Dream Anatomy: Science, Speculation, and Art


Albrecht von Haller (anatomist); C.J. Rollinus (artist); Gottingen, 1756. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine

The origins of anatomical illustration–roughly parallel to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century–couldn’t be farther from the medical illustrations in the anatomy textbooks we know today. The internal depictions of human bodies, with its constant revision throughout history, almost reminds one of the radical changes that have occurred, and continue to occur, in the history of art.

Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) (anatomist); Amsterdam, 1744. Etching with engraving. National Library of Medicine

With today’s advanced technology and imaging devices, we have the tools to represent the greatest accuracy possible in human anatomy. As a side note, however, this doesn’t mean that technical illustration is forever banished from the category of art. Some highly-skilled technical illustrators produce what can only be described as art. I’m thinking of the sublime biological illustrations of Ernst Haeckel.

Charles Estienne (1504-ca. 1564) (author); Étienne de la Rivière (d. 1569) (anatomist] Paris, 1546. Woodcut.

But let’s return to our initial discussion of the beginnings of anatomical illustration. The key to remember here is how closely anatomical imagery and illustration in the early days was essentially a form of art. The dominant style of these drawings and prints is incredibly fantastical. The graphic compositions reveal truly imaginative exercises in detailing the unknown human interior, and then going further to embellish the principal subject with elaborate frames, various types of iconography, and also mythological elements. The backgrounds, scenes, and settings in these works serve as “metaphoric echoes”, enriching the anatomical depiction while simultaneously conveying the anatomist’s view of nature.

Giulio Casserio (ca. 1552-1616) (anatomist), Odoardo Fialetti (artist), Venice, 1627. Copperplate engraving.

This is about the evolution of a science (anatomy) that developed in large part from a visual, speculative, and artistic study of the unknown human body. The Dream Anatomy Website, founded by the National Library of Medicine, describes how anatomical imagery grew out of a spectrum of oddly non-representational, non-realistic elements: “whimsical, surreal, beautiful, and grotesque.”

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770) (anatomist), Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) (artist), London, 1749

The practice of human dissection in the early European medical schools allowed anatomists greater technical insight into the structure of the human body. What occurred as a result–specifically in terms of anatomical illustration–was a new emphasis on technical precision. The Dream Anatomy Website describes a

brilliant and dreamlike hyper-aestheticism that showed off, with great artistry, a more sophisticated knowledge and heightened perception of the boundaries and surfaces of the body.

Bernardino Genga (1636?-1734?) (anatomist) Charles Errard (1609?-1689) (artist), Rome, 1691. Copperplate engraving.

The one motif that seems to recur throughout the history of anatomical illustration is death. But it is important to note that once anatomy became an established science (around 1800), the motif disappeared from medical textbooks and resurfaced instead in traditional works of art.

Francesco Bertinatti (fl. mid-1800s) (anatomist), Mecco Leone (artist), Turin, 1837-39. Lithograph.

In fact, anatomy in art grew into a sub-genre that persists to this day. The above lithograph is an example of how artists borrow freely from scientific illustrations while simultaneously employing “vivid, playful, and eccentric images.” (1)

Fritz Kahn (1888-1968) (author), Stuttgart,1926. Relief halftone.

The work of early 20th century author Fritz Kahn took metaphors from industrial society and modernization and combined them with visual depictions of the human body. The artwork aims to describe the complexity of the modern world as it operates, impacts, and is reflected in human anatomy.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) (anatomist) Stephen van Calcar and the Workshop of Titian (artists) Basel, 1543. Woodcut.

What excites me most about the era between 1450 and 1750 is that the boundaries were not defined. The term “dream anatomy” seems to perfectly describe a science that was not science, and an art that was not art.

I would like to thank the Dream Anatomy Website and the National Library of Medicine for providing me with the information and images that made this article possible.

Thanks to Das Ding an Sich for finding this the Dream Anatomy Gallery!



lethebashar-4I’m the editor of Escape into Life, online arts journal.




  • sp

    Cool post very interesting thanks!