The operation 1909

Image description see below.

Oil on canvas 200 x 200 cm
Signature: John Quincy Ɑdams 1909
University of Vienna,
Institute for the History of Medicine Josefinum, picture location: University Hospital for Gynecology, AKH level 8, Vienna.
Image: Künstlerhausarchiv Wien, color insert Van Swieten blog University of Vienna.

A group of four doctors with a clinical nurse are performing a gynecological surgery on a patient. The patient is in a gynecological chair, pelvis elevated, her upper body covered by a cloth, a red surgical wound gaping in her abdomen. The surgeon and his assistant (standing by the patient on the left) are holding forceps, ready to remove the tumor. One doctor, with a full beard, standing on the right holds the edges of the surgical wound, another, sitting with his back to the viewer, feels her pulse on the right arm. The operating room is represented by tiled walls, a wash basin containing surgical instruments, and a circular sterilizing apparatus located on a mobile frame. The color scheme is various shades of white, white-yellowish, and white-gray. Only the skin colors of the participants and the gaping red surgical wound provide color accents.

The portrait depicts Professor Ernst Wertheim (bald) undergoing surgery. The persons involved are (the spellings of the names in the available sources vary): Dr. Wilhelm Weibel as second assistant (clean-shaven, standing to the right of Wertheim), Wertheim's private assistant Dr. Theodor Micholitsch (Mickulicz) as first assistant (with full beard, standing to the right of the patient, holding the edges of the surgical wound), Dr. Bartuschofsky (Bartusowsky) (seated) as anesthesiologist (not identified by name in Schaller, 1994), and as surgical nurse a spiritual sister of the Order of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (recognizable by her starched veil, the "wings" bent back for the operation). Significantly, her name has not survived in any of the existing sources.

Prof. Ernst Wertheim (1864-1920), since 1910 full professor at the II. University Women's Hospital, was the first to introduce a surgical treatment method (total removal) of cervical cancer, which until then had not been curable. However, the operation shown in the picture is (see literature) a removal of a uterine myoma (a benign uterine tumor). Except for some artistic details (the doctors do not wear caps and Dr. Micholitsch should not stand at the side of the patient, but between her legs) the operation is depicted in correct detail. The operation probably took place in the Bettina Foundation Pavilion of the k. k. Kaiserin-Elisabeth-Spital (named after Bettina, the late wife of Albert Freiherr von Rothschild), where Wertheim worked before his appointment to the University Women's Hospital. (Regarding the minimal "artistic adjustments" at the surgery "session", which did not pose any hygienic risks, Prof. Wertheim gives a detailed statement in the interview with Wr. Med. Wochenschrift 1909 (see literature), which is not without humor - for example, he clarifies that he did not need a surgical cap due to his baldness). The subtle color nuances of the white tones depicted by Adams are equally faithful. The hue going into light yellow represents (waterproof) surgical aprons, which were made of so-called Billroth batiste. As Prof. Wertheim explains, the long friendship between him and Adams enabled the latter to observe operations and also to depict them in the Operation. From Wertheim's point of view: "the audience should see us at work; they should get an idea of how such things go on. No secrecy in medical matters!" It is also astonishing that only 5 weeks passed between Adams' request to Wertheim to paint a live operation and the exhibition of the finished large-scale painting. This is another proof of the artist's quick working method.

The reaction of the press to the painting exhibited in the Künstlerhaus, on the other hand, was almost entirely shocked to the point of rejection. Both the depiction of an operation, even more so in the delicate genital area, the realism of the depiction with the gaping wound and the red fibroid met with widespread rejection. As an anecdote, it is reported that the exhibition commission also criticized the painting, whereupon Adams allegedly removed the glass cover of the painting and painted a veiling surgical drape over the wound on its inner side, which could later be easily removed from the glass (Dessauer, Adams obituary, die Presse April 6, 1933). As is so often the case, posterity comes to different conclusions in art matters than the contemporary press: the Adams painting "The Operation" is both a documentary and artistic masterpiece, which certainly deserves a better location and accessibility than being lovelessly "put up" in a dark, low ceiling artificial light corridor in a Plexiglas "cage" in the AKH, a setting which proved impossible to photograph. Therefore, there is currently no complete color image of the painting available - hence the double image in black and white of the whole picture, and existing image detail in color). Comparisons with contemporary paintings by Adalbert Seligmann (1890), Max Oppenheimer (1912) and Christian Schad (1929), see cross-references, are informative and confirm the assessment of Adam's painting as a masterpiece, which, unfortunately, has almost completely disappeared from public knowledge and appreciation.


1909 Künstlerhaus Wien (EL 53 1909/10 #1516, referred to as "Prof. Wertheim during an operation").

1913/14 Künstlerhaus Exhibition in the Müveszház, Budapest #3.

1986 Academy Schillerplatz Vienna 1986, Viennese Society in Portrait, Catalog No. 21.


Schaffer/Eisenburger 1986, Austellungskatalog #21 (w. color reproduction, colors distorted to yellowish).

APH, Werksverzeichnis JQA 1995, S. 96, Kat.#65, Abb.#47 (S/W).

A. Schaller, Das Wertheimbild, Gyn.Geb.Rund. 1994, 34:37-42.

Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 1909, 13:723-724.


Until c. 1930-33 with the artist.
1986 2nd University Women's Hospital, Vienna.
Since 1993 University of Vienna, Institute for the History of Medicine Josefinum, Vienna.