Photo Essays

18th-Century Anatomical Illustrations Reveal Flayed Flesh and Shining Bones

Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746) (all images courtesy Columbia University Medical Center’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library)

In the 18th-century, French artist Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty painted numerous dissected corpses with muted colors and quiet dignity that made them appear alive, despite the flayed skin and exposed muscles. His most famous anatomical illustration is from the 1746 volume Myologie Complette en Couleur, where a woman demurely turns away from the viewer, her back open from the neck down, the muscles pulled back like wings to reveal the delicate rise of her spine. Sometimes called the “Ange Anatomique” (“Anatomical Angel”), it reveals a vision that was often more artistic than scientific, and embraced the new process of color printing for books.

Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748) (click to enlarge)

Myologie Complette en Couleur, along with Gautier-D’Agoty’s Anatomie de la Tête (1748), are among the rare medical manuscripts recently digitized from Columbia University Medical Center’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library. Both are available on CLIO (the Columbia University Libraries Online Public Access Catalog), as well as the Medical Heritage Library, an online collaboration hosted by the Internet Archive between several medical libraries including the one at Columbia. Their announcement earlier this month of the project notes that the digitization is part of an ongoing conservation effort for Columbia’s rare medical books. Other texts now available online include a huge 1749 anatomical atlas by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus depicting skeletons standing alongside tombs and even a rhinoceros, and an 1844 treatise on operative surgery by Joseph Pancoast.

The volumes by Gautier-D’Agoty are especially beautiful, and reveal how the history of printmaking is entwined with medical research. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the lamps in the New York Academy of Medicine are adorned with printer emblems. Gautier-D’Agoty was no anatomist, training in three- and four-color printing with mezzotint inventor Jacob Christoph Le Blon. The artist perfected his own version of the innovative technique, and collaborated with physician and anatomist Guichard Joseph Duverney, who prepared the dissected cadaver subjects, including some oddities like a hermaphrodite. The results resemble paintings, with the mezzotints rich in reds accented with whites, at a time when most book illustrations were in black only. Some of his work was printed life-size, a technique exemplified below with a woman who modestly turns her head away while her body unfolds on the pages in intimate detail of flesh and bone.

Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)

Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)

Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Anatomie de la Tête” (1748)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)
Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty, “Myologie Complette en Couleur” (1746)

View more digitized medical books from the Columbia University Medical Center’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library.

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