The Renaissance Tradition of Using Cadavers in Drawing Classes Is Still Alive

Karen Chernick
Jul 2, 2018 4:10PM

Surprises were rare in Herbert Danielson’s undergraduate Art History 101 class at Ohio Wesleyan University. Lectures followed a predictable slideshow of greatest hits, a well-trodden path to Western art appreciation devoid of canonical twists and turns. But one anecdote, shared almost in passing, left the young artist-in-training thunderstruck: Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, the professor said, systematically dissected human bodies in order to improve his figure drawing skills. Danielson’s classmates winced with disgust. He was riveted.

“From that point on, I always knew that I wanted to take a class drawing from cadavers directly,” Danielson, a recent MFA graduate from the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), told Artsy. “It was just the next step.”

But save for a few morally questionable options, it isn’t easy for contemporary artists to get their (drawing) hands on a human corpse. “Before the 20th century, the intensive study of anatomy and physiology was a part of the curricula of nearly all art academies,” said Michael Grimaldi, director of NYAA’s drawing department and the creator of a dissection-based anatomy class taught in collaboration with Drexel University.

Students Madeline Weibel and Herbert Danielson sketching cadavers in the lab. Courtesy of the New York Academy Academy of Art, Human Gifts Registry, and Drexel University.


Post-mortem anatomy classes were once required at illustrious art schools such as the Florentine Academy of Art and the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts, thanks to pioneers such as Leonardo, who demonstrated the value of the practice. “In the present day,” continued Grimaldi, “the direct and focused study of the cadaver has all but vanished from artistic courses of study.” Modernism and a shift away from realism largely did away with that tradition, making it uncommon today. “It’s pretty much non-existent [now],” said Danielson, who initially found it difficult to fill this gap in his artistic training. “It’s more on a who-you-need-to-know basis, and that’s how you get the opportunity.”

Danielson got his through NYAA’s “Advanced Artistic Anatomy” class, an intensive set of 12 six-hour-long drawing sessions held in Drexel University’s gross anatomy lab, in collaboration with the latter’s department of neurobiology and anatomy. Danielson and five other NYAA students studied cadavers being dissected by medical students and faculty, focusing on different parts of the body each week.

A few other art schools around the United States currently offer trips to the labs of nearby (and willing) medical schools: Students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) have had weekly access to Hahnemann University Hospital since 1999; the Rhode Island School of Design’s illustration program has been making one-off field trips to the medical school at Brown University since 2004; and Chicago’s North Park University occasionally shares its lab with local art students.

These programs all have the same challenge in common: access. Since body donation programs (such as the Human Gifts Registry) only work with medical programs, getting to study from cadavers is about who the artists know—and, in that sense, things haven’t changed all that much since Leonardo’s time. Before art academies had their own anatomy laboratories, artists needed to get creative about securing access to the bodies of the deceased. And then, as now, that meant asking the right people.

For example, in the 1490s, a 17-year-old Michelangelo gained permission from the Florentine Monastery of Santo Spirito to dissect corpses awaiting burial in the church mortuary—fully aware that the church objected to desecration of the dead. (The bodies of convicted criminals offered a convenient loophole in the ban on dissection.)

The monastery’s prior agreed, and Michelangelo became engrossed in the practice, repeating it throughout his career. Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s assistant and biographer, boasted of his mentor that “there is no animal whose anatomy he would not dissect, and he worked on so many human anatomies that those who have spent their lives at it and made it their profession hardly know as much as he does.”

Sketch by Michael Fusco. Courtesy of the artist and the New York Academy of Art.

Courtesy of the New York Academy Academy of Art, Human Gifts Registry, and Drexel University.

Whether Michelangelo was truly better informed than the physicians of his day is hard to say. Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes that the expertise of Italian Renaissance artists exceeded anatomical knowledge taught at universities until around 1500. But what is clear is that when Michelangelo and his contemporaries wanted a better way to get regular (and aboveboard) access to post-mortem bodies, they turned to medical professionals who were simultaneously resuscitating an interest in understanding the mechanisms of the human form.

