In 1818, while at medical school in Philadelphia, William A. Graham examined Benjamin West’s work of art, “Christ Healing the Sick,” which had arrived from England a year earlier. He described the scene in front of him as showing, “… emaciation, decrepitude, and sickness surround the principal personage” (1). Additionally, Graham made note of the artist’s ability to leave lasting impressions claiming that the figures “are presented in such attitudes and colouring; as to make a deeper impression than reality would have done” (1). As if the artistic talents were not enough, Graham additionally recounted a story of a woman who was crying while observing the painting – further exemplifying the artist’s knack for evoking meaningful responses out of people.
A native of Springfield, Pennsylvania, a town located near Philadelphia, West attended the University of Pennsylvania. It was here he made his decision to leave the school after his sophomore year to study in Europe (2). West moved to London in 1763 initially intending to only temporarily study abroad but found himself never wanting to leave (3). West was soon hired by King George the III to whom he served as a historical painter, creating portraits of the royal family. Additionally, he served as the second president of the prestigious art school, Royal Academy.
In 1800 West received a letter from Samuel Coates, the President of the Board of Mangers of Pennsylvania Hospital, asking him to contribute to the hospital (4). West said he was unable to provide any funding and told Coates that he would instead paint a picture to help raise funds for the hospital (5). West chose to create an image from the situation taken from Matthew 21: 14, 15 entitled “Christ Healing the Sick.” The passage reads, “And the blind and lame came to see him in the temple and he healed them.” West found the event of Christ healing the sick fitting for the hospital. Although the first version of the painting was finished in 1811, it never made it to America. The work was coveted by the English citizens and the group made an effort to keep the work in the country (6). Eventually the painting was bought by the British Institution for what was believed to be the most ever paid for a work of art. The institution presented the painting to the national gallery in 1826. At 73-years-old, West only agreed to these terms after he was told he could create another painting for the hospital.
In an 1811 letter regarding his second version of the work of art, West told of a “more improved plan of composition,” one that would be “more complete in appropriate character” for the hospital (6). The improved painting now included a mentally-ill boy, a feature that was not included in the original piece. The new painting would be donated to the hospital in 1817.
Including the frame it was displayed in, the picture itself measures 10 x 16 ft. Placed slightly left of center is Jesus, seemingly the largest and most prominent figure in the image. West intended for Jesus to be representative of the hospital’s central value of “extending his aid to the afflicted of all ranks and conditions.” An interesting gathering of people surrounds the “Saviour of mankind,” as the description booklet referred to him. This group includes sick people, several disciples and apostles, as well as a few high ranking officials (Pharisees, and Priests). The most noteworthy figure is the mentally-ill child, or “demoniac” as West called him, with his caretaker located on the right side of the picture. At first glance the boy does not seem any worse off than the others, merely another afflicted member of society hoping to be healed by Christ. However, West did not incorporate this individual in his first version of the piece.
West left no indications as to why the addition was made but we may speculate that it related to the recipient of the painting, a hospital that treated mental illnesses. Pennsylvania Hospital had begun admitting the mentally ill in the 1750s and by the early 1800s they made up nearly half of the patient roster. If the hospital had been providing psychiatric help to mentally ill patients since the mid 1700s, why was it only in the second painting that West choose to add the “insane boy”?
Between the start of the first painting in 1800 and the start of the second painting around 1811 the treatment of mentally ill patients was changing. Asylums became more prominent where physicians began to use technique that focused on the humane treatment of their patients. Patients were freed from their chains as doctors attempted to cure the disorders rather than punish the already afflicted. These ideas were incorporated in physician Benjamin Rush’s publication entitled Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind that was released in 1812 (7). The change in attitude toward mental illnesses was also captured in art. In Robert Fluery’s 1795 painting “Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière,” Dr. Pinel, a French Physician, is depicted ordering that the patients at the Paris Asylum for insane woman be freed from their chains (8). Pinel was an influential figure in the revolution to treat all mentally ill patients with more respect and humanism. It is possible that West may have seen this image or images like that of Fluery, leading him to change his work.
Finally, West may have been influenced by his time spent with the royal family as the king’s historical painter. In 1811, as West began his work on the second version of the painting, King George III’s physical health deteriorated to the point where he was described as mentally ill. Perhaps the king’s health problems raised West’s awareness of mental illnesses. We do know West incorporated his personal experiences because he included his deathly-ill wife in the painting as well. Although many speculations can be made about the addition, viewers may never know why exactly West made the change in his image.
A building known as the Picture House was built in 1818 near Pennsylvania Hospital to house West’s “Christ Healing the Sick” (2). Much of the design of the structure was done to West’s specifications. The painting was exhibited here from nine o’clock to sundown every day except Sunday. A description booklet was provided at the Picture House which explained the idea behind the painting. The booklet also included words on the figures in the image and the coloring of the piece. Visitors were charged 25 cents to view the image or they were given the option to buy “Life Tickets” for $10 each. Acting as a fundraiser for the hospital, the exhibition attracted tens of thousands of visitors (6). From the time it opened until its closing in 1843 the painting helped raise more than $15 thousand. The money allowed the hospital to expand and hold 30 additional patients.
It is clear that “Christ Healing the Sick” impacted many more people than solely Graham during its presentation in the Picture House. The picture has been restored several times since its original showing with the latest taking place in the early 1980’s. Today the image, along with other works, is displayed in the Gallery Pavilion section of the Pennsylvania Hospital – free for all visitors.
By: Alex Hoey
- William Alexander Graham, “A Narrative  of Graham’s Journeys, Medical Training and Career 1816-1819 in Lexington, Va., Abingdon, Va., and Philadelphia,” pp. 1-3, Washington and Lee University Library, Special Collections.
- Nitzsche, George. University of Pennsylvania, Its History, Traditions, Buildings and Memorials ; Also a Brief Guide to Philadelphia. Electronic.
- McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
- “Pennsylvania Hospital History: Historical Timeline – The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital.” Pennsylvania Hospital History: Historical Timeline – The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. Penn Medicine. Web. 18 May 2012. <http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/paharc/timeline/1801/tline13.html>.
- Galt, John. The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq. London, 1820. Electronic.
- Morton, Thomas G. The History of Pennsylvania Hospital: 1751-1895. Arno: [s.n.], 1973. Electronic.
- Gamwell, Lynn, and Nancy Tomes. Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995. Print.
- Fee, Elizabeth, and Theodore M. Brown. “Freeing the Insane.” American Journal of Public Health 96.10 (2006): 1743. PubMed Central. Oct. 2006. Web. 16 May 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1586154/.