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Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2016 July; 29(3): 337–341.
PMCID: PMC4900792

William Osler and Seymour Thomas, “the boy artist of Texas”

Abstract

Critics consider the 1908–1909 portrait of William Osler by S. Seymour Thomas the best of six oil-on-canvas portraits of Osler done from life, including those by the more acclaimed US artists John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. Osler called it “the best pictorial diagnosis I have ever seen” and told Thomas “I am at your service.” A reappraisal of Seymour Thomas explains why his portrait makes us feel much as the artist did in Osler's presence, which is the original English-language definition of “empathy.” Thomas told his subject that “I feel that you can look clear through me and see the wall on the other side.” The intensity of Osler's gaze affects us similarly. The portrait satisfied Osler, but his wife, Grace Revere Osler, never warmed to it, perhaps because it depicts so clearly a highly focused, agenda-driven man. Helen Thomas used the portrait to promote her husband's business, and, after a tortuous history, the portrait eventually returned to Oxford University, where it now hangs inconspicuously in the Radcliffe Science Library.

The intellect of man is forced to choose

Perfection of the life or of the work.

—William Butler Yeats, “The Choice”

William Osler (1849–1919), the English-speaking world's best-known and best-loved physician at the turn of the 20th century, continues to inspire through his personal example and his writings, but what was he really like? We have no videotapes of Osler in action, no recordings of his voice, and must therefore rely on what contemporaries said supplemented by such evidence as portraits done from life. Critics consider the 1908–1909 portrait by Seymour Thomas (1868–1956) (Figure 1) the best by far of six oil-on-canvas portraits of Osler from life, including those by the more-acclaimed US portraitists John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase (13). The portrait satisfied Osler but he didn't keep it, probably because Grace Revere Osler perceived its all-too-accurate depiction of her husband as an intensely focused, agenda-driven man. A resurgence of interest in Seymour Thomas capped by a full-length biography (4) helps explain why the Thomas portrait enables us to feel much as the artist did in Osler's presence, which is the original English-language definition of “empathy.”

Figure 1.
William Osler (1908–1909) by S. Seymour Thomas. By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine, Copyist Philippa Abrahams. (No digital image of the original painting, which is in the possession of Christ Church College, Oxford University, ...

SEYMOUR THOMAS

Stephen Seymour Thomas, a prodigy, was born in San Augustine, Texas, and raised in Dallas and then San Antonio. At age 8, he did a pencil drawing that won an award at the North Texas Fair Association, and he became known as the “Boy Artist of Texas” (4). At age 12 he illustrated a book, and by age 15 he could complete sophisticated oil-on-canvas compositions. At age 17 he began spending months at the Art Students League in New York, where his teachers included William Merritt Chase, and at age 20 he went to Paris to study at L'Académie Julian and at L'École Des Beaux Arts. In 1891, at age 23, he submitted four works to the Paris Salon, all of which were accepted. Soon thereafter he met a fellow American art student, Helen Montmorence Haskell of San Francisco, a tall, slender redhead 8 years his senior, and fell hopelessly in love.

The year 1892 became the annus mirabilis for Thomas, as it did for his future subject William Osler and for the same reasons: completion of a career-defining masterpiece and marriage to a woman who then promoted his career. Osler's 1892 masterpiece was The Principles and Practice of Medicine, which became the English-language standard, and his marriage to Grace Revere Gross that year enabled him to establish a household where he conducted a successful practice. Thomas's 1892 masterpiece was Victim Innocente, a large canvas depicting a Sister of Charity mortally wounded on a battlefield while attending a soldier. Its huge success at the Paris Salon, wrote Thomas's biographer, “tilted the scales in his favor” (4) in his courtship of Helen Haskell and enabled him, at 24, to become the youngest person at that time to be listed in Who's Who in American Art. He went on to exhibit at the Paris Salon 20 consecutive years, to receive Gold Medals there in 1901 and 1904, and to reap such additional honors as the French Chevalier de la Légion D'Honneur (1905). Although Thomas excelled at landscapes and genre scenes in the style of the later French Impressionists and could do massive historical paintings such as his General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto (1892), he increasingly concentrated on portraits to afford Helen the lifestyle he felt she deserved. She in turn sublimated her artistic career for her husband's and never looked back. By December 1908, when William Osler while on sabbatical in Paris rapped on the studio door at No. 11 Impasse Ronsin, Thomas was a sought-after portraitist.

