An anatomy lesson in the 19th centurye century

An anatomy lesson in the 19th century<sup>e</sup> century

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Doctor Velpeau's anatomy lesson.

© Photo Archives, Assistance publique, Paris.

Publication date: September 2004


An anatomy lesson in the 19th centurye century


Historical context

The model of clinical medicine (from the Greek klinè, "Lit") which asserted itself at the end of the XVIIIe century is based on two pillars: observation at the bedside and the practice of dissection. This new medicine, which experienced its full development in the XIXe century, now intends to resort exclusively to the means of science: observation, experimentation, verification. Theory is no longer based on facts; Until Pasteur's great discoveries, medical knowledge was reorganized using the "anatomo-clinical" method.
The public hospital becomes its great laboratory: the diversity of cases is inexhaustible, and the reform of medical studies in 1794 made it the place of practical teaching for students. It is there, under the authority of the master, that the great mysteries of nature are revealed and the enigma of a pathology is finally clarified.

Image Analysis

This very accomplished work is a pencil drawing on canvas and constitutes the sketch of the final painting. The composition celebrates the new science, through the figure of Dr Velpeau, surgeon at the Charité hospital and professor of surgical clinic at the faculty of Paris, member of the Academy of Medicine and then of the Academy of Sciences. His face dominates the group of students, whose attention is focused on the corpse. All are bent, eager to learn and understand. He alone stands, in an attitude of sovereign authority - that conferred by science. Its presence is inscribed in a triangle, of which the corpse forms the basis and isolates it from the rest of the group. The painter uses the drawing of the apron to underline the structuring scheme of the composition. Finally the light is concentrated on the central point: the whiteness of the body, the fabrics and the crown of the master's hair, in a metaphor for this work of unveiling; from the obscure depths of the organs - which however the painter spares us the vision - emerges the light of truth.


The organization of this scene wants to express a certainty and, beyond that, announce a triumph: that of a science on the move, sure of itself because sure of its method. In this XIXe century, it is from now on medicine which concentrates new hopes, because it brings answers which will more and more make it possible to relieve the ailments of the body and perhaps, one day, to cure them.
It will be noted that twelve disciples surround the master. The allusion to the Last Supper is not neutral; in a materialist century which believes in science and progress, it expresses faith in this character of the doctor, whose knowledge reduces illness and sometimes death. By using such a strong and effective image, the painting acquires the dimension of an icon to better spread the new secular faith.

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  • Pastor (Louis)


Marie-José IMBAULT-HUART "The scientific approach to disease and health: constitution of the modern field of pathology", in Man and healthcatalog of the exhibition presented at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie de la Villette, Paris, Le Seuil, 1992.Guenter B. RISSE "The synthesis between anatomy and the clinic", in History of medical thought in the West, t. II " From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment », Under the direction of Mirko D. GrmekParis, Le Seuil, 1997. Michel SAKKAHistory of human anatomyParis, PUF, coll. "What do I know? ", 1997.

To cite this article

Anne NARDIN, "An anatomy lesson in the XIXe century "

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