The Body Inside and Out

The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory

On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ground Floor, Gallery G-21 through January 23, 2011.

This exhibition had its genesis with a visit from a group of librarians from the National Library of Medicine. They were interested in seeing any books in our collection on anatomy. In art libraries we usually think of books on anatomy as drawing and painting manuals that show how to create various body parts in different positions. We own a great variety of such manuals as well books on the study of perspective and proportion that focus on human bodies. But it was not until we were preparing for the NLM visit that I discovered the literature of artistic anatomy.

François Tortebat, French, d.1690, from Roger de Piles, French, 1635-1709, from Abregé d’anatomie, accommodé aux arts de peinture et de sculpture, Paris, 1668, engraving, National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund

After this visit, I contemplated an exhibition on proportion and anatomy that would focus on the study of the human body from the perspective of an artist rather than a scientist. Distinctions between art and science were not as clear cut in the Renaissance, and coequal partnerships between artists and anatomists manifested differently than the division between disciplines that have since developed. Leonardo and Marcantonio della Torre were exploring human anatomy together, making discoveries that had equal impact in both the arts and sciences. Michelangelo had a similar working relationship with the anatomist Realdo Columbo, and though neither of these partnerships resulted in an illustrated anatomical treatise, Michelangelo’s knowledge of anatomy as expressed in works such as the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel became the basis for many artists’ study of anatomical dramatization.

As I did more research, I found the humanist attitudes of the Italian Renaissance fascinating. This humanist movement was perhaps best expressed in the study of human anatomy. By the mid-16th century the stage was set for a major change in the study of anatomy as anatomists began to shift away from study based on classical literature and toward a more practical approach based on close observation of human dissection. The volume of printed material burgeoned and the techniques became more refined, yet the illustrated anatomy books up to this time generally contained illustrations of such poor quality as to be functionally useless for artists.

As luck would have it, while I was preparing for this exhibition I took a course with Erik Delfino at the Library of Congress called “History of the Book.” We were given a group project to take one book from the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection and research it as a candidate for an imagined acquisition proposal. My group was assigned Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543. Though the NGA Library does not own this work, I soon realized that most of the 16th and 17th century anatomy books we have are in one way or another related to this important treatise. The Fabrica illustrations were to become the standard for anatomical illustration of all types for  medical and art books alike for more than 200 years.

Jehan Cousin, French, c. 1522-c. 1593, Livre de pourtraittre de maistre Iean Cousin peintre et geometrien tres-excellent, Paris, 1608, woodcut, A.W. Mellon New Century Fund

When Vesalius undertook his master work, he had for some time been using drawings, and a set of prints derived from them, as teaching aids. Some speculate that at least a few of woodcuts prepared for him by Johannes von Calcar in 1538 were based on Vesalius’ own drawings. Vesalius was a major proponent of this new observational approach to anatomy, and he saw the importance of accurate illustrations in disseminating his ideas. For his book he partnered with artists from the workshop of Titian to prepare the most detailed anatomical woodcuts the world had yet seen. The effort was closely overseen by Vesalius himself, and the artists functioned more as tradesmen serving the needs of the anatomist. There is much debate on the subject, and we do not know the names of the artists who executed these fabulous illustrations.

The portable nature of the printed book soon made the Fabrica, especially the abridged version which focused mainly on the illustrations, popular reference tools for many artists as well as anatomists. Soon artistic anatomy, focusing on the skeletal and muscular systems, branched off from medical anatomy, and by the 17th century the musclemen of the Fabrica were turned into new engravings, adapted to drawing and painting manuals, and published throughout Europe. One of the most popular was Jehan Cousin’s Livre de pourtraittre de maistre Iean Cousin peintre et geometrien tres-excellent, a drawing manual that combined proportional diagrams with anatomical renderings copied roughly from Vesalius. It went through twenty-four editions between the late 16th and early 19th century, and the NGA Library owns the 1608 Paris edition. The engravings by François Tortebat for Abregé d’anatomie accommodé aux arts de peinture et de sculpture by Roger de Piles, published in Paris in 1668, are thought by many to be the most beautiful reproductions of Vesalius ever made, and the NGA Library is fortunate to own an outstanding copy.

Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471-1528, from Hierinn sind begriffen vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, Nürmeburg, 1528, woodcut and letterpress, National Gallery of Art Library, Gift of Robert Erbur

The underlying concept for the exhibition thus became the development of artistic anatomy from its roots in the 16th century Italian Renaissance to its spread throughout Europe by the early 19th century. The exhibition is divided into four main themes. The first focuses on the 16th century’s emerging field of anatomy based on human rather than animal dissection, and the ways this new approach was depicted. The second case includes books on theories of proportion from which artistic anatomy grew. The third and fourth cases show different ways the study of anatomy was used in the arts. Some books are primarily instruction manuals that make use of anatomical studies, and others are books that are still in the main anatomical but are adapted specifically for the arts.

The first case, “The Art of Dissection,” examines the anatomical theaters that emerged at universities during the 16th century and ways that the grisly business of human dissection itself was illustrated throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Titles featured include Academia, sive, Speculum Vitae Scolaticae by Crispijn van de Passe I( Utrecht , 1612), and Giulio Cesare Casseri’s Tabulae Anatomicae LXXIX (Frankfurt, 1632). The latter uses engravings by Odoardo Fialetti that were presumably designed for Adriaan van de Spiegel’s 1627 update to Vesalius’ Fabrica.

After Nicholas Poussin, French, 1594?-1665, from Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519, Trattato della pittura, Bologna, 1786, engraving, David K. E. Bruce Fund

“Proportion as Precursor” in the second case includes mainly 16th century manuals on drawing and painting embodying theories of proper proportion. In Hjerin[n] sind begriffen vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion( Nuremburg, 1528), Albrecht Dürer uses differential anthropometry to take the body’s measurements and produce a mathematical basis for proportion. Even those that included mycological and osteological studies approached anatomy within the context of proportion, such as Juan de Arfe y Villafañe’s Varia commensuracion para la escultura y arquitectura of 1585. Our copy is a 1773 edition published in Madrid that reproduces the original 16th century woodcuts.

The third case, entitled “The Artist’s Manual and Anatomy,” features works ranging from the mid-16th century to the early 19th century. Hans Sebald Beham’s drawing manual Das Kunst und Lere Büchlin (Frankfurt, 1552) is extremely rare because it was little more than a pamphlet and would have been used quite heavily by artists in search of what little affordable anatomical information had been published at that point. Leonardo’s anatomical work, which had circulated in manuscript form for nearly 150 years, was finally compiled for printing in 1651 in Paris by Rafaelle du Fresne under the title Trattato della pittura. It included illustrations after drawings by Nicholas Poussin and was published simultaneously in Italian and French. We own both editions, but because their condition prevented exhibition for long durations and because they contained many small illustrations dispersed throughout the text, I decided to exhibit the 1786 Bologna reprint wherein the illustrations are brought together as full-page engravings. The Cousin book mentioned above is included in this section as is Francesco Carradori’s  sculpture manual entitled Istruzione per gli studiosi della scultura (Florence, 1802). A Neoclassical sculptor and professor at the Florentine Academy, Carradori begins with anatomy before discussing the materials and methods of sculpture.

Johann Daniel Preissler, German, 1666-1737, L’anatomia dei pittori del Signore Carlo Cesio, Nüremberg, 1759, engraving, David K. E. Bruce Fund

“Anatomy Adapted for the Arts” is the final theme and though these books are directly related to the manuals in the previous section, they take a more scientific approach. Tortebat’s 1668 engravings after Vesalius are included in this section along with the 1759 Nuremburg edition of L’Anatomia dei pittori del Signore Carlo Cesio.  Johann Daniel Preissler originally produced this German translation of painter Carlo Cesi’s sixteen plates on anatomy in 1706 as an aid to his students at the Nuremburg Academy. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, things came full circle as men of the Enlightenment attempted to apply new scientific methods to artistic expression. An example of this approach is by Peter Camper, a physician and naturalist who lectured on artistic anatomy at the Athenaeum in Amsterdam and produced works such as The Connexion between the Science of Anatomy and the Arts of Drawing, Painting, Statuary ( first published in 1791 and represented in the NGA Library collection by the 1821 London edition) that combined scientific studies of human features with illustrations after Camper’s own drawings.

In all, the exhibition explores three hundred years of the artistic study of anatomy through a wide variety of printed works. From theoretical treatises to practical manuals, medical references to art instruction, the illustrations in these works are both informative and in many cases strikingly beautiful. It is a measure of the Renaissance spirit that art and science could be so closely aligned ; although their paths ultimately divided, the two fields continued to influence and inform each other  for centuries, even to the present day.

Contributed by Yuri Long, Circulation Assistant for Rare Books, National Gallery of Art Library

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