Hugh Hampton Young, Thomas's friend from high school and Osler's from Johns Hopkins, orchestrated the meeting (5). As Thomas described the encounter 40 years later to Los Angeles neuropathologist Cyril B. Courville, the visitor stated: “I am Doctor Osler, and I have a letter of introduction from our mutual friend, Dr. Hugh Young.” Thomas replied: “Oh, yes, Doctor Young told me to be on the lookout for you.” Osler, projecting his own opinion onto their mutual friend, told Thomas: “You see, Doctor Young doesn't think so much of the portraits which have been painted of me thus far and is of the opinion that you can do a better one.” Thomas replied, “I shall be pleased to try” (1).

THE ARTIST AND HIS SUBJECT

The term “empathy,” now a core competency in medicine, entered the English language in the context of aesthetic experience as a 1909 translation from the German Einfühlung (“in-feeling), coined in 1873 by the philosopher Robert Vischer to denote the human capacity to enter into a work of art or literature and experience emotions similar to the artist's (6, 7). It would be difficult to imagine a more clear-cut illustration of “empathy” in the original sense than Seymour Thomas's portrait of Osler. Thomas told his subject: “I feel that you can look clear through me and see the wall on the other side” (1). The portrait affects us much the same way. Osler's eyes in the portrait, wrote the pathologist Maude Abbott, make us feel “the quiet fire of their expression” (8). Osler's biographer Michael Bliss observed that whereas most portraits of Osler “feature a stiff, wooden figure,” the “difference in the Thomas portrait is his eyes, which are particularly shadowed, dark, and intense” (9). By contrast, Osler's eyes in the portraits by Sargent and Chase suggest little or nothing about the subject's personality. Let's examine why this is the case.

Cecilia Steinfeldt wrote in her biography of Thomas: “When compared to the work of his peers,” Thomas's work lacks “the flamboyance of Sargent, the vitality of Chase, and the romantic ambience of [James Abbott McNeill] Whistler.” She then stated that Thomas had “a flair for capturing the personality of his subjects,” and therefore his work “provides an insight to people and places not apparent in the work of other painters” (4). Whistler did not paint Osler; Chase's portrait has been described as “benign and pleasing” (1); and the same might be said of previous portraits of Osler by Henry Scott Tuke (1885), Robert Harris (1903), and Thomas C. Corner (1905). The key comparison, then, is between Sargent and Thomas (Figures 2 and and33).

Figure 2.
Details of portraits of William Osler by (a) John Singer Sargent (from The Four Doctors, 1905), and (b) S. Seymour Thomas (sketch made in 1944 for Dr. Esther Rosencrantz from the 1908–1909 portrait). Courtesy of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical ...
Figure 3.
(a) Detail from The Four Doctors (1905) by John Singer Sargent, which depicts founding faculty members of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (left to right, William H. Welch, William S. Halsted, William Osler, ...

To confirm that Thomas's work lacks “the flamboyance of Sargent,” we need look no further than two paintings of men in academic regalia: Sargent's The Four Doctors (1905) and Thomas's The Big Three (1929) (Figure 3). Sargent grouped his subjects, declared “this isn't a picture,” and insisted on bringing in a large Venetian globe, which required dismantling a door frame. He situated the men around the globe, put his copy of Petrarch on the table, and painted a replica of El Greco's St. Martin and the Beggar (c. 1597–1599) in the background. The Four Doctors met instant acclaim and today leaves a lasting impression on even the most casual visitor to the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins. By contrast, one could easily leave the Athenaeum at the California Institute of Technology with no recollection of having seen The Big Three. Sargent's painting succeeds brilliantly as a composition (that is, the arrangement of subjects and/or objects in a painting), but Thomas's portrait of Osler reveals much more about the subject's personality.

Sargent, a shy man, apparently never spent time with his four subjects individually. After grouping them, he pointed to William H. Welch and said: “This man is a plain French general; I have painted him twenty times.” He then pointed to Osler: “This little brown man, I don't know what to do with him.” He refused to paint Osler in the scarlet robe of Oxford University. Osler froze up (1). Sargent had to scrape Osler's image off the canvas three times, according to William H. Welch, who thought the final image resembled a “blasé English aristocrat” (1). William S. Halsted called Osler's image “awful,” and Osler, although he initially liked it (“He has caught my eyes and the ochrous hue of my dour face”), later considered it “mediaeval” (10). Although Osler said of The Four Doctors that “when hung & looked at from a distance it will be a good representation” (10), he clearly sought a better likeness when he rapped on the door of Thomas's studio.

