Skeletons! Part 1

Keeping with our Halloween theme this month, let’s look at some skeleton art.  We’ll focus on early illustration for the first of these posts and then diversify on the next go-round.  Some of these are anatomical illustrations, others symbolic representations of death, and still others used simply for their decorative appeal.  But they’re all creepy in their own way.

Étienne de la Rivière – La dissection des parties du corps humain (Paris, 1546)

There’s nothing like an arrangement of infants’ skeletons to really give one the heebie-jeebies.

Frederik Ruysch - Alle de Ontleed, Genees, en Heelkundige Werken (Amsterdam, 1744)
Frederik Ruysch – Alle de Ontleed, Genees, en Heelkundige Werken (Amsterdam, 1744)
Jacques Gamelin - Nouveau recueil d’ostéologie et de myologie (1779)
Jacques Gamelin – Nouveau recueil d’ostéologie et de myologie (1779)
Mary S. Gove (after Wm. Cheselden) - From 'Lectures to ladies on anatomy and physiology' (1842)
Mary S. Gove (after Wm. Cheselden) – From ‘Lectures to ladies on anatomy and physiology’ (1842)

This next image you’ve probably seen in some form or other but didn’t know who the artist was or what it was called.  Well, if you’ve ever wondered, here is the relevant info.  Rethel actually did a few of these images of Death, including the drawing directly following the one below, but this is the most famous of them.  This piece was so powerful it is said to have caused his friends nightmares, no kidding.

Alfred Rethel - Death the Avenger
Alfred Rethel – Death the Avenger
Alfred Rethel - Death the Friend
Alfred Rethel – Death the Friend

The following drawing was part of a series of anatomical illustrations created as an artist’s reference by anatomist Francesco Bertinatti and illustrator Mecco Leone.  By the mid 1800s, with the explosion of art in the Victorian world and an increasingly realistic understanding of anatomy, these sorts of references became quite popular.  This one, as is evident from the size of the skull in relation to the rest of the skeleton, is of a young child.

Francesco Bertinatti, Mecco Leone – Elementi di anatomia fisiologica applicata alle belle arti figurative (1837-39)

With the Industrial Revolution at full tilt in the early 20th century, there were dangers aplenty in factories and warehouses, and with many workers at the time being barely literate, posters like these were often much more effective at getting the point across than simple text-only signs.  This poster carries the same words in Czech and German: “Be careful of hanging loads!”

Artist Unknown - Střež se visících břemen!
Artist Unknown – Střež se visících břemen!

Similar posters were also used to warn drivers and pedestrians to be careful around those new high-speed machines that were becoming more and more ubiquitous.  I really like the overall design of this poster.  It is somewhat cartoonish, but that doesn’t diminish its elegance or its power at all, I think, and the lovely Art Deco touches elevate this to something more than just a public service message.

“Beware of traffic on all roads whether coming or going” reads the text of this Dutch poster, arranged into a little rhyme for extra memorability.

Artist Unknown - Veilig Verkeer
Artist Unknown – Veilig Verkeer
Pierre Giffart - Vanity
Pierre Giffart – Vanity
Abraham S. Clara - Mercks Wienn (1680)
Abraham S. Clara – Mercks Wienn (1680)

Incidentally, the majority of these came from the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s morbidly beautiful Dream Anatomy exhibit.  Each of the images is accompanied by a brief description of its history, and the series is placed in historical context.  It’s well worth checking out if you are intrigued by such things.

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