The Eye as Art: Anatomy and Vision in the 18th Century

Engraving of the eye in DeGravers' A Complete Physico-Medical and Churugical on the Human Eye and the Demonstration of Natural Vision (1780).
Fig. 1: Engraving of the eye in  A Complete Physico-Medical and Churugical on the Human Eye and the Demonstration of Natural Vision (Degraver, 1780).

There is not one Part of the whole Body, that discovers more Art and Disign (sic), than this small Organ: All its Parts are so excellently well contrived, so elegantly formed and nicely adjusted that none can deny it to be an Organ as magnificent and curious, as the Sense is useful and entertaining.

— William Porterfield in A Treatise on the Eye, The Manner and Phaenomena of Vision, 1759

The Dittrick Museum is thrilled to have Dr. Jonathan Lass present “Eye of the Artist” for the upcoming Zverina Lecture on Oct. 14th. Dr. Lass, the Charles I. Thomas Professor, and formerly chair, in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Medical Director of the Cleveland Eye Bank, will discuss the ways eye conditions impacted the work of artists including Pissaro, Monet, Degas, and O’Keefe, and how individual vision could influence major artistic movements throughout history.

Fig. 2: Engraving of how the parts of the eye create an image of an object. From Chandler (1780).
Fig. 2: Engraving of how the eye creates an image of an object. From Chandler (1780).

Although Dr. Lass will focus on pathological conditions for his lecture, today’s post looks at how 18th century physicians described “normal” or “natural” vision. These authors’ considered the eye, with its delicate structures and wondrous design, as a work of art. To disseminate research about these intricacies, engravers used immense skill and detail to produce anatomical representations (Fig. 1) and optics diagrams (Fig. 2).

Aside from graphical renditions, these early writings on the eye relied on artistic terms. Rays of light “paint” images onto the retina and these unique “strokes” are received by the Sensorium (the sensory part of the brain) and interpreted as “sketches of nature” by a viewer’s Mind.

Fig. 3: Structure of the eye and optic nerves from
Fig. 3: Structure of the eye and optic nerves from Degravers (1780).

Medical authors’ use of this artistic terminology reflected contemporary discussions surrounding the relationship between vision and reality. Were the perceptions of the Mind accurate depictions of the environment or were they truly only “sketches”? Could the eyes be trusted as empirical tools in science, or were external devices, like microscopes, necessary to ensure precise experimental data? Do eyes act as artists or instruments? Debates about the nature of colors (inherent in objects, dependent on light, created by the eyes) and the origins of delusions (originating from the mind or the organs) circled in scientific communities where the hallmark of research was eye-witnessed experimentation.

We hope you join us for the Zverina Lecture to hear more about how the eyes’ structure and function influence perceptions of reality, and how major artists’ health impacted the way they saw and portrayed the world around them.

The talk begins at 6:00PM, followed by a reception in the Dittrick Museum gallery. There is no charge, but you must register to get a seat! Please RSVP to Jennifer Nieves at 216/369-3648 or via email at

Continue reading The Eye as Art: Anatomy and Vision in the 18th Century

Eye of the Artist: The Impact of disease on the formation of Art

2Wednesday, October 14th,  Anton and Rose Zverina Lecture by Jonathan Lass, M.D., “The Eye of the Artist.”

Art. Science. Disease. Medicine. The combination can result in startling and beautiful revelations. We welcome you to join us at the museum for a free public lecture, followed by a reception, on the “Eye of the Artist.”

Have an interest in art? Spent hours contemplating impressionist paintings and wondering about the world as the artist saw it? Or perhaps you have an interest in medicine or medical humanities, and you want to know more about intersections between art and practice. Join us to hear Dr. Lass, the Charles I Thomas Professor, and formerly chair, in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Medical Director of the Cleveland Eye Bank. He will explore the impact of various eye diseases upon famous artists, the impact of these conditions1 on their style and productivity, and the changing the history of art itself. The artists to be discussed by Dr. Lass will include Pissaro, Monet, Degas, and O’Keefe. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder!!

