Portrait of Andreas Vesalius

Grade Range: K-12
Resource Type(s): Artifacts, Primary Sources
Date Posted: 10/27/2008

Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), an early European physician and professor of medicine, wrote an important treatise on the human body, published in 1543. He provided detailed illustrations that demonstrated muscle structure and other features of human anatomy, based on his work dissecting cadavers. Vesalius's work revolutionized the teaching of anatomy and remained influential for generations.

In Vesalius's time, dissection was discouraged by religious and cultural forces that misunderstood its potential contributions to science. Edouard Hamman's 1849 painting, reproduced as a lithograph by Adolphe Mouilleron in the early 1850s, suggests Vesalius's conscientious struggle with religion as he pursed his anatomical studies through dissection. He stands beside a cadaver laid out on the table, and his dissecting tools are at hand. He is pictured as if paused in thought, looking at a crucifix on the wall to his right. A skull and several large books suggest his research materials.

Lithography offered artists a medium for literally drawing on stone that was used for high-quality reproductive prints in 19th-century France. Mouilleron, an accomplished lithographer, was not only a superb draftsman, but it was said that in his hand the lithographic crayon took on the characteristics of color as used by painters. His larger prints, like this portrait of Vesalius, have rich tonal variations that convey the color values of the original painting in shades of black and white. Many American artists like Philadelphian Stephen J. Ferris (1835–1915), whose family donated this print to the Smithsonian, avidly collected and studied French prints of all periods.