Thomas insisted he and Osler spend time together before the preliminary sketch. They arranged to have tea “every day at five” for as long as necessary at Osler's apartment at 44 Avenue d'Iéna. They tried different combinations of scholastic robes and hoods but in the end agreed that Osler would be painted just as Thomas found him: at his desk wearing a Prince Albert cutaway coat, striped trousers, and a maroon tie. Thomas observed that Osler would take off his nose glasses and dangle them from his right hand, elbow resting on the desk. He observed the intensity of Osler's gaze. Osler warned Thomas that previous portraitists had found his expression dour and had commented on his complexion, which Osler attributed to being descended from the “Black Celts of Cornwall” (1). (The Cornish have been called “decidedly the darkest people in England” [11], possibly because of a high density of genes originating from Spanish fishermen—Celtiberians—who crossed the Bay of Biscay between 4000 and 5000 bc.) Only after close observation of Osler's personality did Thomas begin to paint.

He painted quickly. The finished portrait took only about 11 hours, divided into eight or nine sittings, usually in the late morning or at noon. The Oslers' son, Revere, in Paris for the Christmas season, sometimes came and sat quietly on a couch while the artist worked. On one occasion Osler brought a bevy of Canadian girls (the daughters of friends who were visiting Paris) who chattered the entire time. Thomas worked while the paint was still wet and later said that he did not retouch a single spot, add a single highlight, or correct a single detail. It was a classic example of premier coup (also known as alla prima or direct painting: applying each stroke of the brush with the intent that it be part of the final statement, with no retouching or overpainting after the first layer of paint has dried). Thomas considered it the easiest portrait he'd ever done. He told Osler: “You have painted your own portrait!” (1).

At least seven statements—five from Osler and two from Thomas—attest to Osler's satisfaction. After the preliminary sketch Osler beamed: “This is the best pictorial diagnosis of me I have ever seen” (1). While the work was in progress he wrote a friend that “Seymour Thomas, an American artist, is doing [a portrait of me] … very good so far” (10). He wrote another friend when the painting was completed, “By the way, T's picture of me is A-1. Really, I think, a first class job” (5). He wrote a third friend that Thomas had really “got him” (12). To these and other friends he sent copies of a photograph taken of the painting, inscribed “This is my portrait. W.O.” (1). Thomas for his part wrote a journal editor: “I consider the portrait one of my best works. It has the most enthusiastic approval of Dr. O. & [he] says that it is the only one of the many that have been painted of him that he considers an unqualified success” (13). And years later Thomas told his neighbor the urologist William Goodwin that it was “rare to have both painter and subject so pleased with the results. He [Osler] said after it was completed, “This is my real portrait'” (5).

What, then, does the “real portrait” say about Osler in addition to the intensity of his gaze? On the one hand, and as many said about Osler during his lifetime, it suggests a focused, well-organized, agenda-driven man, a man who seemingly made the most of every waking minute, a man who would have risen to the top of just about any profession he chose (14). On the other hand, the dark circles around his eyes connote chronic stress. The late Meyer Friedman attributed periorbital hyperpigmentation to chronic excess of melanocyte-stimulating hormone (secreted by the anterior pituitary along with adrenocorticotropic hormone in response to stress) and averred that “its presence in Caucasians invariably indicates severe Type A behavior” (15). Although the etiology of periorbital hyperpigmentation is multifactorial and in Osler's case might reflect Celtiberian ancestry, its strong association with stress (71% of 200 patients) was found in a recent study from India (16). Osler's countenance in the Thomas portrait contrasts strikingly, for instance, with the sunny countenance of Nobel Laureate Robert A. Millikan in Thomas's preliminary sketch for The Big Three (Figure 4).

Figure 4.
Sketch of Robert A. Millikan made by Seymour Thomas for The Big Three. Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology.

We should point out that, although photographs and portraits of Osler in his later life nearly always project solemnity, he was in person exceptionally friendly and often playful. One contemporary remarked on Osler's “dark penetrating eyes which seemed to see more than to look and which in moments of humour mirrored merriment” (17). Still, there lingers a debate as to whether an essential melancholy lurked beneath Osler's outwardly cheerful disposition. We might add that Thomas—whose portraits are devoid of the cynicism sometimes found in Sargent's work—considered Osler “a truly great human being with a gift of universal understanding” (1).

