Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 2019
Anthea Callen Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 272 pp.; 212 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300112948)

Anthea Callen’s earlier monographs established her as a leading expert on the facture and material history of Impressionism. Her new book turns away from the physicalities of canvas weaves and palette knives, parasols and portable paint boxes, to address a very different kind of “artists’ material”—naked human bodies, dead and living—and the academies where artists were taught to represent them. The basic insight that grounds her inquiry is simple but fundamental: the pedagogical system established across the Euro-American world by the start of the nineteenth century, modeled on the Florentine Accademia del Disegno and Roman Accademia di San Luca, entailed initiation into what Callen aptly calls a “body club” (12). In this system, it was axiomatic that “the human body is the principal, the most normal, and the most noble object of painting,” to quote Roger de Piles’s introduction to the first French book of anatomy for artists (F. Tortebat, Abrégé d’anatomie, accommodé aux arts de peinture & de sculpture [Paris: Mariette, 1667], n.p). The art academy was thus aligned with medicine in a broad symbolic sense, as well as in a concrete one, given artists’ and doctors’ mutual investment in the new practice of human dissection, and the dissemination of the resulting knowledge through anatomical illustration, which began in 1543 with Andreas Vesalius’s magnificent De humani corporis fabrica.

Looking at Men concerns a crucial moment in this history, examining the “pan-European medico-artistic alliance” (12) around anatomy in the long nineteenth century. The objects in the book’s purview range from écorché casts produced in the late 1700s to photographs circulated in physical culture magazines in the early twentieth century, alongside a vast array of paintings produced in these years in France, Britain, and North America. What unites these objects is that a man has represented a (usually naked) male body. The sexual dynamics of men “looking at men” are brought to the fore because, as Callen stresses repeatedly, art academies were institutions where “the human body” was studied, in anatomy lectures and life classes, almost exclusively through male bodies.

Chapter 1 introduces the canvas that graces the book’s front cover and serves as its touchstone, François Sallé’s Un cours d’anatomie à l’École de beaux-arts à Paris (1888). This Salon painting presents Dr. Mathias Duval (professor of anatomy at the French academy, 1873–1903) lecturing to a rapt audience of art students. Demonstrating the structure of the forearm, he holds the wrist of a shirtless model with a half-open fly, who leans back in a pose reminiscent of the Borghese Mars. An assemblage of supporting pedagogical instruments surrounds the duo: Eugène Caudron’s Écorché combattant (1845) appears high on a pedestal, alongside human bones, life-size anatomical diagrams, a bird skeleton, and prepared specimens. This dense and understudied painting, which comes alive in Callen’s detailed analysis, sets the stage for what follows, a survey of the longer history of anatomical instruction at the École. Sallé’s painting also introduces a unifying theme: how representations of male bodies were triangulated between three points of reference evident in Sallé’s canvas: the life model, the cadaver (Caudron’s flayed figure), and classical sculpture (invoked through the model’s pose). Throughout, Callen makes vivid the fraught nature of synthesizing this triad, and how cultural factors continually shifted the burden of emphasis between corpses, ancient statues, and living persons.

Chapter 2 examines bodies engaged in sport and combat, ranging over Thomas Eakins, Théodore Géricault, George Bellows, Paul Gauguin, and others. It begins with the rise of bodybuilding around the turn of the twentieth century, and situates this in an academic tradition privileging athletic male bodies. The classical exemplars given priority in anatomy instruction, Callen emphasizes, were associated with combat sport—the Uffizi Wrestlers, the Borghese gladiator, and the Dying Gaul, known in the nineteenth century as the Dying Gladiator. This preference for athletic bodies constituted a tension in academic pedagogy, since materializing a classical ideal went hand in hand with a preference for living specimens drawn from the lower classes, “almost by definition . . . an ex-professional soldier, a working-class labourer or a wrestler” (73).

The question of who supplied the exemplary bodies for academic instruction is an urgent one, touching more concretely than other dimensions of art practice on historical inequalities of class, race, and sex. Perhaps the most extreme examples Callen provides of a “medico-artistic” tendency to dominate the disempowered are the instructional aids produced by William Hunter, first professor of anatomy at London’s Royal Academy: the cast of a flayed “famous Irish pugilist sentenced to death for murder” (82), and the so-called Smugglerius (1776), a muscular malefactor executed and cast in the pose of the Dying Gladiator. These wrenching examples are passed over quickly; while Foucauldian power relations in the doctor-patient and painter-model transaction are repeatedly invoked, more detail might have been given to the persons whose bodies supplied raw visual material. This is the case as well in chapter 3, which focuses on the “mise-en-scène of male medical expertise” (114). Sallé’s painting is set in relation to other group portraits of doctors manipulating bodies in front of students, including Henri Gervex’s Avant l’opération (1887), Eakins’s Gross Clinic (1875) and Agnew Clinic (1889), Johann Zoffany’s William Hunter Lecturing at the Royal Academy (ca. 1772), and most importantly André Brouillet’s famous portrayal of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière (1887), which served as Sallé’s compositional template.

