Anatomy of the Bel Effet: Wax between Science and Art

Charles Kang


In 1794, Honoré Fragonard—cousin of the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard—returned to the Cabinet d’anatomie at the National Veterinary School in the Parisian suburb of Alfort.[1] He had previously worked at the school as a surgeon, anatomist, and preparer of anatomical specimens and models. This time, he was visiting on behalf of the revolutionary government’s Temporary Commission of the Arts to take inventory of the cabinet’s contents.[2] Included in this inventory is an entry (#1007) for a “human angiology,” a specimen or model of the human circulatory system.[3] After listing a heart, major arteries, kidneys, ureters, and a bladder, Fragonard finished the entry with a brief description: “everything fixed on a board, an object with a beautiful effect.”[4] The expression bel effet, usually reserved for works of art, introduces a sense of the aesthetic into what would otherwise be an unremarkable inventory entry.

Still in Alfort, the angiology that Fragonard described offers a striking sight (Fig. 1).[5] Arranged on a vertical wooden panel, its organs and vessels at first glance take the human form, yet the two engorged carotid arteries at the top may also suggest a two-headed monster. This contradiction points to another uncertainty: it is not immediately clear whether the organs and vessels are actual human remains or mere representations. The brevity of the inventory entry reinforces the ontological ambiguity of the object, and we may wonder whether the bel effet refers to a suspension between veracity and verisimilitude, truth and lifelikeness. My inquiry, part of a larger project on wax and the intersections between visual arts and sciences in eighteenth-century France, identifies some of the fundamental problems of anatomical representation in the Alfort panel. It does so first by situating the panel within histories of early modern scientific representation, and then by examining the technique used in its production.

Fig. 1. Anonymous, Injected Vascular System (Système vasculaire injecté), c. 1766-1787. Musée Fragonard de l’École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, Maisons-Alfort. © FORGET Patrick/SAGAPHOTO.COM / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Alfort panel derives from two genealogies of scientific representation. The first consists of two-dimensional depictions of the human circulatory system, such as a 1762 plate from Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and the so-called Evelyn Tables of 1645-46 (Figs. 2 and 3).[6] Though in different media, these examples demonstrate a longstanding convention. Blood vessels below the head are arranged to suggest the form of the human body, going so far as to articulate fingers and toes. By contrast, cerebral vessels are spread out to emphasize the ramifications of their tree-like structure, disregarding any proportional continuity between the head and the rest of the body. Together, the two modes of representation—one of outlining and the other of unfolding—accommodate the complex three-dimensional network of vessels to the two-dimensional format of the plate.[7]


LEFT: Fig. 2. A. J. Defehrt (engraver), Plate VIII, Figure 1, from Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, plate volume 1, 1762. Etching and engraving. © Courtesy of the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, University of Chicago.
RIGHT: Fig. 3. Giovanni Leoni d’Este, Anatomical Table (Evelyn Table) No. 4, showing the distribution of veins of the human body, 1645-1646. Dried human tissue on wood, 189 x 77.1 x 10.5 cm. The Hunterian Museum, London. © Courtesy of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

The Alfort panel appropriates and ultimately defies this convention. The cerebral arteries fan out to some extent, but they also overlap to hint at the roundedness of the brain. Depth is even more strongly suggested in the torso. The dense bouquet of mesenteric arteries near the center of the panel, for example, wraps over one kidney and evokes the absent layer of intestines to which they supply blood. As a relief, the panel repeats the two-dimensional arrangement of blood vessels yet overcomes some of its limitations. The word planche in the inventory entry accordingly helps us to identify another element of the bel effet. To the extent that the organs and vessels are fixed to a board, they also appear to emerge out of an illustrative plate.

