The Corpse on Stage
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible.
With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
De Raadt writes about this picture:
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.