Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 9: Art and Anatomy: Critics and Hired Hands

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 9: Art and Anatomy: Critics and Hired Hands

Article excerpt

It is well-known that it is very difficult to find a drawer who on the one hand is capable of understanding everything that a dissector actually needs to know, and on the other hand is not too stubborn to follow a lead. Most of them apply to insignificant details, to an unnatural fold due to the shrinking of the specimen in alcohol...a meticulousness that does harm to the important points. Some artists simply cannot be taught to see only what is supposed to be represented and to leave out the details that do not belong to the subject or are even merely accidental.


Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring's comment on the difficulty in finding artists who could properly illustrate dissections brings to mind William Hunter's view that knowledge of an anatomist was important for accurate representation. Like the Hunters and Reynolds, Sömmerring worked during the Enlightenment, a period often loosely characterized as a time where a strong belief in rationality and science came to prominence. In this context, the ideas that nature is both rational and good, and that the observation of natural laws could lead to happiness for humankind, were taking root. As this vignette and those in the last chapter showed, individuals did not incorporate these ideas into their practices in a cohesive way, nor was the movement itself cohesive. Each individual and each field developed its own relationship with the overriding paradigm; so it isn't really surprising that those of a scientific bent often valued different modalities than those more inclined to arts and humanities perspectives. In addition, while not fleshed out in this book, the era is often characterized by the way thinkers bolstered various revolutions and shifts in social governance across Europe and America as they aimed to improve and increasingly secularize institutions. Individual responses are difficult to encapsulate theoretically, as are even the views of particular groups. Suffice it to say that sweeping generalizations and statistical data points leave much on the cutting room floor.

Hogarth, Science, and Society

William Hogarth (1697-1764) was among those who knew Reynolds and the Hunters. Twenty-six and an established engraver when Joshua Reynolds was born, Hogarth, "'whose patrons were in the millions,' and the moral of whose pictures is pointed by an unerring hand...was as opposite to the blandness of Sir Joshua Reynolds as the east side is to the west of Leicester Square" (Timbs 1881: v). This distinction between their differing concepts of art refers to the remarkable divide between the elite and the tradespeople who occupied the opposite sides of this central London Square in the 18th century. In contrast to Reynolds' urge to idolize his subjects, Hogarth sought to convey societal factors. Joshua Reynolds dismissed Hogarth's works in his Third Discourse, saying

The painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as they are exhibited by vulgar minds (such as the works of Hogarth) deserve great praise; but as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise that we give must be as limited as its object (Reynolds 1965).

Hogarth was similarly dismissive, and it seems his legacy has stood the test of time better, although the pendulum could swing again. Hogarth's satire on perspective (Fig. 42), for example, is now an iconic work commonly found in books on the subject. The engraving was produced in 1754 for his friend Joshua Kirby's pamphlet on linear perspective, "Dr. Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy, Both in Theory and Practice" (Kirby 1754). While the individual components of the scene seem self-consistent at first glance, once we look closely it becomes clear that many of the relationships between objects and people are impossible. Because we initially accept the incongruities as a gestalt, the "whole" works on first appraisal. …

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