Before the Renaissance, most human anatomical knowledge was based on the work of ancient Greek scholar Galen of Pergamon. His work from the 2nd century A.D. was comprehensive, except for the glaring fact that, since human dissection was taboo in ancient Greece, Galen based his conclusions on the study of mammals (allegedly dogs, pigs, and the Barbary macaque). It was time for a new anatomical text; one that drew its inferences from the human body.

And so, while their motives for being there were different, anatomists and artists often met at the dissection table. “Artists rivalled physicians in the ardour with which they pursued their anatomical studies,” wrote Mathias Duval, a medical scientist who taught anatomy at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts, in his 1884 book Duval’s Artistic Anatomy. “The advancement of science and of art has always occurred simultaneously, and there never has been a time when they have been divorced from one another.”

Strong mutual interest in anatomy forged a surprising partnership between artistic and medical communities, one that has lasted to this day.

In 15th- and 16th-century Florence, artists often joined surgical theater audiences to watch public dissections performed by physicians. And with their precise sketches, Italian Renaissance artists made the accidental contribution of crafting an anatomical illustration style to replace the clumsily drawn plates in Galen’s treatise. Their studies, then, not only advanced frescoed and sculpted depictions of the human form, but also served as reference tools for medical students and physicians.

A few artists even planned to publish illustrated anatomical reference books. Leonardo, for example, developed a meticulous three-dimensional style while working with an anatomy professor, Marcantonio della Torre, and hoped to publish an anatomy treatise. Michelangelo also toyed with the idea of creating an anatomy guide for artists, and consulted Realdo Colombo, an anatomist and surgeon, who sent the artist the corpse of a Moor for that purpose. (Michelangelo studied the body closely, but never completed his book.)

It was ultimately from the studio of Venetian painter Titian that the first modern book of anatomical illustrations emerged. Some of the engraved anatomical plates in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a treatise by Andreas Vesalius that replaced Galen’s, are attributed to Jan Stephan van Calcar, Titian’s student. “Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collaborations between artists and scientists like this were not uncommon,” Grimaldi noted.

Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Though scientists and artists may share an interest in anatomy—even working together at times—their approaches are different, said Roberto Osti, an anatomy instructor at both NYAA and PAFA, who authored and illustrated the 2016 book Basic Human Anatomy: An Essential Visual Guide for Artists. “For medicine, you want to know where things are, what they’re called, but you’re not so much interested in the form,” Osti told Artsy. “The artist is interested in anatomy for aesthetic purposes. The way we look at the same subject is very different.”

This becomes clear when artists and physicians interact during opportunities such as the NYAA course. “The art students look for very different things, anatomically,” said Bruce Hirsch, an associate professor in the department of neurobiology and anatomy at Drexel University’s College of Medicine. “I’ve been teaching anatomy for a long time,” he continued, “and I’ve never had any [medical] student ask me about the bumps on the back where the vertebrae make marks on the skin.”

It is this painstaking attention to aesthetics that makes artists ideal for illustrating medical reference books. The current gold-standard anatomical textbook for medical students, Atlas of Human Anatomy (1989), was illustrated and written by Dr. Frank H. Netter, who followed his high school studies at the National Academy of Design with enrollment at New York University’s Medical College, honing a unique constellation of skills as a medical artist.

Sketch by Herbert Danielson. Courtesy of the artist and the New York Academy of Art.

The quality of such drawings is crucial, and some of Drexel’s doctors-in-training have taken notice of the skillset that NYAA students were perfecting. “We talked about how the illustrations that they reference are absolutely imperative to their learning, and they actually thanked me,” Danielson recalled of a chance encounter with medical students in the lab. “I didn’t draw the drawings myself, obviously, but they’re like, ‘Thank you for continuing this practice. It’s really helpful in learning something very important.’”

And so what began with Leonardo, Michelangelo, and others as a way to draw muscular nudes more accurately took an unexpected turn into the field of medicine, helping to develop an invaluable reference tool. Now, thanks to a handful of medical schools willing to open the doors of their anatomy labs to artists, the tradition carries on. Students may be looking for different things, but their sense of wonder is universal. As Osti said, “The body is an incredible source of inspiration.”

Karen Chernick