EPILOGUE

Osler never sat for another oil-on-canvas portrait. But despite his satisfaction with the Thomas portrait, and even though Hugh Young had paid for it in advance, the Oslers neither kept the portrait nor suggested where it should hang. Thomas exhibited it at the 1909 Paris Salon, where many called it the year's best portrait even though Thomas was by then hors concours—ineligible for a medal because he'd already received the maximum number. In 1914 Thomas returned to the United States, taking the Osler portrait with him (Figure 5). One story goes that Osler flippantly remarked to Thomas, “As long as you keep this portrait, you will have a good doctor with you” (1, 3, 5). The more plausible explanation constitutes a tale of two wives: Grace Osler never warmed to the portrait (1, 3), but Helen Thomas loved it and subsequently used it as the centerpiece for tea parties during which she recruited clients for her husband's business.

Figure 5.
Seymour Thomas at his studio in La Crescenta, California, with his portrait of William Osler. Courtesy of the Alan Mason Chesney Archives of The Johns Hopkins University.

To the extent that a husband's near-constant companionship determines a wife's marital satisfaction, Helen Thomas had it much better than Grace Osler. Osler was the quintessential public man. Even when at home in Oxford, he would invite large numbers of people to 13 Norham Gardens (the “Open Arms”) and expect Grace to entertain the guests whenever he retreated to his study. A photograph of the Oslers in their backyard shows him preoccupied with his reading while his wife and their son enjoy the moment (Figure 6). Seymour Thomas, by contrast, was nearly always at home in his studio or doing something with Helen. After she died in 1942, Thomas wrote: “In all our fifty years together we never separated for twenty-four hours and we scarcely had a thought that we didn't share” (4). Although the Oslers' marriage was by all accounts a satisfactory one, no surviving photograph shows a couple entranced with each other, as does a photograph of Helen and Seymour Thomas in the yard of their California home appropriately named “Cuddle Doone” (Figure 6).

Figure 6.
(a) William Osler, his wife, Grace, and their son, Revere, in their backyard at 13 Norham Gardens, Oxford. Courtesy of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University. (b) Seymour and Helen Thomas at their home in La Crescenta, California. ...

Among the Osler devotees who dropped by Thomas's studio in La Crescenta, California, through the years were three whose interviews with Thomas provide much of what we know about the Osler portrait: Maude Abbott, Cyril Courville, and Willard Goodwin (1, 5, 8). In 1949 Courville and British neuropathologist William Henry McMenemey hinted to Thomas that the painting ultimately belonged at Oxford or elsewhere in Great Britain. Two authorities at Christ Church College, Oxford, wrote Thomas that if donated the portrait would hang in the Hall where it would be the first by an American artist “to adorn these walls” (18, 19). Thomas sent the portrait to Christ Church College—which then chose not to display it! It now hangs inconspicuously in the reading room on the seventh floor of the Jackson Wing of the Radcliffe Science Library at Oxford, unlabeled and facing away from the entrance. In all likelihood, students, if they notice it at all, are blissfully unaware of its status as the best portrait from life of a man who in his day was the English-speaking world's most celebrated physician. Perhaps Grace Osler ultimately had her way.

Acknowledgments

I thank archivists at McGill University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Johns Hopkins University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at San Francisco, Christ Church College, Oxford University, and the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas. I thank John M. Bryan for comments on the manuscript.

References

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13. Seymour Thomas to the Editor of _____ [not stated], copy of undated letter. Texas Artist Collection, Box #18, Seymour Thomas Paintings, Osler. Witte Museum Archives, Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.
14. Bryan CS. Osler: Inspirations from a Great Physician. New York: Oxford University Press; 1997. Manage time well; pp. 3–30.
15. Friedman M. Ulmer D. Treating Type A Behavior—and Your Heart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1984. p. 58.
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18. John Lowe to Seymour Thomas, June 3, 1955. Texas Artist Collection, Box #18, Seymour Thomas Paintings, Osler. Witte Museum Archives, Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.
19. Humphrey Sutherland to Seymour Thomas, September 13, 1955. Texas Artist Collection, Box #18, Seymour Thomas Paintings, Osler. Witte Museum Archives, Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

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