The talk begins at 6:00PM, followed by a reception in the Dittrick Museum gallery. There is no charge, but you must register to get a seat! Please RSVP to Jennifer Nieves at 216/369-3648 or via email at

NYAM hosts Vesalius 500: Art and Anatomy

WebThis October, the New York Academy of Medicine will host Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500, Guest curated by artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer

On October 18, the NYAM’s second-annual Festival for Medical History and the Arts, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ will celebrate the 500th birthday of anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Our own Brandy Schillace, research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick, will be one of the hosted speakers! Click here for the full schedule–and see below for a short description.

Vesalius’ groundbreaking De humani corporis fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) of 1543 is a key Renaissance text, one that profoundly changed medical training, anatomical knowledge, and artistic representations of the body, an influence that has persisted over the centuries. The Festival is one of a global series of celebrations of his legacy, and a day-long event will explore the intersection of anatomy and the arts with a vibrant roster of performers and presenters, including Heidi Latsky’s “GIMP” Dance Project; the comics artists of Graphic Medicine; Sander Gilman on posture controlling the unruly body; Alice Dreger on inventing the medical photograph; Bill Hayes on researching hidden histories of medicine; Steven Assael, Ann Fox and Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi on anatomy in contemporary art; Chase Joynt’s Resisterectomy, a meditation on surgery and gender; Brandy Schillace on ambivalent depictions of female anatomy in the 18th century; Lisa Rosner on famous body snatchers Burke and Hare; the art of anatomical atlases with Michael Sappol; medical 3D printing demos by ProofX; anatomical painting directly on skin with Kriota Willberg; Daniel Garrison on translating Vesalius for modern audiences; Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins on revisiting The Fabrica Frontispiece; and many more!

To join this excellent event, register here or visit the NYAM blog!

Under Your Skin: the Anatomy Artwork of H.V. Carter

2014-05-22 10.52.12The history of Gray’s Anatomy is well known, but it’s brilliant illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter, is frequently it’s “unsung hero.” Though working tirelessly on the book that would go on to be the single most important textbook for anatomy and medical students, his contribution was “torpedoed” by Henry Gray, and he sunk into obscurity. [1] What remains are the images, displayed here, from the Dittrick Museum’s 1859 edition.

There were two authors, of Gray’s Anatomy, not one. However, as Druin Burch explains, Henry Vandyke Carter “regarded himself, sometimes with a little help from Gray, as belonging to a lower ‘genus’ of humanity, fit only to hold the worldly ladder while his ambitious colleague climbed.” [2]  Even so, the anatomy would never have gained popularity without the fine woodcuts created by Carter. Additionally, the names of muscles, nerves and bones were “written into the 2014-05-22 10.52.56body.” [2]

Carter was born today, May 22, in 1831 to somewhat more humble parents than Gray, who was a few years older. He became a student in human and comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons and earned his Bachelor’s of Medicine degree. After working with Gray to provide some of the notable, elegant, and recognizable engravings of anatomy, Carter joined the Indian Medical Service and became Professor of Anatomy at Grant Medical College in Bombay. He died of tuberculosis in 1897. Between Gray’s Anatomy and the end of his career, Carter studied leprosy and presented stained preparations of the disease bacilli at a medical meeting. [3]  His study on leprosy was considered some of the truly valuable papers of his career, “excelling in the descriptions of macroscopic anatomy of the lesions.” [3]

2014-05-22 10.52.36Carter also investigated the cause of fever among famine-stricken Indians in the 1870s. He identified Spirillum minus and brought to notice the role of spleen in “clearing the blood” of microorganisms. [3] Carter was rewarded for his achievements with the Stewart Prize of the British Medical Association–and his meritorous career also earned him the title of Honorary Physician to the queen in 1890. Even so, it is frequently his artwork rather than his life’s work that are most remembered–even if, just as frequently, his name is rarely attached.


[1] Michael E. Moran MD, “Gray’s Anatomy of Stones: Henry Vandyke Carter.” Urolithiasis, 2014, pp 131-144

[2] Druin Burch. “Breathing life into Gray’s Anatomy” The Lancet. Volume 371, Issue 9621, Pages 1327 – 1328, 19 April 2008.


Newsworthy Events

Welcome back tot he Dittrick Museum Blog!

Today, we would like to mention some newsworthy events upcoming in February. Mark your calendars, Clevelandites!


