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Medicine and portraiture are entwined in intimate and distinctive ways. Thus portraits connected with health and medicine provide promising material for the medical humanities. In order for them to fulfil that promise, a number of issues need to be addressed. The nature of portraiture and the conditions under which portraits are made are fundamental considerations. The metaphorical power of the very idea ‘portrait’, which implies a faithful rendering of specific phenomena, is particularly striking. Then it is worth setting out where medicine portraiture has been practised, by whom and in which media. Modes of visual analysis also need to be considered, including the fields, such as art history, anthropology and visual culture studies, which offer inspiration for the close analysis of images and artefacts.
Portraits are ubiquitous in medicine. The Patients' Portraits group of companion papers in Medical Humanities indicates the richness of the materials and the value of the insights they can generate.1–5 They also show how artists working outside medical settings find inspiration in clinical encounters, which generally involve close visual scrutiny. Portraits have been made in many media, and sometimes the same depiction exists in a range of formats and materials. There is no doubt, however, that photography has played a notable role in medicine. Practitioners, like scientists, were early enthusiasts. It is well known that in many 19th-century asylums patients sat for their portraits. Yet interpreting the results is far from straightforward, and even the notion of sitting, which implies voluntary participation, may mislead, since it is difficult to reconstruct the levels and types of coercion involved. In these situations, as in …
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