Book review – The Art of Animal Anatomy: All Life is Here, Dissected and Depicted

Animal anatomy has fascinated artists and scientists for millennia, resulting in a treasure trove of striking images. Veterinary anatomist David Bainbridge here takes on the brave task of curating a birds-eye-view of anatomical artwork that simultaneously delights, educates, and (for some perhaps) horrifies.

The Art of Animal Anatomy

The Art of Animal Anatomy: All Life is Here, Dissected and Depicted“, written by David Bainbridge, published in Europe by Herbert Press (an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing) in October 2018 (paperback, 256 pages)

Bainbridge has divided The Art of Animal Anatomy into five chronological chapters and limited himself to depictions of vertebrates. The early records of anatomical artwork are scant, though works have come to us from the Middle East and Asia. In Europe, we rather saw monstrous and fantastical depictions in bestiaries. Bestiary: Animals in Art from the Ice Age to Our Age shines more of a light on this phase of art history. Bainbridge picks Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer as his starting point. These polymaths, who, unbeknownst to me, were contemporaries, drew and painted many different subjects , so only a few representative anatomical images are here included (see their complete oeuvres in Leonardo Da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings and Albrecht Dürer, but see also Nature’s Artist: Plants and Animals by Albrecht Dürer).

The Art of Animal Anatomy internal 1A specific chapter is reserved for the horse, which was a hugely popular subject for artists, and a wonderful mixture of black-and-white engravings and colour paintings is included. Bainbridge especially highlights the work of the 16th century Italian Carlo Ruini and 18th century Englishman George Stubbs. Skeletons, skulls, legs, viscera – you will see the horse as never before. The next phase Bainbridge highlights is the fascination with the variety of life in works from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century and with it the rise of comparative anatomy. This includes works by the Dutch Volcher Coiter, but also well-known scientists such as George Cuvier, Richard Owen, and many others, showing us (parts of) birds, snakes, turtles, primates, and many other animals. At this point in time, scientists were particularly struck by the many similarities on the inside of animals, and their drawings compare animal structures to show how skeletons and organs of vertebrates hint at a shared origin.

The Art of Animal Anatomy internal 2By the 19th century, description and classification were starting to give way to mechanism and process, not least because of the impact of the theory of natural selection. In his book Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates, Henry Gee pointed out how evolution and embryology became intertwined as disciplines, which is largely thanks to the prolific artist and scientist Ernst Haeckel (see his oeuvre in The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel). He became a strident proponent of the theory of natural selection, and wedded it to his embryological work, confidently stating that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (i.e. development re-enacts evolutionary history). The full story of his notorious drawings comparing the development of vertebrate embryos has been told in full elsewhere (see Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, reviewed here).

Another important development was the acceptance of deep time and a more accurate determination of the Earth’s age, and with it the rise of palaeontology as a discipline, resulting in artwork depicting fossils. Some early drawings of fossils and skeletal reconstructions from the hands of Mary Anning and Richard Owen are shown, and mention is made of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, but there is no space here to explore the discipline of palaeoart (for that, see Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830-1980).

“Skeletons, skulls, legs, viscera – you will see the horse as never before”

Other important figures highlighted are D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who placed physical and mathematical principles above all else and drew diagrams geometrically distorting animal shapes to show relationships (see his book On Growth and Form). The work of Edweard Muybridge, who first experimented with stop-motion photography, is shortly covered, including his famous sequence of a galloping horse (for more, see Eadweard Muybridge: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs). But also the work of the less well-known Spaniard Santiago Rámon y Cajal is highlighted. He pretty much single-handedly transformed the discipline of neuroscience and his drawings remain relevant to this day.

The Art of Animal Anatomy internal 3A final brief chapter shows some contemporary examples of anatomical artwork, whether this is outdoor graffiti, the plastinated anatomical specimens of Gunther von Hagens, or the remarkable anatomical body-paint applied to horses by Gillian Higgins from Horses Inside Out (see, amongst others, Horse Anatomy for Performance). Not included, but worth pointing out, is the contemporary anatomical artwork of Katrina van Grouw (see her beautiful The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection) who shows there is still mileage in artwork that harks back to centuries past.

Bainbridge has done an admirable job compressing a lot of history in a relatively small book, showing how illustrations became more and more informed by science, and served as educational tools for anatomists and veterinarians alike. He highlights particularly noteworthy artists in each chapter and provides short commentaries with all artwork. Given the price point of this The Art of Animal Anatomy internal 4book, don’t expect lavish production values such as those of German publisher Taschen, or shenanigans such as fold-out plates. Nevertheless, the artwork itself is wonderfully reproduced on matte paper in numerous half- and full-page images, as well as full-page spreads. Some of these span one-and-a-half pages, ensuring the centre of attention is preserved and visible, whereas others span a full two pages which sometimes means important details disappear in the fold of the pages. Luckily these cases are few. In Europe the book is only available as a paperback, but if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic pond, Princeton University Press bought the rights for the US market and has published it in hardback with a slightly different title, Stripped Bare: The Art of Animal Anatomy – a format which I would have preferred.

The Art of Animal Anatomy is a wonderful visual trip that, far from being gory or gruesome, contains fantastic imagery spanning a wide span of time. It contains many works well-known to most biologists, but will undoubtedly introduce you to new and unknown artworks. I was particularly taken with the paintings of superficial muscles from the hand of J.E.V. Boas, for instance. Though not intended as a handbook (for that, see books such as Animal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form, Bird Anatomy for Artists, or The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art) this book will provide plenty of inspiration for artists. And it makes a sure-fire gift for that person in your life who loves the interface of biology and art.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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The Art of Animal Anatomy paperback or hardback

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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