Skin in French art and medicine, 1650–1850
Author: Mechthild Fend

Throughout the history of European painting, skin has been the most significant surface for artistic imitation, and flesh has been a privileged site of lifelikeness. Skin and flesh entertain complex metaphorical relationships with artefacts, images, their making and materiality: fabricated surfaces are often described as skins, skin and colour have a longstanding connection, and paint is frequently associated with flesh. This book considers flesh and skin in art theory, image making and medical discourse and focuses on seventeenth to nineteenth-century France. It describes a gradual shift between the early modern and the modern period and argues that what artists made when imitating human nakedness was not always the same. Initially understood in terms of the body’s substance, of flesh tones and body colour, it became increasingly a matter of skin, skin colour and surfaces. This shift is traced in the terminology of art theory and in the practices of painting, as well as engraving, colour printing and drawing. Each chapter is dedicated to a different notion of skin and its colour, from flesh tones via a membrane imbued with nervous energy to hermetic borderline. Looking in particular at works by Fragonard, David, Girodet, Benoist and Ingres, the focus is on portraits, as facial skin is a special arena for testing and theorising painterly skills and a site where the body and the image made of it become equally expressive.

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Mechthild Fend

The chapter introduces questions of skin and flesh tones via a discussion of Pedro Almódovar's 2011 film The Skin I live in. The film suggests a number of themes that are pertinent to this book: skin and identity; the relations between inside and outside; the nude and its colour; artificial skin and fantasies of the human creation of life; skin, touch and the haptic potential of vision; finally, the relationship between skin's role as a medium and the mediality of the image; issues of the colour of the nude and the longstanding association of skin, flesh and colour. The introduction also situates the book within the most relevant art historical studies on skin, flesh and the materiality of the image as well as within the scholarly field of the history of the body and of skin.

in Fleshing out surfaces
Mechthild Fend

The naked areas an artist represents when painting a human body were traditionally not conceived of in terms of skin but of flesh. This chapter discusses notions of flesh and flesh tones in the European art literature from the Middle Ages (Theophilus Prespyter, Cennino Cennini, Jean Lebèque) to French seventeenth and early eighteenth-century art theory. A focus is on the association of flesh and colour in the writings of Roger de Piles and in the technique of colour printing as theorised in Jacob Le Blon's 1725 treatise Coloritto, or the Harmony of Colouring. The chapter demonstrates how skin slowly made its entry into art theory over the course of the eighteenth century and argues that skin and flesh came to be perceived differently over the course of the early modern period. Especially the microscope changed the ways in which the bodily mater was seen: organic substance was now described with textile metaphors as texture or tissue. In accordance with the new medical understanding of the dermis as a tissue built of interwoven layers, eighteenth-century art practice and discourse turned skin into a complex organ that was supposed to be rendered via an appropriately textured painterly brushwork.

in Fleshing out surfaces
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Mechthild Fend

This chapter looks at skin, sensibility and touch in painterly practice and the art literature on the one hand, and in medical as well as philosophical discourse on the other. It argues that the new medical understanding of organic substances as textured joined a special attention to brushwork in mid-eighteenth-century French art practice and theory. This conjuncture prompted attempts to imitate the skin's tissue with an appropriate facture produced by the artist’s hand. The chapter takes the medical metaphorisation of skin as a 'nervous canvas' in the 1765 article 'sensibilité' of Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie as its guide to discuss relations between artistic and medical visions of skin in mid-eighteenth-century France. It focuses on the so-called portraits de fantaise by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and argues that the carnations in these paintings are as much about flesh as they are about the materiality and vitality of skin. Pivotal for the analysis of the interconnections between the fields of medicine and the arts, are the writings by philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot as he thought about skin, flesh and the sense of touch his reviews of the Salon exhibitions, in his writings on physiology, as well as in his fictionalised account of the latest medical theories in his Rêve de d'Alembert.

in Fleshing out surfaces
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Mechthild Fend

This chapter focuses on the significance of skin in neoclassical art and aesthetics. The most distinctive features of neoclassicism - an emphasis on the contour and a preference for more finished surfaces - are understood as elements crucial for the visual formation and understanding of the human body, its surface and borderlines. The culture of neoclassicism, extending well beyond the realm of art and art discourse, was generally characterised by a heightened concern with the shaping of the body and the safeguarding of its boundaries. Skin as the body's physical demarcation, was increasingly perceived not merely as an envelope and organ, but as the boundary of the self. The chapter considers the new attention to skin and contour in late eighteenth-century French art discourse, in particular in Watelet's and Levesque's Dictionnaire des beaux-arts. It equally looks at the discussion of membranes and the definition of skin as 'sensitive limit' in the works of anatomist Xavier Bichat and analyses a set of portraits by Jacques-Louis David painted in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

in Fleshing out surfaces
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Mechthild Fend

