Anatomical illustrations: body as art

This set of nine lithographed anatomical charts by Fritz Frohse, 1918, took $1,455 in January 2015 at Auctionata Paddle 8 AG. Photo courtesy of Auctionata Paddle 8 AG and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Art as science, science as art: These two seemingly disparate disciplines are inextricably linked. The nude as a subject for painters is a tradition going back centuries and the human body as its very essence – bones, cells and organs – is an integral link between art and science in the field of anatomical illustrations.

As artists began sketching human skeletons, muscles and organs that were published in beautifully illustrated medical books, doctors learned more and refined their surgical techniques and skills. The development of anatomical illustration and medical science went hand in hand. From black-and-white printing to full color, wood blocks to copper plates, the art of medical illustrations has spurred on medical advances with these pictures standing in for live dissections as teaching tools.

This surgery textbook by Charles Estienne, ‘De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres …,’ Paris, 1545, made $16,797 in June 2019 at Bado E Mart Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bado E Mart Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Up to the 16th century, most medical textbooks were not illustrated as human dissection was seen as violating religious beliefs and largely prohibited, which then limited medical advances. Early illustrated books such as Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), credited as the first medical textbook to be lavishly illustrated with anatomically correct images, and William Harvey’s revolutionary An anatomical dissertation on the heart and blood in animals (1628) forever changed the study of the human body. Medical and anatomical illustrations were created to illustrate normal internal anatomy, biological functions, pathology, and how surgical procedures were to be done.

These illustrations were celebrated for their exacting detail and ability to promote intricate concepts and details of the human body in a manner that was easily understood and visually striking.

This illustration of a Cesarean delivery, published in Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery’s 1840 book, went for $9,500 in February 2015 at PBA Galleries. Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers


The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md., notes on its website that curator John Brinton at the Army Medical Museum (predecessor of the NMHM) hired two German watercolor artists during the Civil War to document battle trauma, injuries and treatments, thus making great contributions to the storied tradition of medical illustrations. “These classic illustrations appoint specific colors to parts of organs to differentiate the areas and ‘identify major anatomical features within the specimen,’ according to the museum. Original watercolor anatomical illustrations in the museum’s collection have vivid colors, often layering colors to provide additional realism and depth.

While many major collectors of this genre have been physicians and professors, bibliophiles and collectors interested in illustrations in general have long been fans of anatomical and scientific illustrations. These illustrations are scientific certainly and created to disseminate complex ideas, yet they are sometimes whimsical and above all very striking aesthetically and elegant.

A system of anatomical plates by John Lizars earned $1,400 in November 2015 at Converse Auctions. Photo courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Anatomy as art is a highly specialized field and while the bulk of artists were anonymous, not getting their due to the extent that their colleagues in fine art did, their contributions to science are important. One of the most renowned medical illustrators of all time is self-taught German medical illustrator Max Broedel, who is described as the father of John Hopkins’ medical art program and strove to draw illustrations showing more detail than a photograph could capture. According to John Hopkins’ website, Broedel’s illustrations were so realistic that a nurse reportedly once tried to scratch off a gallstone on one of his illustrations that she assumed was glued onto the picture.

While his own career as a doctor was fairly short-lived, Frank Netter’s name is renowned in medical schools. Growing up, he demonstrated a talent for art, going on to study at the National Academy of Design but honored his promise to his mother to become a doctor. His prowess at illustrating medical concepts was in such high demand, however, that he eventually traded his stethoscope for a paintbrush and began working in 1937 with pharmaceutical giant Ciba, to illustrate a pamphlet for their new heart drug. This partnership spanned 50-some years, yielding what came to be known as the “green books,” featuring his illustrations. The books were a staple for many medical students. The Ciba Collection of Medical Illustrations and Clinical Symposia were some of the most famous books he illustrated, showing both healthy and diseased bodies. Over the course he created some 4,000 medical illustrations.

William Cowper’s ‘Myotomia reformata: or an anatomical treatise on the muscles of the human body,’ printed 1724, fetched $2,688 in February 2019 at Gonnelli Casa D’ Aste. Photo courtesy of Gonnelli Casa D’ Aste and LiveAuctioneers

From the earliest illustrations of a child in the womb or an exploded thorax to elegant pairs of lungs or brain hemispheres rendered both with a clinician’s objective eye and a talented draughtsman’s hand, anatomical illustrations are a fascinating collectible. For new collectors, they are also an affordable place to start collecting; prices for single illustrations average in the hundreds instead of the thousands. Rare and early medical textbooks can sell from $5,000 and upward with the best examples bringing huge prices such as a first edition of Andreas Vesalius’ groundbreaking book, De Humani Corporis Libri Septe, including eight woodcut figures intact that were meant to be cut out. It attained $100,000 at Heritage Auctions in October 2012.

From the macabre to the clinical, anatomical illustrations perfectly marry science and art and are artworks in their own right.