The Art of Medicine

Weird as it is, I love anatomy. I haven’t done any figure drawing recently since I’ve been focused so much on landscape drawing and painting, but now as I move forward I will definitely be picking up my “human forms and figures” sketchbook and once again grabbing my anatomy books.

I’ve also been browsing a bit online in search of helpful resources, and I came across a bit of interesting information about the conjunction of art and medicine. Anatomy, it is said, is the point where these two very different disciplines meet. Sometimes that meeting is quite literal.

At Ohio State University, for instance, a group of twelve art students and twelve medical students came together in a collaborative project designed to raise money and to deepen the awareness of anatomy for students from both the arts and the sciences.

Anatomy According to the Artist – Anatomy According to the Physician

Another program combining art and anatomy is a unique drawing seminar offered as part of the New York University School of Medicine. Art supplies are set out and the anatomy lab becomes an art studio. A collection of drawings made from these art and medicine sessions can be found in Art and Anatomy.

The Foreword to the book can be read online here: Art and Anatomy by Danielle Ofri

The question now being explored in many higher learning institutions is simply this:

Can Studying Art Help Medical Students Become Better Doctors?

Another interesting look at the convergence of art and medicine can be found in this article about medical illustration. Somebody has to create all those textbook drawings, after all.

Anatomy for Everyone

I found it very interesting to learn about this new approach to the art of medicine, although perhaps in some respects it’s not all that new at all. In 1632 Rembrandt takes us along on an anatomy lesson with Dr. Tulp.


I was fascinated to learn more about this famous painting and how it came about. Apparently anatomy lessons were a bit of a social event in the 17th century, often held in large auditoriums or theaters. Once each year, an actual dissection would be made public. Rules stipulated that the corpse must be that of an executed criminal.

The physicians depicted in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp paid a commission for the right to be present — and to be painted — at the scene.  Every five to ten years, the Surgeon’s Guild commissioned such a painting by a leading artist of the time. For the young Rembrandt — age 26 — this was the first major commission since his arrival in Amsterdam.

And who was the hapless fellow on the table? He was Aris Kindt who had been convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to death. The hanging took place earlier that same day.

Perhaps the most interesting — and definitely the most amusing — fact I discovered about this work of art is found in the navel of the corpse. Look closely. You’ll see that Rembrandt painted the navel as the letter R. A bit of ego, maybe?

Navel R

As it turns out, Rembrandt had been playing around with various ways of signing his work. He’d previously used the initials RHL — Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden — as his signature. This work of art is thought to be the first instance of Rembrandt using his forename for his signature. It appears in the top left hand corner of the painting.

I’ve seen this painting many times in art books, but until today I’d never known anything of the back story or the people attending this anatomy lesson. I’ve had a lot of fun reading about the connections — past and present — between art and medicine, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too.






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