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Skeleton of a boy sitting on the 'D' of 'Dream', from Francesco Bertinatti, Elementi di anatomia fisiologica applicata alle belle arti figurative (Turin, 1837-39).  Artist: Mecco Leone. Lithograph
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Beautiful Ugliness

Govard Bidloo and the Turn to Anatomical Realism

Top half of a skull. Cropped, from Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams... (Amsterdam, 1690). Copperplate engraving with etching. Artist: Gérard de Lairesse.
A dissected head, pulled apart so that it looks mutilated. Cropped, from Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams... (Amsterdam, 1690). Copperplate engraving with etching. Artist: Gérard de Lairesse.
Grinning skeleton, holding a cloak. Cropped, from Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams... (Amsterdam, 1690). Copperplate engraving with etching. Artist: Gérard de Lairesse.

With Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo, anatomical representation entered a new era. Some plates retained iconographical elements, but most were devoid of landscape, metaphor, and classicism. With high artistry, Bidloo flaunted his commitment to empirical observation and naturalistic depiction by showing what other anatomies omitted: the prosthetics of dissection (ropes, props, nails, chains) and the mutilation and ugliness of the dissected body. In producing such images, the anatomist claimed the power to appropriate, and cut into, dead human beings—and demonstrated a masterful clinical detachment, a privileged indifference to the horrors of the anatomy room.



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Beautiful Ugliness: Bidloo
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Casting the Artist Aside: the anatomy of John Bell

Back view of two skeletons hanging by ropes. Cropped from John Bell, Engravings of the bones, muscles, and joints, illustrating the first volume of the Anatomy of the Human Body (2d ed.; London, 1804). Etching.

Scottish anatomist John Bell (1763-1820) condemned artists and their "vitious practice of drawing from imagination." There was, he insisted, a "continual struggle between the anatomist and the painter, one striving for elegance of form, the other insisting upon accuracy of representation." He solved the problem by drawing, etching and engraving his own illustrations. These challenged nearly every convention of anatomical representation. His dissected bodies and parts lack sumptuous texture and graceful line, and are unleavened by any palliative beauty. Their remarkable ugliness underscored his unyielding allegiance to tough-minded empirical observation.