Chapter 4 deals most directly with how the teaching of artistic anatomy was transformed by the end of the nineteenth century. The key individual here is Dr. Paul Richer, whose work Callen situates at the intersection of several historical developments related to the notion of “the perfectible male body” (173): the resurgence of physical culture, embodied in famous bodybuilders such as Edmond Desbonnet and Eugen Sandow, and the emergent “sciences” of eugenics and the optimization of human labor. Richer began his career at the Salpêtrière drawing and photographing “pathological” bodies for Charcot. In 1903 he succeeded Duval as professor of anatomy at the École, where he abandoned dissection in favor of “morphology,” focusing on the body’s exterior. Richer was the first École professor to systematically photograph bodies, which he did using chronophotographic and criminological techniques. Phenomenally interesting is Callen’s suggestion (159–60) that the model portrayed by Sallé was captured seven years later in a series of chronophotographs of hammering and weightlifting later included in Richer’s atlas Nouvelle anatomie artistique (1906–29).

This suggestion, unfortunately not substantiated with hard evidence (see 245nn68–69), deserves further exploration. It vividly captures in representation of a single individual—might his name be discoverable?—a transition in both the epistemology and visual rhetoric of anatomical illustration taking place at the academy. That historical shift falls out of focus in the closing chapter, which orbits around bodies violently torn apart, from Géricault’s heads severed by the guillotine to the traumatic injuries of mechanized warfare in Henry Tonks’s pastel portraits of disfigured Great War soldiers.

To produce a synthetic book of this scope is a major feat. That said, the abrupt shifting between continents and periods within chapters generated whiplash in this reader. The book is at its strongest and most coherent when discussing historical figures (artists or doctors) whose lives directly intersected with specific art academies. A study organized more tightly around the three key sites of Callen’s narrative—École des beaux-arts, Royal Academy, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Eakins—might have allowed greater historical specificity and answered more directly the question of how anatomy’s role in art changed over the course of the long nineteenth century. From an intellectual-historical perspective, it is important that by the nineteenth century a host of other specializations, such as histology, microbiology, and experimental physiology, had displaced gross anatomy as “the master discipline for the investigation of life” (Andrew Cunningham, The Anatomist Anatomis’d: An Experimental Discipline in Enlightenment Europe [Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010], 19). At the same time, and perhaps relatedly, the human body definitively lost its status as the necessary crucible of advanced art. Art history—including Callen’s prior books on plein-air painting—typically characterizes the nineteenth century in terms of the decline and fall of the academic system. Working from the live model, or, as Martin Kemp put it, “knowing how the biceps worked with bones to operate the levers of the arm,” was, for an ambitious artist living at the end of the century, “no longer a prerequisite” (Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, exh. cat. [London: Hayward Gallery, 2000], 18).

Some direction from Callen on how to think through that development in light of her investigation would have sharpened the book’s intervention; so would have further consideration of women. Callen rightly complicates the orthodox view that in the nineteenth century, female nudes completely eclipsed male ones. However, the rise of the female nude falls too far out of the picture, as do women generally, whose absence from art academies, as both models and art students, is too categorically stated. (See, for example, Margaret A. Oppenheimer, “‘The Charming Spectacle of a Cadaver’: Anatomical and Life Study by Women Artists in Paris, 1775–1815,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 6, no. 1 [Spring 2007]; the Royal Academy, which had two founding female members, records the use of some female models as early as 1769.) To be sure, the notion that examining naked models and dissecting cadavers are indispensable to art education proved women’s most formidable barrier to membership in the “body club.” But that barrier was breaking down in the nineteenth century. Callen mentions that Eakins, one of her protagonists, took part in this shift (74–75). In his controversial tenure at the Pennsylvania Academy (1878–86), he instated a rigorously “academic” program of instruction that simultaneously destabilized the balance of power, and also the balance of gender, that structured relations between models, students, and professors in the historical art academy. He not only brought women into mixed life classes and insisted that male genitals be left visible but also reintroduced the early modern workshop practice of students modeling for each other. He also made his own naked body a point of reference, picturing himself (and his dog Harry) in the water paddling toward a crowd of his naked male students in Swimming (1885) or exhibiting his own “pelvis” to teach his student Amelia Van Buren a lesson in anatomy. Some discussion of the increasing gender complexity of what Michael Sappol has called “the homosocial meaning of anatomical mayhem” would have enriched Looking at Men (Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002], 80). For by the end of the century, the looks were turning in many directions, and it was not always simply men looking at men, but also women looking at them.

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen
Associate Director, Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art, Clark Art Institute