Anatomy/Academy: Philadelphia Nexus of Art and Science

by James Lancel McElhinney

Thomas Eakins Motion Study: George Reynolds nude, polevaulting, 1885 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is today a full-service art school offering both baccalaureate and masters’ degrees in Fine Arts, nurturing students in a wide range of disciplines, styles and methodologies, from realism to abstraction and conceptualism. PAFA, unlike a growing number of college and university art programs that are busily downsizing studio practices such as painting, sculpture and printmaking, continues to honor its origins by presenting exhibitions like “Anatomy/Academy” in its galleries. 

Rising like a phoenix in 1805 from the ashes of Charles Willson Peale’s failed Columbianum, PAFA engaged less in disputes about style and more in seeking connections between art, science and general education that would improve and elevate society. Philadelphia residents like Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, John Bartram and David Rittenhouse had established an international center of science, philosophy and learning. Scientific expeditions were launched from the city, led by Lewis and Clark, Stephen Long, Audubon and others. Artists accompanied many of these expeditions, including Titian Ramsay Peale II, whose father excavated the first American mastodon and then displayed it in the museum he had founded, the first such public venue in the nation. In 1834, Rembrandt Peale paired drawing with penmanship to design the first art curriculum in America adopted for students in secondary education. During the years before art and science had retreated into present-day silos of expertise, the early nineteenth century was a time of exploration and discovery, when art and science were still in dialogue with one another. 

Curated by Robert Cozzolino, Anna Marley and Julien Robson, “Anatomy/ Academy: Philadelphia Nexus of Art and Science” (January 29–April 17, 2011), explored connections among art, science and medicine in nineteenth-century Philadelphia through the juxtaposition of scientific artifacts with paintings, drawings, books and sculpture. Works came both from the Academy’s own collections and various other institutions, including the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mutter Museum of the Philadelphia College of Physicians and the Terra Foundation. In his foreword to the catalogue, PAFA President and ECOD avid R. Brigham observes how the “…exhibition explores Philadelphia’s leadership role in art and medicine, and the long mutually beneficial dialogue between these disciplines. Philadelphia’s dynamic art and science communities have often fostered knowledge of the human body by collaboration, sharing mutual interests and providing progressive training in these fields.” The exhibition gathered together artworks and objects spanning several centuries, divided into an informal chronology.

One of the academy’s founders, sculptor William Rush, began his career as a woodcarver, making figureheads for warships and merchant vessels. Best known for his Nymph and Bittern (1809) and for a series of allegorical figures created for the city’s new waterworks in the 1820s, Rush constructed twenty-one super-sized anatomical specimens for educator and physician Caspar Wistar to illustrate his lectures. Most have been lost, but the surviving seven pieces were exhibited, along with a terracotta portrait of Wistar by Rush. The bifurcation of anatomical training is clearly the backbeat of the show; art and science shared some of the same pedagogy, if not precisely the same goals. Whatever divergence of purpose existed, it cannot be explained away as obvious differences such as preserving physical health or promoting artistic agendas. One begins to appreciate the desire for an aesthetic by medical practitioners as much as the yearning in studio practice for scientific rigor. Artists and scientists recognized a mutual capacity for reciprocal advancement that contributed to the development of a new intellectual class, to which all citizens with an education might aspire.

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s magnificent life-sized L’Écorché simultaneously evinces scientific rigor and aesthetic values. Standing in an assured manner like a Caesar, his weight thrown forward onto the left leg, the torso twists forward to the right while the left shoulder dips slightly in a graceful contrapposto. Plasters like this were used to locate muscle groups for students studying the figure at the academy and, in recent years, have once again been pressed into service. Many seemed to have escaped from a macabre schatzkammer. William Rush’s Model of the Eye in Four Parts, constructed of leather, papier-maché, paint and wood, stares unblinking from its vitrine, launching a stream of associations from Odilon Redon to Georges Bataille. The waxwork of a bloodless dissection bares the lymphatic system of a subject, who seems to endure his condition with patient forbearance. Thomas Eakins’s cast of a flayed torso demonstrates just how far anatomical model-making for artistic study had strayed from the aesthetic science of Houdon. Eakins’s écorché is a lump of meat and bone lifted from a coroner’s table, a specimen devoid of reason, sentiment or pathos. 