This chapter shows that the notion of skin colour emerged only gradually since the sixteenth century and became a prominent marker of race in conjunction with the development of racial anthropology during the Enlightenment. The colour of a person used to be perceived as body colour and often referred to as complexion, a term linked to the ancient medical theory of the four humours and temperaments. The artistic making and mixing of flesh tones was closely linked to humoral theory. By the eighteenth century most anatomist interested in the microscopic structure of skin agreed that the body's colouring matter – later called pigment – resides in an outer layer of the skin. This was demonstrated in an early medical illustration by Jan Admiral made for a Bernard Albinus' anatomical treatise on the colour of the skin. Interestingly, the print also uses a new technique of colour printing, and the argument is that skin colour is simultaneously an artistic, technical and medical problem in this colour mezzotint. Finally, an analysis of Girodet's Portrait of Belley and Benoist's Portrait d'une negresse suggests that skin colour is both a political and representational problem in these portraits painted shortly after the French Revolution.

in Fleshing out surfaces
Mechthild Fend

This chapter is dedicated to the function of skin in artistic anatomy. Anatomy, defined as a discipline that produces knowledge about the human body via dissection, tends to cut through the skin in order to gain access to the body's interior formation. In many anatomical illustrations, the removal of skin is dramatically staged in flayed figures that are emblematic of anatomy's focus on the body's interior. For artistic practices this was increasingly seen as a problem: if the artists' aim was typically the representation of living human figures, then anatomical knowledge could be both a means to an end and an obstacle. Since the end of the eighteenth century, illustrated anatomical publications especially dedicated to artists paid more and more attention to the body's exterior and a new genre of text books named 'anatomies of exterior forms' emerged. The chapter focuses on nineteenth-century artistic anatomies taking such a morphological approach – in particular the works by Jean-Galbert Salvage, Pierre-Nicolas Gerdy, and Julien Fau – and argues that images and texts develop a strategy of projecting anatomical knowledge onto the body's surface allowing the artist to mentally render the human skin transparent.

in Fleshing out surfaces
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Mechthild Fend

This chapter focuses on a set of nudes and portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It engages with the artist's ambivalent relationship with artistic anatomy and demonstrates the artist's increasing attention to the body's surface achieved through a reduction of modelling of the physical forms. Ingres changed the terms of the fabrication of flesh tones – carnations – and skin became deliberately non-physiological. Critics registered Ingres's peculiar handling of skin and flesh as one of the artist's idiosyncrasies and their writings manifest a gradual shift in the understanding of the body in paint. In Ingres' paintings themselves, the established association of flesh and paint was replaced by the alignment of the skin with the images' ground, be it canvas or paper in the case of drawings, and of the depicted skin with the polished painterly surface. The final section argues that the suppression of anatomical detail is pushed to the extreme in Ingres' portraits of women, resulting in a renunciation of physiognomic paradigms in which a person's exterior is meant to refer to internal qualities and character. Like in his Valpinçon Bather, the concealment of skin goes along with the closure of the interior space.

in Fleshing out surfaces
Mechthild Fend

The epilogue focuses on Charles Blanc's 1867 Grammaire des arts du dessin, a normative theory of the visual arts. The author takes the traditional view that drawing unites all art forms and is superior to colour, but the way he establishes this point is very much a product of his time as many of his arguments are biologically grounded. He argues for the supremacy of drawing by associating it with the allegedly natural hierarchy between the genders, and for the supremacy of white skin by linking it to drawing. What is more, discussing the then newly theorised principles of optical mixture he connects the non-mixing of colours in divisionist painterly practices with the segregation of humans of different colours and makes a biologist plea for political segregationism. Arguing that the superiority of humans is expressed in the nakedness and monochromy of their skin, Blanc divides between skin and the colourful materiality of flesh which he confines to the inner body. Summarising the argument of the book, the epilogue concludes that early modern notions of flesh tones do not draw such a line between skin and flesh, and open up the possibility of seeing any body as being fluid and multicoloured.

in Fleshing out surfaces