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Body Part as Body Art

In the late 1600s, a new anatomical art-form emerged: the specimen. Anatomists began to collect and exhibit bodies and body parts. Their specimens were real—and they dazzled viewers. Like wax and marble, the human body served as a sculptural medium. The anatomist preserved this material, and then colored, costumed, and arranged it in glass cases or free-standing displays.

Alle de ontleed by Frederik RuyschAlle de ontleed by Frederik Ruysch
Alle de ontleed by Frederik Ruysch

Anatomists produced objects in different media. "Natural" preparations, made from human or animal bodies, could be "wet" (submerged in alcoholic preservative in sealed jars) or "dry" (injected with resins, or wax and then dried). Anatomists also made "artificial" preparations, from wax, plaster, paper maché, and other materials.


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A peek in the cabinet: Ruysch’s theatre of the body

1737 Portrait of Frederik Ruysch

Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) was the first great exponent of the anatomical specimen. Visitors from all over Europe came to marvel at his "repository of curiosities."As Amsterdam’s chief instructor of midwives and "legal doctor" to the court, Ruysch had ample access to the bodies of stillborns and dead infants and used them to create extraordinary multi-specimen scenes. In making such displays, he claimed an extraordinary privilege: the right to collect and exhibit human material without the consent of the anatomized.