Nearby Eakins’s signature piece The Gross Clinic was displayed a scalpel used by Dr. Samuel Gross in his surgery. Rejected by the art jury for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the catalogue reminds us, the painting “ …was unceremoniously hung in a corner (of the Army Medical Pavilion) behind a row of cots swathed in mosquito netting,” evidence perhaps of the growing divisions between art and science after the Civil War. The painting is not without precedents, famously, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, but one wonders whether the graphic realism is not meant to deflect our attention from Eakins’s sleight of hand as he conflates Gross’s surgical theater with an art-school atelier. The hybrid setting becomes a visual tribute to Philadelphia’s historic brotherhood of art and science. Eakins’s pioneering experiments in stop-action photography, produced in collaboration with Eadweard Muybridge, may argue that Eakins was ahead of his time, but his devotion to the union of art and science suggests an even stronger, nostalgic yearning for the glory days of Wistar and Rush. Late in his career, Eakins produced a series of paintings that imagined Rush at work carving Nymph and Bittern. A trio of small grisaille paintings produced for Scribner’s magazine in 1879 by Thomas Anshutz, Alice Barber Stephens and her husband, Charles, depict academy students working from antique casts, skeletons, live models and anatomical devices, including Eakins’s écorché. All three pictures pay homage to The Gross Clinic in composition. Somber interiors house groups of figures orbiting around some central activity transpiring in the middle distance. That these are not laboratories but teaching-rooms at the Academy is revealed only by the titles. We can thank Charles H. Stephens for a lighthearted piece that, according to curator Anna Marley, stole the show. Oral tradition alleges that an Academy charwoman named Harriet willed her body to the school for anatomical study. Stephens adeptly removed the entire nervous system from optic nerve and brain-stem to fingertips and toes and mounted the pale yellow ganglia on a dark panel. The effect is at once shocking and comical, like an animated character in a Tim Burton movie. More conventional academic life drawings by David Peter Rothermel, Christian Schussele, Daniel Garber and future Art Students League of New York instructor Kenyon Cox reflect deep connections with the kind of European pedagogy promoted by Gérôme and Constant in Paris, or Kalbach and Piloty in Munich. 

Charles H. Stephens Anatomical Lecture by Dr. William Williams Keen, c. 1879 Pennsylvania   Academy of the Fine Arts, PhiladelphiaJohn Sloan’s etching of Thomas Anshutz delivering a studio-lecture to a group of students—standing, seated and perched on stools—is a far cry from Eakins’s portrayal of Dr. Gross. Gesturing to his students, Anshutz compares a skeleton with a young man wearing a loin-cloth. Sloan was deeply fond of vaudeville and nickelodeons. Anshutz on Anatomy is more Medicine Show than medical science. Surrounded by his audience in the darkened foreground, Anshutz and his troupe perform in the incandescent glow of a hanging lamp. Throwing an arm around the comical skeleton like a breech-clouted paleface, Anshutz’s model waits for his cue. The image verges on irreverence. As in many of Sloan’s theater and cinema pictures, the show is as much about the audience as it is about the featured attraction. Like Sloan’s etching, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion (1913) and his Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance (1919) are not pairing art with science but with entertainment. Exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Figure in Motion created a sensation by the frank and forceful presence of a naked portrait of a modern woman. Few decades had passed since female life-models at PAFA wore masks to conceal their identity. Posing for Henri, celebrated dancer and choreographer Ruth St. Denis promoted her own brand.

Works by Violet Oakley, Morton Schamberg, Hugh Henry Breckenridge and Arthur B. Carles represent Philadelphia’s figurative response to modernism. Oakley is one of the few women represented in the exhibition, along with Alice Stephens. Breckenridge’s Pestilence (formerly War) recalls Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus in an allegorical tribute to the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Arthur Beecher Carles was represented by a modest painting, Nude, Reclining (1921). Not widely known today, Carles’s influence has been considerable. The New York Studio School was founded by his daughter, the late Mercedes Matter. His legacy endures in the painterly genre of object-derived abstractions, practiced by the late Jane Piper and her daughter, Jan Baltzell, who with fellow PAFA professor William Scott represents the Carles tradition today. The eccentric realist painter Ivan le Lorrain Albright, in the 1920s, briefly resided in Philadelphia before returning to Chicago. Albright’s obsessively detailed subjects, rendered in stark chiaroscuro, suggest an academic training that included anatomical study. The curators chose to expand their geographic envelope to include Albright. They might have surrounded him with a few extra-Philadelphians, such as Paul Cadmus and Rico Lebrun. 

Hugh Breckenridge Pestilence (War) 1918  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Contemporary works by Bernard Perlin and Donald Lipski comprised more of a postscript than a summation to the exhibition. Perlin’s (b. 1918) compositions, realized in casein and egg tempera, might be seen in stylistic dialogue with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn or Philip Evergood, but—apart from an allusion to health-care experiences—there is little to connect them to Rush or Eakins. In Donald Lipsy’s Broad Street Boogie- Woogie, a dozen life-sized plastic skeletons dance across the wall in celebration, like a legion of ghostly Broad Street Mummers. Lipski remarked that “…artistsand scientists are really very similar. We are all delving into things…to find truth.”

The exhibition and its venue seemed an apt pairing, considering the history of the Pennsylvania Academy. In an age of hyper-specialization, when stuffed sharks set auction prices and style-wars rage like family feuds, “Anatomy/Academy” reminds us how artists and scientists can inspire one another, and how artists can revere knowledge more highly than themselves. James Lancel McElhinney teaches drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York and at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. McElhinney is a realist painter whose work has been exhibited in more than forty solo exhibitions in museums and galleries across America.


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3