The Break-Up: Art and Anatomy in 18th Century Europe

John Bell, IV Book II, Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints Illustrating the First Volume of the Anatomy of the Human Body, 1794

Medical illustrations were’t always so boring and scientific. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, anatomical representations used to instruct students about the human body, its organs, and form were images of beauty and artistry. Wax models of the Anatomical Venus, a life-size and deconstructable mold of female anatomy, stand out as particularly striking. For most of the history of anatomy, ‘artistic’ images and ‘anatomical’ images were one in the same because art as a discipline was not distinguishable from natural philosophy, medicine, or anatomy. However, not all anatomists saw these artistic anatomies as appropriate for the study of the body. The separation of ‘scientific images’ from ‘artistic’ emerged in the 18th century as a few anatomists began to chastise the idealized, allegorical human bodies of the normative tradition and redefine anatomical illustrations as conduits of practical knowledge.

In an article entitled Against the ‘Statue Anatomized’: The ‘Art’ of Eighteenth-Century Anatomy on Trial, Lyle Massey seeks to describe the emergence of this so-called “anti-aesthetic movement” in the 18th century and ultimately the production of scientific images. Massey, an art history professor and prolific author on depictions of the body, describes one 18th century effort to distinguish the anatomical image from the artistic, following the argument of Scottish surgeon John Bell (1762–1820). One of the few to illustrate his own work, Bell wrote several illustrated medical texts, insisting at once that the study of anatomy requires pictures, yet criticizing anatomists who use idealized and imaginary anatomical images over ‘proper,’ observational ones. Rather than depicting the dissected body as it appears — fully grotesque with veins, arteries, muscles and blood — idealized, anatomical images rely on imitating the classicized representation of the human form, exploiting beauty rather than knowledge.

According to Massey, Bell challenged the normative tradition because its “statue anatomised” did not show the imperfect reality of the human form, rather all irregularities are smoothed out; it emerged from the artist’s imagination, rather than from the anatomist’s contact with the cadaver; and hence, drawings and the real human subject could never be directly compared. Instead, Bell believed that the anatomical image should be “the product of the anatomist’s direct, engaged manipulation of the human cadaver.”

In describing Bell’s break from artistic anatomies, Massey uses Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica published in 1543 as an example of the normative, pictorial tradition in European anatomy. Vesalius, as Massey underscores, was revolutionary in his own right — breaking from the medieval tradition by insisting that knowledge of the body requires direct observation and sensation, and could not be obtained from reading textual authorities alone. Fabrica’s visually normative images function both to persuade its audience of its empirical authority and as a testament to Vesalius’ learned experience and practiced viewpoint. Having dissected many cadavers, Vesalius compiles his observations into a standardized, universal form. For instance, Vesalius’ famous series of muscle men (Fig 1) conform to the classicized and ‘naturalistic’ Renaissance style of symmetry, uniformity and proportion.

Figure 1. Vesalius, first muscle figure, woodcut from De humani corporis fabrica, Basel, 1543

Massey describes several anatomists who Bell recognized for departing from the idealized, classicized human form, representing the realistic, dissected cadaver in their illustrations. Both Govard Bidloo, a Dutch physician (1649–1713), and William Hunter, a Scottish anatomist (1718–1783), emphasized the morbidity of the cadaver, the realistic body, and the tools and techniques of dissection. Bidloo’s engraving of an abdominal dissection includes one of the flies that “haunt the places of dissection” (Fig 2)

Figure 2. Bidloo and de Lairesse, Table 52, engraving from Anatomia humani corporis, Amsterdam, 1685

and Hunter insists that his celebrated image of a woman dissected in her ninth month (Fig 3) was copied directly from the original situation — hence both function to make the art of dissection (not the body) come alive. As Massey describes, Bidloo and Hunter represented a visually ‘new’ type of anatomical image that was at the intersection of practice and knowledge. Unlike Vesalius’ engravings, these anatomical representations invoked the process and manual contact of dissection as the mode of understanding, not the normative figure itself.

Yet Bidloo’s atlas did still uphold the allegorical and idealized form of the normative tradition, for instance by alluding to the adage “Know Thyself” in the elegant staging of a dissected hand, its index finger pointing to the viewer (Fig 4). Massey uses this as an example as to why Bell is not entirely taken by Bidloo’s engravings. As for William Hunter, Bell does not critique Hunter’s engravings in Anatomy of the human gravid uterus to a considerable extent, and so Massey takes it upon herself to closely examine Hunter’s anatomical atlas in context of this slowly changing tradition. Thankfully so, because Hunter’s Anatomy of the human gravid uterus provides incredibly detailed and fascinating depictions of the female uterus and developing fetus. For instance, his engraving of a pregnant woman’s uterus at nine months, is meticulously illustrated down to the crook in the fetus’ finger.

Figure 3. William Hunter (author) and Jan van Riemsdyk (artist), Table 6 (foetus at nine months), engraving from Anatomy of the human gravid uterus, Birmingham, 1774

In her piece, Massey presents a detailed, if not narrow analysis of the emergence of a visually ‘new’ anatomical image in early modern Europe. By including the engravings of these anatomists, Massey is able to direct her audience to look more closely into the intricacies of these engravings and place them within the contemporary traditions of natural philosophy and neo-classical revival.

Figure 4. Govard Bidloo (author) and Gérard de Lairesse (artist), Table 71 (dissection of arm and hand), engraving from Anatomia humani corporis centum & quinque tabulis, per arti ciosiss. G. de Lairesse ad vivum delineatis, demonstrata…, Amsterdam, 1685.

She ends by critiquing Bell’s own anatomical works in reference to the characteristics he values in others’ anatomical atlases. Notably, as Massey points out, Bell was one of the few anatomists of his age to create his own anatomical images. However, Massey fails to address to what extent other anatomists — including Vesalius, Bidloo and Hunter — conferred with their artists about the plates and drawings in their atlases. Providing this information would greatly help an uninformed reader better understand the relationship between the artist and the anatomist in the early modern Europe.

Bell’s criticism is one example of an occasional variance from the normative, pictorial tradition of European anatomy. But nonetheless, as Massey concludes, the ideal, normative body first evoked in Vesalius’ Fabrica remained the most visible standard for atlases on the human body throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Art and anatomy were not quite ready to sever their ties.