18 Jan Art and Anatomy: Exploring Who We Are and What We’re Made Of
Art and science are often seen as two distinct disciplines, but when it comes to human anatomy, they can’t always be so easily separated. For example, artists are responsible for the drawings of organs, bones and tissues in textbooks, while also bringing these scientific insights to how they depict the body in their own work. And like scientists, artists throughout the ages have literally looked inwards to explore who we are and what we’re made of.
Here we will examine some of the key points where art and anatomy have overlapped, from the detailed drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, to the bold urban dissections of Nychos.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s deep interest in anatomy was not uncommon among Renaissance artists. In fact, in fifteenth-century art theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s influential book Della pittura (On Painting), he encouraged painters to depict humans accurately by paying close attention to the muscles and bones that lay under the skin. Leonardo was also an apprentice of the painter and sculptor Verrocchio, who demanded that his students bring a comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy to their art. His detailed studies of the body undoubtedly make him the most influential anatomical artist there’s ever been.
Da Vinci also performed dissections himself, and didn’t just observe the static human form, but the mechanical activities of organs like the brain, heart and lungs as well. He famously detailed his findings over the course of more than 240 anatomical drawings, including one of the first scientific depictions of a fetus in the womb.
These works weren’t published in his lifetime, but were way ahead of their time, and would have made a huge contribution to medical science if they had been seen. His anatomical expertise is also clearly demonstrated in some of his most renowned paintings, like Vitruvian Man, which illustrated ideal human body proportions within a circle and a square. His understanding of the muscles within the face also allowed him to create intensely realistic portraits, as seen in his best-known work, the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo’s contemporary Michelangelo also dissected corpses, and created his own anatomical studies. In addition to drawing the dissections, he reportedly created molds of muscles to explore their shape and form in various positions. This detailed knowledge accounts for the distinctive depiction of anatomy in artworks like The Last Judgment, which shows 300 mostly nude figures with particularly muscular bodies. The piece also includes a self-portrait, where Michelangelo’s face is painted on the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew.
Critics suggest that other Sistine Chapel frescoes also reflect Michelangelo’s anatomical expertise. The figures and shapes behind God in The Creation of Adam appear to accurately represent the human brain, with the borders correlating with the pituitary gland and the optic chiasm. God’s mantle in The Separation of Land and Water, meanwhile, seems to resemble a dissected right kidney. A study by nephrologist Garabed Eknoyan asserts that Michelangelo was familiar with renal anatomy and function, perhaps because he was himself treated for kidney stones. Therefore, it’s possible that he used the outline of the kidney as a metaphor to represent the separation of solids (land) from liquid (water).
As well as allowing more realistic depictions of the human body, anatomy in art can serve as a gateway to philosophical and psychological themes, as in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. The Dutch painter was commissioned to create this portrait in 1632, showing the dissection of criminal Aris Kindt’s body. Unlike typical anatomical images of the time, Rembrandt broke convention by placing the corpse in the center, sharing similarities with Christ-like iconography, and carefully considering the composition to create drama and dynamism.
There has been some debate over how accurately Rembrandt painted the muscles and tendons exposed in the corpse’s left arm, and in reality, the chest cavity and thorax are opened first. It’s also unlikely someone of Dr. Tulp’s standing would have performed the procedure himself. Though he may not stay true to science, Rembrandt poetically explores the fragility and wonder of life itself in his version of the event. The spectators and the corpse all appear to be glowing, perhaps symbolizing enlightenment. It’s also notable that the figures each have unique expressions and look in different directions, emphasizing that everyone has different responses to this close encounter with death.
Death and mortality have been key themes of Damien Hirst’s art, and human anatomy is prominent in his best-known works. One example is For the Love of God, a diamond-encrusted, platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull with real teeth. Although the sculpture reminds the viewer of their own mortality, the luxurious twist makes the result less macabre. As art historian Rudi Fuchs commented: “It proclaims victory over decay. At the same time, it represents death as something infinitely more relentless. Compared to the tearful sadness of a vanitas scene, the diamond skull is glory itself.”
There is also Hymn, a 20-foot sculpture inspired by an anatomical model owned by Hirst’s son, with a cross-section which reveals the internal organs of the male torso. Made from bronze, silver and gold, and given a name with the religious connotations, the work could be compared to an idol, equally designed to be worshipped. However, Hirst was forced to pay an undisclosed sum after being sued for breach of copyright by the designer of the original anatomical model.
Austrian urban artist Nychos grew up in a family of keen hunters, which instilled in him a profound appreciation for the anatomical details he was exposed to from a young age. This encouraged him to blend art and anatomy to develop his signature style. The name Nychos comes from the Deinonychus dinosaur, which means “terrible claw” in Latin — a fitting moniker, given that he uses his work to literally open up the bodies of his subjects.
In his work, Nychos cleverly and often comically dissects major pop culture stars, both real (David Hasselhoff and Lemmy) and fictional (Barbie and Yoda), to instantly remind viewers of their own inner workings, and eliminate any feelings of fear or repulsion. His artistic techniques play with translucency to create an x-ray effect that clearly separates the different anatomical elements, and allows him to add additional detail to each layer.
Our clients are regularly enthralled by the artist’s vivid creations, so we invite you to explore the fascinating range of Nychos artwork we have for sale here at ArtLife.