Artists Interested in the Underlying Structure of the Body

When we consider structural drawings of the anatomy we probably automatically think of Leonardo da Vinci but we may also consider Michelangelo, Dürer and Stubbs and maybe even Rembrandt, Géricault and Degas. More contemporary artists might be harder to name but anatomy still drives a lot of artists’ interest.

Previously some works would have classified as medical or scientific rather than art but may now be considered as works of art. Joseph Towne was known as a wax maker, making anatomical models used for the teaching of medicine. Today they would not be out of place in a contemporary museum, see Section of the Thorax at the Level of the Heart, c. 1827-79 wax. He was a sculptor and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy.

One of the first anatomists to use illustrations to teach medicine was Andreas Vesalius, he was a sixteenteenth century doctor whose illustrations and books changed how the subject was taught. He dissected bodies in order to advance surgical knowledge. Before him the Greek doctor Galen was the accepted authority on anatomy. He came to realise through his own gross anatomy work that Galen’s findings were not based on human dissections, which would have been forbidden to Romans at that time. Thus Vesalius’s work is the first really thorough investigation of the human body’s structure.

This is an engraving from his major work, a book entitled ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ (‘On the Structure of the Human Body’), 1543. It was innovative, accurately illustrating anatomical structure in detail never seen before, which challenged previously held beliefs dating back centuries.

Whether or not we consider this to be art depends on your point of view but even earlier it is interesting to note that Da Vinci was also dissecting humans to investigate their structure. He made numerous notes and wrote Anatomical Manuscript A, filled with over 240 meticulous drawings and 13,000 words, his investigations were extremely detailled. His enquiries were artistically driven, in attempting to recreate human movements and twisting movements he wanted to learn what was happening underneath the skin.

He was not alone in his interest in human dissection but his observational skills and artistic talents raised him above others. Incredibly his many notes and illustrations were never published. Here is an example of his drawings, studying the shoulder.

His sketches were groundbreaking for the time, in fact his research discovered facts that were not fully understood until the twentieth century especially in relation to the heart. He did seem to have an almost macabre interest in what lay beneath the skin, he genuinely wanted to understand the function and feel of the anatomy in order to better represent human representations in art.

Another artist with a passion for anatomical accuracy was Peter Paul Rubens, he also intended to write a book about anatomical studies and studied it intently. Here’s an example of his work, Anatomical Studies: a left forearm in two positions and a right forearm,

Like da Vinci he aimed to give his figures a realistic vigour and energy, resulting in dramatic poses. See Massacre of the Innocents, an incredibly dynamic composition of struggling bodies which serves to heighten the tension and drama of the story of the slaughter of baby boys.

Rubens used a technique called écorché, where the body was shown without skin, emphasising the muscles in his piece, Anatomical Studies, understanding what lay beneath the skin clearly aided in his depictions of people.

Contemporary artist Laura Ferguson is continuing in a similar vein drawing directly from cadavers and bones, investigating what lies beneath the skin. She has learned about anatomy by observing and drawing it.

Ferguson uses drawing “to convey the body’s visceral physicality, its inherent beauty, uniqueness, and visual complexity, and its connection to the processes and patterns of nature.” Shes draws herself from the inside out, “a curving spine brings asymmetry to my core, and with it the need for a subtle effort of balancing, an engagement with the workings of my bones and muscles, nerves and senses.  This conscious inhabiting of my body is at the core of my art.  In anatomical terms, it’s the realm of proprioception: the network of inner body signals and “self”-sensors through which the body monitors its relationships with space, time, gravity, and all that is “other.”

This Visible Skeleton Series she calls a visual autobiography of her body. Diagnosed with scoliosis at an early age, enduring surgeries and treatments, she started to think of herself from the inside out and visualised what was happening inside her own body. Examining the beauty of a body that is flawed allows us to feel more connected to our physical selves and offers a more emphathetic understanding especially for medical patients.

It’s worth taking a look at this short video of a brief interview with Laura Ferguson, How to Draw a Human Heart, although be warned there are shots of a dissected cadaver.

Vanessa Ruiz is a medical illustrator behind the blog Street Anatomy, a curation of art and medical illustration. She created a place to bring medical illustration out of the textbooks and into the public eye. For Ruiz anatomy is a source of creativity.

Both Ruiz and Ferguson  are making anatomy more human and emotional, taking it beyond the level of phsyical discovery and onto a more emotional level, bringing more feeling and meaning to them.



Fremantle, Jonathan, London, Anatomy Made Simple for Artists, Capella, 2004

Kemo, Martin and Wallace, Marina, University of California Press, Hayward Gallery Publishings, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, 2000

Sooke, Alastair, 28 July 2013, Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of an Artist, London, Daily Telegraph,

Sooke, Alastair, 21 October 2014, Leonardo da Vinci’s Groundbreaking Anatomical Sketches, London, BBC Culture,

Claudia Rousseau, “In the path of Leonardo da Vinci: Where art and science collide,”, March 13, 2013, “In the path of Leonardo da Vinci: Where art and science collide”
Hasson, Emon, 13 March 2014, How to Draw a Human Heart,

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s