Friday, January 04, 2019

Art and Anatomy

Michelangelo Buonarotti, "Leg muscles," red chalk
Studying drawings by past masters not long ago led me to studying a few particular artists, among them daVinci and Michelangelo, both of whom studied human anatomy by use of personal dissections. Quite a few early masters investigated anatomy via dissection but Leonardo and Michelangelo also made drawings of their anatomic studies that deserve serious artistic study. These drawings are remarkable works that still delight the viewer and provide great material for the developing artist to copy. Of course, their drawings are sometimes anatomically inaccurate but that is to be expected of the earliest anatomizers.

Because artists of the 16th and 17th centuries were exploring the unknown--the interior of the body--and were primarily doing their drawings for personal study they inevitably made errors. The goal of most of these early artists was personal information only, with the exception of daVinci, whose anatomic work he intended to publish as an anatomy treatise. Anyway, it would be instructive some day to compare early artists' drawings with contemporary images. Regardless of the artists' purposes many early drawings retain the ability to excite the eye and mind.

Leonardo daVinci, "The heart," ink ca 1511
The practice of art and the science of anatomy have had interlocking paths. That is, as representational art progressed so did anatomy, which underpins the science of human structure. Until photography the study of anatomy was either first-hand or came from drawings and paintings. Early students generally had no choice but to rely on accurate renderings of the structures discovered and studied and the artists who did them honed their skills in the doing. By the middle of the 16th century, strict accuracy and true images became the norm.

There were important differences among early artists and anatomists. Some of them like daVinci were studying anatomy for its own sake rather than to advance their artistic skills. On the other hand, for many artists the study of anatomy was no doubt partly from curiosity but it was an artistic curiosity. Many Leonardo's anatomy drawings are integral to his notes on the subject. Michelangelo's fewer remaining drawings (he destroyed many) deal with surface anatomy and superficial muscles and stand alone without notes or captions. Simple comparison shows the vastly different focus of the two artists' anatomic drawings.

Andreas Vesalius, "Tabulae anatomica sex" 1538
Following daVinci and Michelangelo came others nearly as gifted either artistically or scientifically. One of those was Andreas Vesalius, an Italian physician and anatomist. Vesalius was a native of Brussels but spent the majority of his career in Italy.  As a master physician it is likely that he knew the art and science of the times, including daVinci. Although he wasn't an artist, Vesalius himself was a good draftsman.

His 1543 book "De humani corporis fabrica," or The Structure of the Human Body is perhaps the most famous example of the melding of art and anatomic study. Vesalius personally drew early anatomic charts (his "Tabulae anatomic sex" or Six Anatomic Tables of 1538) even before the publication of his famous Fabrica a few years later.

Andreas Vesalius, "Fabrica p.174," woodcut 1543
Being in Italy provided Vesalius with access to highly skilled artists and craftsmen in his own town and nearby Florence and Venice. His Fabrica featured beautifully made woodcuts of the body systems from surface to deep internal anatomy to bones. Printed in folios, the Fabrica is a large book (roughly 20x12 or so) so the images are very large and needed to be quite sharp, which was made possible in woodcut. The images display partly dissected cadavers in various positions and attitudes to provide the student with good structural information. The artist is said to have been Jan van Calcar who was a student of Titian, though his biographic information is scanty at best.

The images in the Fabrica are strictly accurate, based on the lectures Vesalius gave to his medical students at Padua and his many personal dissections. (He believed that in order to actually understand the structure of the body a student should dissect instead of relying on demonstrations, a practice that continues in medical schools today.) Accuracy aside, though, the images are beautiful and deftly made, unlike other anatomic books of the time, showing the influence of the masters. Perhaps that is the training received by Calcar but also reflects on the personality of Vesalius.

"Right arm," digital drawn copy from the Fabrica
For a contemporary realist, anatomy is a crucial information set. That is, if you want to draw and paint figures that make sense, understanding structure is critical. Luckily, there are now a lot of online resources and references, now often in high-definition. And digital drawing and painting now make it possible to copy the masters with considerably less difficulty.

One of my personal disciplines lately has been copying various anatomic drawings of muscles using digital drawing. In all of these cases my program was Sketchbook. Here is an example, copied from one of the full figure dissections in the Fabrica. Anatomic works of others (in particular daVinci) will follow, and I will very likely add some copies of other masters to the mix.

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Related
Renaissance Drawing
Anatomy and the Masters
United Kingdom Royal Collection 
Historical Anatomies on the Web
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