The Alfort panel belongs to another genealogy, which consists of early modern anatomical specimens prepared with the technique of injection. Introducing liquids into the human body for demonstrative purposes emerged during the Renaissance in part as an alternative to two-dimensional representations. The Alfort panel derives from a variant known as injection-corrosion—used primarily for blood vessels—which came into regular practice by the second half of the eighteenth century. One of the most extensive period discussions of the technique is found in the second edition of Anthropotomie, ou l’Art d’injecter, de disséquer, d’embaumer et de conserver les parties du corps humain (Paris, 1765) by the French surgeon Jean-Joseph Sue the Elder (1710-1792), professor of anatomy at both the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris.[8]

Published the year before the (then Royal) Veterinary School was established in Alfort and Honoré Fragonard began producing anatomical models there, Sue’s treatise describes injection-corrosion in the following way: injection begins by soaking the cadaver or body part in hot water to discharge blood. Once clean, it is injected with a compound made of wax, resin, spirit of turpentine or Venice turpentine, and pigment.[9] The injected piece is exposed to air for half an hour or more before being submerged in cold water. The subsequent corrosion process consists of immersing the injected piece in a dissolvent for one to three weeks. Called menstrue—whose plural form menstrues refers to menstruation—the liquid eats away only at the organic parts while preserving the injected compound. In his treatise, Sue first mentions using esprit de sel fumant (a concentrated form of hydrochloric acid) but later recommends eau forte (nitric acid) as an equally effective, but cheaper, alternative. A final step of cleaning with water reveals the solidified wax compound.

The entire process is reminiscent of both sculpting and printmaking, and comparing it to these two forms of artmaking helps us understand its complex mechanism of representation. In sculpture, wax is most often used as a modeling and/or intermediary material, a material that is lost in the process of casting metal. In injection-corrosion, wax compound is the final product that replaces blood. Yet by filling a void—Sue uses the verb jeter (“to throw,” or in an artistic context, “to cast”) at one point—wax compound represents not only the intermediary material of life but also the set of channels through which it has coursed.[10] Thus we, alongside the inventory entry, identify the arborescent forms on the Alfort panel as arteries presumably full of blood. The wax compound stands for blood by way of physical contiguity; it also stands for vessels by way of resemblance. It is for this reason that Sue strongly suggests preserving the organic tissues that surround vessels before injection, so as to prevent the vessels “from taking forms against nature.”[11]

To become visible, the injected compound needs to come out of the mold that is the human body. Sue may not have been thinking specifically of printmaking when he recommended eau forte, yet the process of corrosion is comparable to that of etching. Wax in etching protects the negative space of a metal plate while the mordant bites into the exposed lines and reveals a reproducible design. In the corrosion process, the menstrue brings out the lines inside the body by destroying organic tissues. Wax compound here protects itself and constitutes a design, a design that is reproducible only in the sense of biological reproduction. Etched through nature, as it were, the bulging arteries on the Alfort panel are an imprint of life. Fixed to a board, they also refer back to early modern printed images of the human circulatory system.

Only further research into Fragonard, Sue, and other contemporary practitioners of injection-corrosion will establish the aesthetic implications of the Alfort panel to a fuller extent. My analysis, however, demonstrates that the panel not only incorporates techniques and conventions of earlier and contemporary anatomical representations, but also allows us to articulate some of the fundamental tensions—between veracity and verisimilitude, indexicality and iconicity, absence and presence—of depicting the human body in wax. Historicizing these problems will require a thorough consideration of such diverse and concurrent factors as the changing notions of the human body in medicine and the popularity of Philippe Curtius’s waxworks. For now, we may marvel at the Alfort panel as one extreme case of lifelike representation, an object that represents life by consuming it. This conundrum is at the heart of the panel’s bel effet, an effect that would later be characterized as uncanny.

Charles Kang is writing his doctoral dissertation, Before the Reality Effect: Wax Representations in Eighteenth-Century France, at Columbia University, NY


[1] The two cousins were born only two months apart in 1732 in Grasse. Despite the family relations, there is little indication that they interacted with each other for most of their lives. Jean-Honoré’s family moved to Paris in 1738, whereas Honoré did not arrive in Paris/Alfort until 1766. One record of their interaction is from 1793, when they both joined the Jury of the Arts headed by Jacques-Louis David. The other documentation is Honoré’s posthumous inventory, which indicates that Jean-Honoré and his wife Marie-Anne Gérard organized the posthumous auction of Honoré’s belongings. See Christophe Degueurce, “Une Vie d’anatomiste, l’inventaire après décès d’Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799),” Bulletin de la Société française d’histoire de la médecine et des sciences vétérinaires 15 (2015), 121-153.

