Also called "Dr Péan Teaching His Discovery of the Compression of Blood Vessels at St Louis Hospital," the scene takes place in a room in which the walls are interrupted by tall windows.  Daylight shines through the windows, illuminating an attractive naked young woman in the right foreground who lies seemingly anesthetized -- her eyes are closed although there is no sign of anesthesia -- on a bed of some kind that is draped loosely with sheets.  Her body is pointing away from the viewer, her head facing away from us, her long hair falling casually over the near edge of the bed.  Her breasts are fully visible, especially her right breast, while her lower body is covered.  A seated man grasps the wrist of her bent right arm, perhaps taking her pulse. His hand and arm rest directly on the woman's body -- on her abdomen and groin area.  He appears to be reading from a paper.

In the left foreground is the edge of a table that holds some surgical instruments and a glass jar containing what may be anatomic specimens.  An imposing sideburned man stands to the left, above the head of the bed and the woman.  Holding a surgical instrument in his right hand, he gesticulates with his left-hand, his mouth partly open: he is lecturing to the people in the room, some of whom are looking directly at him while others talk to each other.  Two in the audience are women -- a nun barely visible in the far background, and a nurse standing behind two men who are near the bed.  The men are all dressed in street clothes.


The painting depicts a renowned late 19th-century French surgeon, Dr Péan. It is interesting to compare this scene with the one painted by Thomas Eakins in "The Agnew Clinic," executed during the same era.  In both paintings, prominent surgeons are lecturing to observers and the patients are women with exposed breasts. In "Before the Operation" the woman patient looks seductive, her lips partially open, her hair flowing off the bed, her body young and vulnerable. Dr. Péan is a central figure who stands directly above the patient while other assistants and observers crowd around her.  "The Agnew Clinic," however, shows a highly professional scene, with the medical figures all dressed in medical garb, a nurse sternly supervising at the foot of the bed, Dr. Agnew standing at a remove from the patient, and the operating theater observers separated from the surgery by a physical enclosure.  The patient's face is small and only partially visible.  The focus is on a surgical procedure and on Agnew.

"Before the Operation" gives prominence to the surgeon but the patient is also foregrounded, and sensualized -- the scene becomes provocative, voyeuristic.  One almost questions its ethicality.  Was the woman put to sleep only because the surgeon wanted to put her on display and lecture over her?  What was she told in advance?  The Musée d'Orsay where the painting resides states that artist Gervex conveyed in this work "a message of modernity and hope."  To me, however, the painting is strangely disturbing.  And it is noteworthy that the Musée d'Orsay web site displays the picture in standard small size but with a sensational blowup of the patient's upper body.


Presented at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in 1887.

Primary Source

Therese M. Southgate. Before the Operation: Dr Pean Explaining the Use of Hemostatic Clamps (Avant l'operation: Le Docteur Pean enseignant a l'hospital Sailt-Louis sa Decouverte du pincement des vaisseaux). Journal of the American Medical Association. [The Cover] Volume 278(9), 3 September 1997, p. 696.