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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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Getting real

Removing Metaphor and Fancy from Anatomy

Between 1680 and 1800, anatomists began purging imaginative elements from scientific illustration. The truth value of anatomy, they argued, was compromised by visual metaphors, fantastic landscapes, and comic poses. As old print technologies were perfected and new ones invented, anatomical illustration began to achieve greater technical precision, and a brilliant and dreamlike hyper-aestheticism that showed off, with great artistry, a more sophisticated knowledge and heightened perception of the boundaries and surfaces of the body.

A realistically rendered view of the middle portion of a dissected pregnant woman and her baby, almost full-term. The woman’s upper body and legs have been removed. Cropped, from William Hunter, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (Birmingham, 1774). Copperplate engraving. Artist: Jan van Riemsdyk
Center thumbnail: A colored cross-section of a person’s head, radiating lines lead to captions. Wilhelm Braune, Topographisch-anatomischer atlas nach durchschnitten an gefrorenen cadavern... (Leipzig, 1872). Chromolithograph. Artist: C. Schmiedel
A realistically rendered view of a dissected woman’s back. Her hands are tied together. Cropped, from Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams... (Amsterdam, 1690). Copperplate engraving with etching. Artist: Gérard de Lairesse.

Ultimately, two styles of anatomical realism emerged. One aimed to show the reality of dissection, the cutting open of a particular body with all the prosthetics, furniture and setting of dissection—and the ugliness of anatomical mutilation. The other aimed to show a higher reality, displaying beautified, cleaned-up, idealized bodies and body-parts that float in air, with no reference to any one dissection.


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Beautiful Ugliness: Bidloo
Another Reality

Next Section: Visionary and Visible

Dissected head, profile, eyes closed, slightly smiling. Cropped, from Albrecht von Haller, Icones anatomicae... (Gottingen, 1756). Copperplate engraving. Artist: C.J. Rollinus.