The Departments of Classics and History are sponsoring a talk on ancient “astro-medicine” (free and open to the public) on Wednesday, February 19 from 3:00 – 4:00 PM in Mather House 100

Maddalena Rumor, Doctoral Candidate, Freie Universität, Berlin, will present and compare two texts – a puzzling late Babylonian Kalendertext written on a cuneiform tablet in Uruk by a scholar named Iqīšâ (late fourth century BCE), and a passage from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (first century CE) concerning fever therapies. While at a first glance these two testimonies seem to have nothing in common, a closer examination of them reveals that Pliny was commenting on the specific tradition of pairing animal products with calendric/zodiac information as found in Iqīšâ’s text, and thus each is useful for the interpretation of the other.

This finding represents the only identified direct proof of the sharing of astro-medical knowledge between the lands of cuneiform writing and the Greco-Roman world. As such, it has far-reaching implications for the history of ancient medicine and/or astrology.


The Dittrick Museum will present a lecture and reception, free and open to the public, Thursday, February 20th, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Lucy Inglis Lucy Inglis (Museum of London) presents Jan Van Rymsdyk, the best anatomical artist of the eighteenth century. His work on two pioneering medical treatises, A Set of Anatomical Tables and The Gravid Uterus, marked the birth of modern obstetrics. Yet Van Rymsdyk’s life has been overlooked. A portrait painter by ambition, a botanical artist of some repute, he was also a skilled engraver and mezzotint worker. This lecture and companion exhibit explores his life, work and legacy.

William Smellie (1697-1763) and William Hunter (1718-1783) both published landmark book’s on obstetrics in which accurate illustrations were essential. Smellie wanted his advances in the use of forceps to continue after his death. Hunter wanted his scientific discoveries on why women died in childbirth to ensure his fame. They both needed Van Rymsdyk. He worked fast, with pinpoint accuracy, and his images had a strange allure. For all their gruesome reality; in them he managed to combine the Enlightenment ideal of beauty and truth. William Hunter said, “the magic of Jan Van Rymsdyk is that he ‘represents what was actually seen, it carries the mark of truth, and becomes almost as infallible as the object itself”.

RSVP required by Monday, February 17th. RSVP to or call 216-368-3648

Anatomy Artists: William Smellie, William Hunter, and the work of Jan van Rymsdyk

5123B2EH0JL._SY300_As noted by Ludmilla Jordanova and Deanna Petherbridge in The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy, artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci made enormous contributions to the emerging sciences of the body. The study of anatomy was, in fact, obligatory for many schools of art–and artists like Allessandro Allori composed anatomy textbooks for physicians.[i]

The close approximation of art and anatomy meant that the artists needed both “perceptual drawing skills” and “a strong stomach,”[ii] but just as the artist might be sometimes an anatomist, the anatomist or physician might sometimes be an artist. In this post, we will look at the work of Jan van Rymsdyk, the Dutch anatomy artist and his work with William Smellie and William Hunter.

Though the anatomical depiction of the 16th and 17th centuries tended to present whole bodies, often moving as though they were living, the figured in 18th century (particularly female anatomies) anatomical atlases are often shown piecemeal, as parts rather than whole. As Jordanova and Petherbridge point out, the rendering of sexual difference is very important in this period, especially as ideas about motherhood, breast feeding, and female responsibility were changing. As we have noted elsewhere on the blog, it is also the period when male practitioners took over midwifery. The man-midwife (usually also a surgeon) used tools—like the Chamberlen forceps—to aid in birth, and more and more complex anatomical images and models were produced to render the female anatomy as transparent as possible for the job.

One interesting consequence of this desire for clarity is the privileging of the infant body over the woman’s body. She often does not appear at all except by her fragments, a womb only. It is easy to read a narrative of displacement in these images: even as the midwife is replaced, so too is the mother. The machinery of the woman is laid bare (and of course, there are actually “woman machines” too—the devices built by Smellie to simulate a woman in labor).

