The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy, a major international loan exhibition that explores four centuries of the creative collaboration between anatomist and artist, will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 19 through June 15, 1997. Although conceived primarily as scientific studies, the approximately 118 objects in this exhibition--prints, drawings, and anatomical atlases dating from the late 15th century to the early 19th century--stand as consummate works of art in their own right. The Ingenious Machine of Nature includes works by such well-known artists as Albrecht Dürer, Andreas Vesalius, Peter Paul Rubens and George Stubbs.
The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy was organized by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In Philadelphia, the exhibition is made possible by generous grants from Johnson & Johnson and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The science of human anatomy emerged in the early 16th century, when physicians moved away from reliance on ancient texts and treatises in favor of discoveries they could make through their own direct observation. They soon enlisted the aid of artists, seeking a deeper understanding of the living body by penetrating the innermost secrets of cadavers. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote: "Dispel from your mind the thought that an understanding of the human body in every aspect of its structure can be given in words; for the more thoroughly you describe the more you will confuse;...I advise you not to trouble with words unless you are speaking to blind men." This was reiterated some three centuries later by the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox: "Anatomy is an art...The information which enters the eye and is proved by the touch is very different from that which enters merely by the ear."
Italy emerged as the center of anatomical discovery in 16th-century Europe, and artists and scientists from many countries flocked there to participate in the dissections and lectures. Important new medical texts were produced as a result, with the anatomist-surgeon writing the text and the collaborating artist, who had also participated in the studies, creating the illustrations. At first, these treatises were aimed exclusively at the medical profession, but increasingly atlases of skeletal and muscle features were also produced for the instruction of artists, who were expected to master such knowledge for the proper representation of the body in any position, at rest or in motion.
Italian predominance in anatomical studies faded in the 17th century, overshadowed by Northern universities in Leiden and Amsterdam. As the anatomists' knowledge grew more complex and detailed, sophisticated printmaking techniques combining engraving and etching were developed to convey minute nuances of observation, and a number of Dutch artists specialized exclusively in anatomical draftsmanship and printmaking. In the 18th century, the center of medical studies shifted again, to London and Edinburgh. George Stubbs, best known for his animal paintings, was one of the English artists who conducted dissections and made drawings and prints of their findings.
Advances in scientific knowledge changed the nature of anatomical illustrations, but so also did contemporary artistic conventions. In an era when objective realism was most valued, artists would draw from a single specimen, even if flawed or pathological, in order to adhere closely to visible truth. If idealized beauty were advocated, artists would combine observations from a number of dissections in an attempt to represent a normative, or ideal, anatomical specimen. In addition, the conventions of classical and Christian iconography, changing views on human sexuality and reproduction, the persistent search for the precise anatomical location of the soul, and philosophical and theological debates on the nature of the human condition itself all added richness and variety to these masterful syntheses of aesthetics and science.
It is particularly appropriate that these works be seen in Philadelphia, a city which not only claims a venerable tradition of anatomical study on the part of its native artists such as Thomas Eakins, but also has long recognized the connection between the fine arts and the healing arts with the Museum's own Ars Medica collection, one of the finest in any public museum.
The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy was organized by Mimi Cazort, Curator of Prints and Drawings for the National Gallery of Canada. The accompanying catalogue contains essays by Dr. Cazort; Dr. Kenneth B. Roberts, M.D., Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland; and Dr. Monique Kornell, currently with the Wellcome Institute, London. It has been overseen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Ann Percy, Curator of Drawings.