solely a researcher. He has a degree in Fine Art along with a Ph.D. from the Medical Sciences Interdepartmental Area (MSIA) program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Gilbert worked as an artist in residence in The Royal London Hospital in England, where he collaborated with Professor Iain Hutchison, a maxillofacial surgeon at the hospital. Hutchison’s project, titled “Saving Faces,” aimed to explore the intricacies and possibilities of modern facial surgery, as well as to illustrate how those with facial disabilities can still live fulfilling, complete lives. Gilbert’s role as an artist was to paint patients before, during, and after facial surgery. In doing so, Gilbert was able to harness the emotion and intensity of the damaged face and express the character of patients who were experiencing “one of the most traumatic events in life” [2]. Additionally, Gilbert has completed copious research on the medical humanities aspect of artwork in a clinical setting and has published many papers on these ideas [2]. 

The purpose of Gilbert’s work has been to forge meaningful relationships with the subjects of his portraits – usually patients or their caregivers – in order to humanize them and create art in a way that involves a connection similar to that of patient and clinician. Gilbert wanted to humanize these patients, moving them past being seen as just a case of a disease or injury that needs medical treatment in a healthcare setting. Another goal of his is to enhance and heighten empathy and compassion among patients, physicians, nurses, caregivers and the general public. Gilbert aims to “connect and respond to his subjects,” while portraying them in a manner that is “full and human” [2]. 

One of Gilbert’s projects, The Experience of Portraiture in a Clinical Setting (EPICS) probed the interactions between artist and patient, and aimed to uncover parallels between art and the “humanistic” practice of medicine [1]. In EPICS, Gilbert interviews a cancer patient named John who was undergoing treatment at the Head and Neck Cancer Clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. While he drew John in charcoal, Gilbert spoke to him and learned about John as a person, thereby humanizing him, viewing him as more than a cancer patient. In doing so, Gilbert gained a deeper understanding of his experience of going through the disease and draining treatments. For instance, John discussed how he suffered from depression, which only worsened after being diagnosed with cancer. John asserted that he lost “physical integrity” during the treatments and felt he had a “lack of control” over his life [1]. 

However, John did also disclose that his participation in EPICS allowed him to feel more purposeful, calm and comforted, and he did not feel out of control in participating in this project. He elaborated with: “I think it was a little bit of a healing process” [1]. In Gilbert’s perspective, drawing John—as well as other patients that he created portraits of—allowed him to work on his “participatory, empathetic approach” to his art [1]. 

Before the portrait session, John had explained that he hoped to see himself from Gilbert’s perspective and said he was “not expecting flattery,” and expected that his portrait would have an “aura” that he would not be able to see otherwise. After the first drawing session, John remarked, “I look sad.” However, after the final session, John concluded that the portrait did not truly make him look sad; rather, he stated, “I think I look tired.” John believed that this portrait allowed him to see a distinction between his outer appearance and how he actually felt: “better,” “more alive” and “more enthusiastic” [1]. He also stated he was no longer “dwelling” on his cancer treatment and had moved past his disease as a stage in his life [1].  

After analyzing his portrait sessions and interviews with John, Gilbert realized the parallels between art – portraiture, in particular – and medicine. These parallels include that both portraiture and medicine encompass “relationships, integrity, compassion, altruism, empathy and respect for others” [1]. Further, the relationship between patient and clinician is not as different from that of subject and artist as what might first meet the eye. As exhibited by Gilbert and the patients he observed, there is significant potential for healthcare practitioners and artists to both supplement their individual practices and work by exploring each other’s opposing fields of portraiture and medicine, respectively, and growing from their unique perspectives.  

Edited by: Darsh Singhania

Illustrated by: Sophie Laye

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