While studying painting at the French Academie, now the Musee du Louvre, Jacques-Louis David painted four artworks in application to the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship. His first three submissions were rejected, but his fourth, Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus’s Disease, finally won the Prix.
The painting depicts the Greek physician Erasistratus (circa 330-255 BCE), answering the call of Seleucus, the king of Syria, whose son Antiochus was terribly sick. Erasistratus discovered that Antiochus was weak and near death, but with no visible ailment. With his careful eye and insight into human nature, Erasistratus identified his condition as lovesickness, and further, that the object of his passion was his stepmother, the queen Stratonice. Uh oh.
At first glance, Erasistratus is an odd subject for a history painting, far outside the popular themes of battles and mythological romance, but David picked his subject well. Erasistratus was renowned for innovative medical treatments, based on his deep understanding of human anatomy and neuroanatomy, learned from dissecting the bodies of condemned criminals. Erasistratus is said to be the first physiologist, and the first to understand the heart’s function as a pump. A great character, and more than worthy of David’s grand canvases.
Reed Enger, "Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus's Disease," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 25, 2015; last modified October 11, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/jacques-louis-david/erasistratus-discovers-the-cause-of-antiochuss-disease/.