Monday, 21 March 2016

Anatomy Illustrated, 1543-2007

Anatomists long depended upon artists to illustrate their texts. They weren't always happy with the results. British surgeon John Bell (1763-1820) complained about "the subjection of anatomical drawing to the capricious interference of the artist, whose rule has too often been to make all beautiful and smooth, leaving no harshness."  

Bell illustrated his own works, such as The Anatomy of the Human Body. They are certainly harsh enough, but they also show that he was a talented artist with a developed aesthetic sense. Here is an example:

The ropes around the dissected corpses' necks remind the viewer that until the nineteenth century, anatomists were largely dependent upon the bodies of executed criminals for subjects to dissect. Legal, subjects, that is. They had other sources, but that's another story, told elsewhere in this blog.

The connection of dissection with criminal bodies, especially the bodies of murderers, is evident as early as 1543, in Andreas Vesalius' seminal work, On the Fabric of the Human Body. 

Anatomical illustrators also connected dissection to religious themes, perhaps a way to justify their grisly work. The illustrations sometimes served as memento mori, or reminders of mortality, as in these images from Vesalius and a work by Bernard Albinus (1747).

Artists were among the first to study anatomy of the human body, in order to depict it accurately in religious and historical paintings, such as Christ on the Cross. Anatomical illustrations such as this by artist Jacques Gamelin (1779) reflect the tradition. 

Bell may have disliked this sort of thing, but perhaps not. It may be artistic. It certainly isn't soft. Bell probably found the work of Frederik Ruysch (1744) more objectionable, festooned as it is with carefully posed skeletons of infants.

Bell surely disliked Jacques D'Agotys 1773 text on on female anatomy. The calm look of the pregnant woman looking back at the viewer is a characteristic pose of 18th-century French painting, but jars with what is seen below her head, and it isn't terribly helpful from an anatomical or surgical perspective. 

The illustration of a woman giving birth was probably even more objectionable to Bell, with it's dreamy, messy, unrealistic, almost modernistic style.

Bell surely admired the illustrations in William Hunter's Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774), a work on the female anatomy in the final stage of pregnancy. Hunter demanded that his illustrator represent "only that which is actually seen" which he argued, would carry "the mark of truth" and be "almost as infallible as the object itself." The following illustration from Hunter's book conveys the stark nature of what he was aiming for. Much like inspecting a butcher shop.

From the mid-19th century, photography and other modern methods of presenting images largely did away with the need for traditional anatomical illustrations. Today, even the general public can view every aspect of human anatomy through the preservation of actual human bodies, as in Gunther von Hagens' exhibition, Body Worlds. One wonders what Bell would have thought of it.

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