John Bell, The Principles of Surgery

Since the monumental work of Vesalius, the relationship between anatomist and artist has been one of support and dependency. The anatomist depends on the artist to convey complex anatomy in a visually pleasing and clear way and the artist depends on the anatomist for accuracy. They both, in a sense, function to keep each other in check making sure that accuracy isn’t sacrificed for aesthetics and clarity isn’t sacrificed for detail.

But what happens when a stubborn anatomist doesn’t trust the creative eye of an artist?

He decides to do the illustrations himself. (You can almost hear the collective gasp of medical illustrators everywhere!)

The stubborn anatomist here is John Bell (1763-1820). You may recognize the name of his younger brother, Sir Charles Bell of Bell’s Palsy. Bell didn’t believe in the ability of artists and their “vicious practice of drawing from imagination.” Harsh words from a man that had quite an artistic talent himself.

He believed that there was “a continual struggle between the anatomist and the painter, one striving for elegance of form, the other insisting upon accuracy of representation.” In a commitment to true anatomical representation, he decided to solve the problem by drawing, etching and engraving his own illustrations, which would not suffer from “the capricious interference of the artist, whose rule it has too often been to make all beautiful and smooth, leaving no harshness…”

And he truly meant what he said. There’s nothing beautiful about his anatomical illustrations.

John Bell, Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints

John Bell, Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints

The illustrations succeed in being quite harsh. Without the guidance of a skilled artist Bell’s illustrations lack focus, depth, perspective and composition. He illustrates everything with the same amount of emphasis and in doing so loses the focus on the anatomy. The result is an ineffective anatomical illustration.

The artist’s role isn’t simply to make things “beautiful and smooth” as Bell states. It’s to provide clarity, to guide the viewer, to provide the illusion of depth, and above all to make anatomical illustrations effective and educational. Otherwise it’s just copying without interpretation, as Bell did in these illustrations.

Too bad Bell didn’t live long enough to see the invention of photography (1830). He would have loved the camera’s ability to capture the graphic harshness of dissection.

Sources: Vaulted Treasures, Dream Anatomy