Perhaps Raphael was on to something when he created his renowned Madonna masterpieces of the 16th century. Since, and long before the Italian Renaissance, the caring and compassionate female has inspired countless images ranging from goddess figurines to the unforgettable post-war kiss between a soldier and nurse.
The Bayly Art Museum's latest exhibit, "Surely We Are Essential: Images of Nursing in the 20th Century," chronicles the history of the nursing profession with an artistic and sympathetic eye. Through a series of photographs, advertisements and drawings, "Essential" communicates the essence of the nurse's role as nurturer, healer and caregiver.
The exhibit's content does not stray far from its origins - World War I-era photographs depict the University's first nursing students in an attempt to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Nursing School.
The exhibit's first photographs clearly illustrate the relationship between war and the nursing profession. In fact, one of Nursing School's original purposes was to provide training for the higher number of nurses required during wartime.
University alumna Vienna Wilson transformed the Special Collections Department's original images of nursing students into cibachrome prints. One photograph, "B.C. Bernard (Group of Nurses)," captures a young nurse clad in a stern-looking ensemble of all black. Wilson's "Main Street Parade Charlottesville" pictures a parade of nurses dressed in black robes behind a prominently displayed Red Cross flag. "Main Street" depicts a sense of pride in the profession and in the Charlottesville community with its processional grandeur.
Photographs of the University's Anatomical Amphitheater provide an eerie glimpse into nursing students' lessons in surgery. These images reflect nurses' subordinate position to doctors, as the photograph features female nurses surrounding more involved male doctors.
The chromogenic prints give the pictures an antique quality, blurring the subjects' facial features to create a ghost-like ambiance. The out-of-focus photographic style complements the works' transparent feel.
"Essential" looks beyond Charlottesville with W. Eugene Smith's "Nurse Midwife" photo essay, a collection of photographs that first appeared in a 1951 issue of Life magazine. The essay illustrates the compassionate spirit of the profession, including a photographic account of a nurse's mission-like journey to rural South Carolina. The photographs show the nurse, Maude Callen, a women's health specialist and midwife, amid a group of poverty-stricken patients. One photo pictures Callen next to a dilapidated shack as she talks to an old man and remains the focus of a young boy's attention.
Another image in "Nurse Midwife" features Callen and two of her midwives aiding an impoverished woman in labor. The next photo in the series includes the labor's result: The midwives' cupped hands cradle the woman's newborn baby as it hovers above a sea of ruffled sheets.
A few of the exhibit's contemporary images include movie stills from films such as "Nurse Betty," featuring Renee Zellweger in nurse garb, and "In Love and War," starring Sandra Bullock as Ernest Hemingway's beloved caregiver.
Shedding light on the intimacy involved in nurse-patient relationships, "Essential" pays tribute to an often-underappreciated profession. The exhibit runs through May 20 at the Bayly Art Museum.