Jan van Rymsdyk: Methodsredchalk

“[Rymsdyk’s drawings] are amazingly powerful, not only for their subject matter but also in the confidence and beauty of their treatment […] The relationship in these images between the real and idealized, the whole and the fragment, and what is represented and what is repressed, therefore invited complex readings”[iii]

Rymsdyk often employed red chalk for his renderings, and with amazing detail and skill. By mixing dry chalk with wet chalk, stippling with strokes, he creates images so realistic that they seem strangely alive (or even ‘uncanny’ in their life-like familiarity). The original chalk drawings were part of Hunter’s library, and are presently housed at the University of Glasgow rare book collection. We probably know more about his techniques than his life history, though he was working in London by 1750 with William Hunter, and he was probably working simultaneously with Smellie. Rymsdyk later set out to be a portrait painter rather than a medical artist, but had minimal success.

Rymsdyk and Hunter

Though Jan van Rymsdyk’s7af3b-hunter-plvi-web first published work appears in William Smellie’s Sett [sic] of Anatomical Tables, published in 1754, he likely began work for Hunter in 1750. It would take more than 20 years to bring Hunter’s Gravid Uterus into print. The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow has a portfolio containing 61 drawings, including the provocative plate 6, wherein the womb is shown with amputated legs that appear, rather disturbingly, like two hams. A similar view is shown in Smellie’s tables (or plates), though in this image, Rymsdyk used the method of draping extremities with cloth. We might speculate whether this was artistic license or done at the behest of the physician, but plate 6 did earn Hunter’s praise.[iv]

Despite being a major contributor to the Gravid Uterus, Rymsdyk is not mentioned by name. That has led some to speculate about the rapport between the two men, but there is little evidence in print to document their working relationship.

Rymsdyk and Smellie

 William_Smellie_(obstetrician),_engraved_by_Charles_GrignionWe have only marginally more knowledge about Rymsdyk’s relationship with William Smellie, but there are certain clues that suggest Smellie respected Rymsdyk’s desire to be a portrait artist (often thought of as a more prestigious career). In 1753, Rymsdyk painted a portrait of Smellie. The original has subsequently been lost, but an engraving by Charles Grignion of the portrait remains (shown here). Interestingly, William Smellie also painted a portrait of himself—in his later years (below). He was an accomplished artist as well, and it is reasonably supposed that tables XXXVII and XXXIX of A sett of Anatomical Tables were the work of Smellie rather than Rymsdyk.[v]

Anything beyond this is mainly speculation. Perhaps, himself an artist, Smellie recognized the aspirations of edii_rcse_ed_cs_pcf_1_624x544another. Smellie’s career was made as a surgeon and man-midwife; if he had once entertained notions of being a more accomplished or respected artist, these had long been left in the past. He leaves most of the illustration to Rymsdyk, and when he realized addition would be necessary, he engaged William Camper. We are left to speculate why Smellie decided to use his own work for the 37th and 39th plates, but both of these concern, specifically, the use of forceps, hooks, or crotchets as forceps. Given that Smellie was described by his pupils as “a mechanical genius,” and that he modified the forceps design, he perhaps felt best able to represent them.

Art and Practicality

The artistry of anatomy in the age before photography is complex and frequently suggestive. It may be part of the ongoing mission to move birth and reproduction firmly into the realm of science (and medical men). It may also be a reflection on changing understandings about the body–from a holistic model to one focused on specialization and the working of individual parts. Along the way, the artists and their works give us glimpses into the world of the medical theater (and occasionally, as with Jan van Rymsdyk’s desire to be a portrait painter, it tells the story of aspirations for something else or something more). In any case, we can respect the incredible skill involved in creating the brilliant red-chalk images, so lifelike that they shame a camera lens. And yet, we must also return to the practical: though an artist drew the originals, the final publication included mainly engravings, the 18th-century version of the photo-copy (for a comparison, see Drawer of Wombs). In the words of Smellie himself: “The Whole of the Drawings were faithfully engraved (by Mr. Grignion); in which, however, delicacy and elegance have not been so much consulted as to have them done in a strong and distinct manner […] for general use.”[v]

[i] Jordanova, Ludmilla and Deanna Petherbridge. The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy. (1997): 8

[ii] Ibid., 14.

[iii] Ibid 6.

[iv] Thornton, John. Jan Van Rymsdyk. (1982): 32.

[v] Ibid., 15

About the blogger

Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor for Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, a guest curator for Dittrick Museum, and a SAGES fellow for Case Western Reserve University (she has also worked as an assistant professor of literature at Winona State). She runs the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blogs, leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet, and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.