Iconography and Identity in Early 17th-Century Medical Portraiture: The Case of the Unknown Physician

Article excerpt


In the Spring of 1631, the Swiss physician Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (1573-1655) wrote to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), thanking him for the 'excellent tableau' Rubens had sent him (Pl 1). (1) The year before, in London, Mayerne had sat for Rubens and the watercolour Rubens then made provided the model for the portrait Mayerne now received. During the drawing session, Mayerne might have asked Rubens about his artistic techniques, a subject in which he took a great interest. The result of that interest is still traceable in a manuscript in the British Library, known as 'the Mayerne Manuscript' or by the title Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium. (2) From 1620 to 1646 Mayerne collected an impressive amount of recipes and notes, in a variety of languages, on the techniques of art, from painters, miniaturists, goldsmiths, apothecaries and artisans of varies kinds. (3) Most were written on loose leaves of various sizes, eventually bound together in the manuscript we have today. (4)

It seems likely, then, that the sitter of a Cornelius Johnson portrait recently purchased by the Royal Society of Physicians, unknown to us, was well known to Mayerne (Pl 2). This portrait will form the main subject of the present article. I hope to demonstrate that Theodore de Mayerne, a key figure in English medical milieu of the early 17th century, can shed new light, through his networks, interests and occupations, on the identity of this unknown physician. I conclude with a suggestion as to the identity of the sitter, which comes as close as Mayerne's own nephew, Jean Colladon.

Theodore de Mayerne was born to a Huguenot family in Geneva, and studied medicine at the universities of Heidelberg and Montpellier. After taking his doctorate he moved to Paris, where he became one of Henri IV's physicians. During his time in France he built up a long list of royal and aristocratic patients, who came from all over Europe to consult him. In 1611 he moved to England, where he served as a royal physician to the English crown until the end of his life. (5) Not only did he add King James I and the royal family to his already impressive roster of noble patients, he also managed to establish a thriving medical practice in London, a pole of attraction for many important noblemen and women. (6) To have such a network of clients was in itself an achievement, but Mayerne's task may have been harder still: rather than following conventional medical teaching, he was an 'iatrochemist', that is, a physician of the new and controversial kind, promoting chemically produced cures and preferring new experimentation to blind acceptance of the old authorities Galen and Hippocrates. Mayerne's interests led him to discuss problems of chemistry with apothecaries, surgeons and alchemists, and his curiosity on this subject may have brought him in what seems to have been a more personal fascination with the techniques of art. These techniques--the making of pigments and varnishes, the cleaning of paintings without damaging the paint and so on--are mostly of a chemical nature. And although Mayerne was acquainted with many noblemen through his professional appointments, he also remained in close contact with craftsmen and merchants, apothecaries and clockmakers, miniaturists and painters all over Europe.

Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661), who painted the Portrait of a Physician in 1637, was one of these acquaintances. Little is known of Cornelius Johnson's youth. He was baptized at the Dutch Church, Austin Friars in London on 14 October 1593, as the son of the Flemish immigrants Johanna le Grand and Cornelius Johnson, who left Antwerp for religious reasons. The painter's great-grandfather was from Cologne which explains why his name sometimes appears with the addition 'van Ceulen'. (7) A number of variations of his name, such as Jonson (van Ceulen) and Janssen(s), can be found. However in this article I shall use the form 'Cornelius Johnson', as it is the name he uses himself most frequently in his signatures. …