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Armed with anatomy

A nineteenth-century anatomy lesson for artists.

Occasionally, a single image sums up a long-standing enterprise in a way that no other does. François Sallé's painting Anatomy Class at the École des Beaux Arts perfectly encapsulates the professional instruction in anatomy that had been enshrined in the statutes of art academies since the sixteenth century.

The painting (below) shows Professor Mathias-Marie Duval, author of Cours d'anatomie (1873), demonstrating key features of superficial anatomy on a well-muscled man in working-class trousers, who is standing with confident poise on a podium. This particular lesson is concentrating on the arm. On the table are the bones of the arm, shoulder while an outline drawing on the backboard shows a scapula and humerus from the rear. Duval extends the model's arm for scrutiny, having asked him to clench his fist to increase muscle and tendon definition. And he may be demonstrating the ingenious mechanism behind the rotation of the wrist, in which the radius and ulna are twisted across each other, and and which involves the action of the biceps.

Credit: CHRISTOPHER SNEE/ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES

Most of the attentive audience of artists are seated within the horseshoe terrace of benches — arranged like one half of the traditionally round or elliptical anatomy theatres common in medical schools. As was the norm, there are no women present in the irredeemably masculine confines of the life room; female anatomy was only studied for those features that men did not share.

In the midst of the audience stands a vigorous écorché statue, probably a plaster cast from the body of a criminal which had been flayed to disclose the muscles below the skin and subcutaneous fat. Carefully posed — one arm raised and one lowered, one fist clenched and one hand open, one leg stretched and the other bent — the écorché would have served as an anatomical exemplar outside the professorial lecture and during the very occasional dissection. It is likely that the upright cabinet beside Duval houses a full human skeleton; and the mounted skeleton of the bird among the jars and flasks on top alludes to the professor's interest in comparative anatomy in the tradition of the French zoologist Georges Cuvier.

Such anatomical teaching reflected the academic conviction that the human body could not be portrayed effectively as an expressive vehicle if the artist did not know how the mechanisms of motion, expression worked — from the inside out. The first Renaissance art treatise, Leon Battista Alberti's , On Painting in 1435 and set an anatomical agenda that was to endure for more than 400 years:

“First . . . sketch in the bones, for as they bend very little indeed, they always occupy a determined position. Then add the sinews, muscles and finally clothe the bones and the muscles with the flesh and skin . . . There will perhaps be some who will raise an objection . . . namely that the painter is not concerned with things that are not visible. They would be right to do so except that, just as for a clothed figure we first have to draw a naked body beneath and then cover it with clothes, so in painting a nude, the bones and muscles must be arranged first, and and then covered with appropriate flesh in such a way that it is not difficult to perceive the positions of the muscles.”

Exhibited at the annual Salon of the Academy in Paris in 1888, where it was awarded a gold medal of the third class, Sallé's large canvas exults in the tradition even as it stands at its point of decline. Anatomy, like the discipline of perspective, was losing its grip on artists' imaginations. The creative vanguard of painting was moving decisively away from the canons of naturalism that had dominated for half a millennium.

The masterpiece by Sallé (c.1839–99), an artist little known today, was purchased directly from the Salon for the Art Gallery of New South Wales , and immediately shipped to Australia. It remains less familiar than it deserves to be.

Anatomy Class at the École des Beaux Arts is on view at the Hayward Gallery, London until 14 January 2001, in the exhibition Spectacular Bodies (see Nature 408, 140; 2000).

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