British 18th C, except portraits, Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C 9 Could this painting depict Philadelphia physician Dr John Kearsley and his slave James Derham, or is it a generic scene?

A Surgeon and His Black Slave Letting Blood from a Lady's Arm
Topic: Subject or sitter

I wonder if this painting could represent a scene from the life of Philadelphia physician Dr John Kearsley (1684–1772) and his slave James Derham (c. 1762–after 1801)? James Derham was owned by at least three doctors: Dr Kearsley; Dr George West, surgeon of the Sixteenth British Regiment during the American Revolution; and Dr Robert Dove, from whom he purchased his freedom. It was Dr Kearsley who began to train Derham in simple medical and pharmacological procedures. Later, Dr Derham was the first registered African American to practice medicine in the United States (albeit without a medical degree).

It is possible that the painting was done c. 1788 when Dr Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) met Dr Derham in Philadelphia. Dr Rush, an abolitionist, was enthusiastic about the meeting.
‘...the eminent doctor was so impressed that he began a correspondence with Dr Derham that covered many years. The two men exchanged medical information; Rush sent the New Orleans physician his own published writings and received in return informative medical news items. In 1789 Rush read Derham’s paper, “An Account of the Putrid Sore Throat at New Orleans,” before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.’
This publicity surely would have caused public discussion and twitter. This is not to imply the image must have originated the USA, as Dr Derham's career was so exceptional that it surely would have generated wide notice and discussion.

I should also note that there may be an echo of satire in the painting: Dr Rush was widely criticized by his colleagues for continuing to endorse and recommend bloodletting when it had gone out of professional favor.

Ref. Dr James Derham biography...
Google eBooks. ‘Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1’, ‘Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Junius P. Rodriguez’. Editor Junius P. Rodriguez, Edition illustrated, Publisher ABC-CLIO, 2007, ISBN 1851095446, 9781851095445, Length 793 pages, Page 253.

Ref. Dr Rush & Dr Derham's relationship...
"The African American Experience: History of Black Americans From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom" by Philip S. Foner.

Engraving of Dr John Kearsley...
Ref. Portrait of Dr James Derham

Ref. Biographical summary of Dr Derham

Collection note:

‘The provenance of the painting provides no clue as to whether it was ever in America.

One question is whether the painting shows a portrait of individual persons or a generic scene. There are comparative British examples of both genres showing black servants/slaves, as can be seen in the volumes entitled ‘The image of the Black in western art’ (by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., general editors ; Karen C. C. Dalton, associate editor, Menil Collection, 2010).

An example of a portrait: Sotheby's, London, British paintings, 17 July 1985, lot 573; or Christie's, London, Fine English pictures, 2 May 1986, lot 153 (c.1750).

An example of a generic scene, by Dighton, 1784:

Another question would be whether there is an earlier portrait of Kearsley than the 19th-century wood engraving in the New York Public Library.

The face of the surgeon in the painting is well preserved, whereas the lower part of the face of the woman patient had been damaged at some stage and is conjecturally restored.

Best wishes

William Schupbach
Librarian, Iconographic Collections, Wellcome Library’

Patty Macsisak, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Tim Williams,

Nice theory, but I think too many planets would have to align. For me, its generic and British. Quite Hogarthian. The naivety of the execution might suggest there's a master version. Could the support (presumably tin) and decorative border suggest a purpose other than a cabinet picture?

I think if an artist was doing a retro scene of the eminent physician in question, it would be for some sort of biographical publication. There are just too many 'generic' pictures from this period with servant/slave boys of African origin.

Betty Elzea,

A generic, decorative, painting probably by a coach painter or similar painter of decorative panels for furniture. English and 1780s seem correct..

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

The tall narrow hair style and its covering muslin cap, worn by the seated women in this image, (originating from Paris, and common in fashion plates of the period - see attachment- Marchand des Modes dated 1778) dates from around about 1775-8. By 1780s hair styles remained high but grew far wider. If it is a generic scene as seems very likely, then it could of course have been painted in the 1780s by when this narrow high hair style was out of date.

Although the collection reports that the provenance gives no clue as to whether the work was ever in the USA, it would still be useful to know something about the provenance, even if it is just when the Wellcome acquired the painting and from whom (auction sale, etc.?)

Wellcome Collection,

Bought by the Wellcome Library on 10 September 1982 from a dealer in Corsham, Wilts., not far from Bath.

But whether it had been in that part of the world for 200 years or two days I do not know.

William Schupbach

Wellcome Collection,

Have just heard from the dealer, Michael Wakelin, then of Pickwick, Wilts, now trading as Wakelin and Linfield in Billingshurst, West Sussex. He writes: "Re the painting, which I am sure you have had restored (I hope it came up well),I bought it from a dealer in the West Country but otherwise I have no provenance to offer you. In those days there was a profusion of goods turning up from many different sources and I was lucky enough to come across what was immediately apparent to me to be a fascinating and obviously rare subject. I would of course be very happy to have my name used as a source and I hope what I have said is of some use to you."

Thanks to the Wellcome for following through. While this information does not provide any great breakthrough, it is still important to tap every source possible.

Christopher Foley,

Might this be an illustration of a scene from Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" where she has herself cupped after her baby catches smallpox, in the belief that cupping would reduce the fever in herself if she had caught it from the child ?

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