Fleshing out Surfaces: A Review – by Marieke M. A. Hendriksen

Mechthild Fend, Fleshing out Surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 352 pages.

Understanding and depicting the anatomy and physiology of the human body was of great importance to both visual artists and medical men in the early modern period. In her new book, Fleshing out Surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), Mechthild Fend explores the relations between medical and artistic ideas about skin and the image, color and nudity, paint and flesh, through an analysis of early modern art works, art theory, and medical literature. As the subtitle suggests, the focus is on France, but Fend implicitly acknowledges the impossibility of studying early modern epistemic cultures in monolinguist isolation. Especially when discussing medical sources, she frequently refers to works published—at least initially—in surrounding countries and other languages, such as Dutch, German, and English. She argues that from the eighteenth century onwards, a new focus on the surface and the borderlines of the body and a new understanding of the skin as physical demarcation of the self emerge, and that embodiment in images is a contested issue and ongoing problem.

The author lays out her central argument in six core chapters, framed by an introduction and an epilogue. The book opens with a chapter on the substance of the body’s surface in medicine and art. Fend outlines how the depiction of naked bodies in painting theory was traditionally not conceived in terms of skin but of flesh—the term “skin” in art discourse was initially used mainly metaphorically to describe various kinds of crafted surfaces. Only when human skin was perceptible as an entity separate from the body, i.e. in very old people, cadavers, or flayed bodies, would it be described as skin rather than flesh. In the eighteenth century, the new medical understanding of human skin as a tissue built of interwoven layers found its way into art discourse. This development, Fend argues convincingly, turned skin into a complex organ that was to be rendered by the painter in appropriately textured brushwork, and the skillful rendering of the color of flesh alone was no longer sufficient to establish lifelikeness.

Subsequent chapters delve into the thoroughly eighteenth-century notions of the skin as a nervous canvas and sensitive limit of the body. Chapter two takes Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s portraits de fantaisie as its starting point to discuss how the new understanding of skin as a complex, textured, and highly sensitive organ was reflected in art literature and practice. The chapter focuses strongly on art history and art theory, and historians of medicine may feel that the argument about relevant medical developments remains somewhat underdeveloped here. For example, one may wonder to what extent Fragonard’s work was influenced by that of his cousin Honoré, the creator of elaborate anatomical preparations still on display today in the Musée Fragonard in Alfort outside of Paris.

In the chapter entitled “Sensitive limit,” we see a more evenly balanced approach between the histories of art and medicine. Fend recounts how, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the skin was increasingly perceived as the body’s physical demarcation and the boundary of the self, tied to new notions of subjectivity and identity, while in medicine skin remained both sensitive organ and border. In art theory, the advent of neoclassicism meant that artists increasingly felt the need to study human anatomy themselves—not only through images and live models, but also through dissection. The French Revolution and the resulting steady stream of young, healthy corpses for dissection played a chilling but crucial facilitating role in these developments. Fend skillfully clarifies the political complexities of representations of ideal skin in this period through an analysis of David’s changing manner of painting skin—pointing out, for instance, how soft, untanned skin could be a dangerous sign of a privileged life.

The fifth chapter explores the growing interest in and changing understanding of skin color. Scholarly and medical debates about the location and materiality of human skin color are linked to artistic explorations. Interestingly, both the term “skin color” and the use of the term “race” to categorize people are eighteenth-century neologisms. Here, the connection between anatomy and art becomes prominently visible, as anatomists were among the first users of the newly invented technique of color mezzotint printing. Cutting, peeling, and layering were equally important in dermal dissection and mezzotint printing. Using the work of anatomists like Petrus Camper and Jean-Joseph Sue as a contextual framework, Fend here analyzes two painted portraits of black individuals (Anne-Louis Girodet’s 1797 Jean-Baptise Belley and Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s 1800 Portrait d’une négresse) and their contemporary reception, laying bare the complex body politics of the time. This chapter is a significant contribution to the recent rethinking of the study and representation of human diversity, as explored for instance in Fenneke Sysling’s Racial Science and Human Diversity in Colonial Indonesia (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016).

In the last two chapters, seeing through the skin and skin as hermetic borderline are discussed. The first reads as a concise history of the interactions between artistic and anatomical research and education from the sixteenth century onwards, culminating in the institutional integration of anatomical demonstrations in art academies in France around 1800. The flayed écorchés of the late eighteenth century slowly but steadily were replaced with the rationalized artistic anatomies of the nineteenth century, in which skin became a hermeneutic barrier while simultaneously functioning as a translating membrane. Medicine all but disappears in the final chapter on the female portraits and nudes by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres in which, according to Fend, skin becomes a hermetic borderline, a purely painted materiality with nothing tangible inside. The division between flesh and skin, we can conclude, was fluid in the long eighteenth century, and art and medicine redefined understandings of its permeability and transparency in dialogue with each other.

This book is the result of almost two decades of meticulous research, and the downside of such a long gestation occasionally shows when references to more recent relevant literature are lacking. Yet once the reader gets past the somewhat anachronistic and lengthy introductory discussion of Pedro Almodovar’s 2011 film La piel que habito (The skin I live in), Fleshing out Surfaces makes for a rich and fascinating read. Fend is trained as an art historian, and this explains her focus on paintings and detailed iconographic discussions of art works. However, throughout the book, she skillfully connects this fascination to the medical discourse of the time, making it highly relevant literature for art historians and historians of early modern medicine alike. Fleshing out Surfaces contributes significantly to a growing body of work on the history of representing human skin in art and science by scholars such as Mieneke te Hennepe and Ann-Sophie Lehmann, among others.

Marieke Hendriksen is a historian of eighteenth-century art, science, and medicine based at Utrecht University in the Netherlands


Cite this note as:  Marieke M. A. Hendriksen, “Fleshing out Surfaces: A Review,” Journal18 (March 2018), https://www.journal18.org/2449

Licence: CC BY-NC

Journal18  is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC International 4.0 license. Use of any content published in Journal18  must be for non-commercial purposes and appropriate credit must be given to the author of the content. Details for appropriate citation appear above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *