Oedipus and the Sphinx: a Gift for Isador H. Coriat

By , January 6, 2015
Bookplate of Isador H. Coriat, circa 1923. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Bookplate of Isador H. Coriat, circa 1923. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The acquisition and collection of books has long been a vocation and avocation for physicians, and one of the hallmarks of the true collector is the use of a distinctive bookplate to indicate ownership and provenance.  Medical libraries, in particular, have often collected bookplates of physicians, just as they have preserved and treasured their books, as the plates often display a high degree of craftsmanship and tend to incorporate elements of familiar medical iconography.

While some bookplates have only the simplest designs, with just a name or device of the owner, others are more artistic and evocative of the owner’s interests.  John Collins Warren’s bookplate showing the family’s armorial shield—the basis for the arms of the Harvard Medical School—is one such familiar item, as is the nautilus shell bookplate used by Oliver Wendell Holmes, commemorating his famous poem, “The Chambered Nautilus,” but there are many other examples in the rare book collection here at the Center for the History of Medicine.

The intention and planning behind a bookplate, though, is rarely recorded.  The recent acquisition of a sheaf of letters documents the design of a bookplate for pioneer psychoanalyst, Isador H. Coriat (1875-1943), one of the first followers of Freud in Boston.  The letters, mostly from Coriat’s wife, Etta Dann, are addressed to woodcut artist Julius J. Lankes (1884-1960), and concern the commission, design, and execution of a bookplate—a gift to Coriat from his wife.

Etta D. Coriat first wrote to Lankes late in 1922: “Having seen & admired your work in The Liberator & at Goodspeed’s [a Boston bookstore] for several years, I am most desirous of obtaining as a gift for my husband, one of your bookplates.  Can you submit a design characteristic of his work and also let me know about what it would cost?  You will find Dr. Coriat in Who’s Who in America—that, I think, will give you the scope of his work,” (December 11, 1922).

“After reading your letter, I decided that I had kept the secret long enough & so told Dr. all about it. He was delighted & when I asked him if he could suggest anything, he immediately said that Oedipus questioning the Sphinx was very appropriate & symbolic…. You see Dr. was one of the pioneers in this country in psychoanalysis, and his chief interest & work centers in that, it being the most scientific medium through which the neuroses & mental diseases can be interpreted & treated.  The application of psychoanalysis to cultural things as well has cleared the way for better work.  The plate will be used on all worthwhile books—cultural as well as medical,” (March, 1923).

Mrs. Coriat was deeply interested in the design and execution of the plate. “We were very much impressed with your conception of the subject…. The sketch marked A we liked best, just as your wife did, although I think the others could also be worked up with success.  As you say, the figure of the man in A could be less weak and the sword a little plainer, which I suppose would have been corrected anyway.  The name is spelled correctly on A, but insert the middle initial which is H. (Isador H. Coriat), no degree following and no prefix of Dr.—use just the name…. The more I look at them, the better I like them, and I am glad you found pleasure in working it all out.  I liked C too but the facial expression of A impressed me the most.  Dr. doesn’t like skulls—though I’d tell you,” (March 30, 1923).

“I am enclosing both proofs so that you will know what I mean when I ask you to try—if you can—to change the facial expression of the last proof so that it will look like the first one.  Is it some technical thing that changes the expression?  The second one looks a bit cruel and not as questioning as the other one,” (undated).

“We think the bookplate is going to prove a masterpiece and find it more fascinating every time we look at it.  I can easily see that the finished plate will be more beautiful in its lights & shades,” (April 24, 1923).

“Your charge for the bookplate is all out of proportion to its value as a work of art, and I can only hope to make up the difference in appreciation.  I have never given Dr. anything that he cares more about and certainly that I love so much,” (undated).

“I wish I could tell you how charmed we are with it [the bookplate].  It grows more impressive with age.  Isn’t that a sign of a good product?  Don’t forget to put your signature to the block,” (undated).

“And now let me tell you how much we like the bookplate and several of the medical men from different parts of the country to whom I have shown it were really quite charmed with it…. Doctor hasn’t decided just how many he will need, and I wish you could see how fine it looks in those large books.  Dr. has a very fine collection on symbolism—quite rare ones—which in time will probably go to the Boston Medical Library, as they haven’t any of them,” (June 12, 1923).

And what was Coriat’s opinion of the final result?  “I think it about time I expressed to you personally the satisfaction and pleasure which your book plate has given me.  The subject having so many variants, your particular conception of it was eminently gratifying.  It also pleased me to learn that you considered it one of your best plates and by all means use it in your forthcoming book…. Your work has had a special appeal to both Mrs. Coriat and myself for some time,” (November 14, 1923).

Many volumes from Isador H. Coriat’s book collection were bequeathed to the Boston Medical Library at his death, and examples of the bookplate with Oedipus and the Sphinx are easy to find.  The one depicted here is mounted in a 1591 Venetian edition of Albrecht Dürer’s Della simmetria dei corpi humani, libri quattro.


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