[2] AN F/10/1294. I would like to thank Daniella Berman for the photographs of this document. The Commission managed scientific objects as well as art objects seized by the government. On Honoré Fragonard’s activities in Alfort before and during the Revolution, see Christophe Degueurce, Honoré Fragonard et ses écorchés: un anatomiste au Siècle des Lumières (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2010).

[3] The fifth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1798) defines angiologie as “the part of anatomy that deals with the vessels of the human body (La partie de l’Anatomie qui traite des vaisseaux du corps humain).” Like the term anatomie, angiologie was used in the eighteenth century to refer not only to the study but also to the object of study, whether actual body parts or a representation.

[4] “Angeiologie humaine, on voit,

1.º le coeur et l’aorte qui en part,

2.º les carrotides [sic] et leurs distributions à la tête,

3.º les axillaires & leurs distributions aux extrémitiés supérieures

4.º les mésentériques, les intescostales [sic],

5.º les reins, les urètres, la vessie avec leurs artères

6.º les eliaques [sic] et leurs distributions aux extrémités inférieures, le tout sur une planche, pièce d’un bel effet.”

[5] The angiology panel is one of the twenty-one anatomical preparations in Alfort attributed to Honoré Fragonard. Some of them, however, may have been made by his students Jacques Marie Hénon and Pierre Flandrin. See Degueurce, Honoré Fragonard et ses écorchés, 84. If Fragonard indeed made the panel, then its date can be narrowed down to 1766-1771, his years at the school. If the panel is by Hénon, the terminus ante quem would be 1780, when he left to become the director of the Veterinary School of Lyon. If Flandrin is the author, the latest date would be 1787, when severe budget cuts at Alfort would have made the production of such costly objects impossible. The 1794 inventory does not indicate the authorship of individual items.

[6] Engraved by A. J. Defehrt (1723-1774), the plate was included in the Encyclopédie’s first volume of plates under the section “Anatomy” (Plate VIII, Figure 1). The four Evelyn Tables were prepared in 1646 by Giovanni Leoni d’Este under the supervision of Johann Vesling at the University of Padua. Acquired by John Evelyn and brought to England, they are now at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

[7] Both the Evelyn tables and the Alfort panel take the form of vertical rectangles, which not only conjure up the image of a person standing or lying on a surface, but also refer to the printed page, the predominant format of anatomical representation in the early modern period. The Encyclopédie illustration reinforces this tableau-like quality by means of its double-lined framing near the edges of the page.

[8] Jean-Joseph Sue the Elder, Anthropotomie, ou l’Art d’injecter, de disséquer, d’embaumer et de conserver les parties du corps humain, 2nd ed. (Paris: P. G. Cavalier, 1765), esp. 70-76. The first edition, of a much shorter length, appeared in 1750.

[9] In the early modern period, spirit of turpentine usually referred to the distilled liquid from pine resin, and Venice turpentine referred to the semi-liquid resin of the common larch. See Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds., Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700 (London: Archetype, 2010), 457.

[10] The fourth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1762) includes the following as one of the definitions of the verb jeter: “On dit encore, Jeter, pour dire, Faire couler du métal fondu dans quelque moule, afin d’en tirer une figure.” Deriving from the Latin jactare, jeter in this period had different spelling variations and cognates including the noun gect, which was used to refer to casts before the modern term moulage. See, for example, the manuscript by an anonymous sixteenth-century artisan at the National Library of France (Ms. Fr. 640), currently investigated by Pamela Smith in her Making and Knowing Project.

[11] Sue, Anthropotomie, 79.


Cite this note as: Charles Kang, “Anatomy of the Bel Effet: Wax between Science and Art,” Journal18, Issue 3 Lifelike (Spring 2017), DOI: 10.30610/3.2017.7

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