Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Thomas Eakins and the Human éCorché: Understanding the Body in Three Dimensions

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Thomas Eakins and the Human éCorché: Understanding the Body in Three Dimensions

Article excerpt

To draw the human figure it is necessary to know as much as possible about it, about its structure and its movements, its bones and muscles, how they are made and how they act ... No one dissects to quicken his eye for ... beauty. He dissects simply to increase his knowledge of how beautiful objects are put together ... dissection is not art at all, any more than grammar is poetry.1

So said Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) when journalist William C. Brownell asked him in 1879 about his pedagogical emphasis on cadaveric dissections within the curriculum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), one of the oldest art academies in the United States, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along with William Williams Keen, professor of artistic anatomy from 1876-89, Eakins encouraged the expansion of PAFA's anatomy programme and led dissections in the Academy basement.2 In 1877 he began casting anatomized cadavers in plaster to create pedagogical sculptures. These three-dimensional casts of dissected cadavers were utilized by Eakins and Academy students, and also gifted to Philadelphia-area institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

A well-known nineteenth-century American artist, Eakins was a Realist painter fascinated by human anatomy, which he studied throughout his career. While a considerable body of scholarship addresses Eakins's biography, along with art historical studies of his paintings, photography, training and pedagogy, little attention has been paid to his obsessive interest in dissection and his creation of enigmatic anatomical sculptures cast from dissections at the Academy during his tenure as instructor.3 Furthermore, while scholars fleetingly reference the casts as evidence of Eakins's interests in scientific medicine and human anatomy, they have not applied an art historian's eye to the works in question, instead reading them as indexical and beneath the practice of formal analysis.

However, the anatomical casts offer rich commentary on the state of artistic pedagogy and on the politics of cadaver sourcing in late 1870s America. The casts directly reflect the politics of anatomical study during the late nineteenth century in America, where the subjects whose bodies were used in anatomical demonstrations and dissections were frequently those who were disempowered, including working-class citizens and African Americans. The furthering of medical science therefore relied on unequal power relations that allowed for the exploitation of the country's most disenfranchised citizens. Likewise, artistic anatomy study - the way that artists learn about the human body in order to realistically depict it in paintings, drawings and sculpture - was also marked by similarly problematic cultural and political resonances that were frequently buried underneath idealized exteriors.

How, then, might a deep reading of the anatomical casts uncover this difficult narrative about class and race in nineteenth-century America, and its relation to the production of knowledge about the human body for the disciplines of both art and medicine? In addition, what do the anatomical casts, with their emphasis on both surface and depth, reveal about artistic anatomy study during this period and about Eakins's own practice as an artist? This article unpacks the formal and historical context of the casts' generation and argues that they complicate an understanding of the traditional sculptural écorché. The anatomical casts are epistemologically complex, both personalized and anonymous, and portray both surface and depth.

L'Écorché and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Thomas Eakins's obsessive interest in anatomy began in 1861 during his first year as a PAFA student. At that time, PAFA had a reputation as the nation's leading art school where students drew from classical casts, antique statues and live models without formal training or oversight. In addition, they utilized a plaster cast of l'Écorché, the original of which was modelled in Rome in 1767 by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). …

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