The anatomy of beauty in nineteenth-century England
By Alan W. Bates
Hektoen International Journal, Vol.3:1 (2011)
Introduction: Few characteristics seem more subjective and less amenable to scientific study than beauty. As the philosopher David Hume wrote in 1741, “Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them.” How then did some nineteenth-century European anatomists come to see human beauty as a branch of science for which they might construct universal laws?
In the eighteenth-century, the prevalent view was that beauty was an idealization, a human construct inspired by the culture of classical Greece: “frequent occasions of observing Nature, taught the Greeks … to form certain general ideas of beauty … according to the superior model of some ideal nature.” From standards of “unity and perfection,” acquired by meditating on antiquity, Renaissance artists created works that were a refinement of the “weaker” beauties of nature.
So while nineteenth-century artists learned anatomy as a matter of course, they did not suppose that merely by getting the anatomy right they could produce great art. The Greeks, it was argued, had created peerless sculptures even though their anatomical knowledge was imperfect, and some nineteenth-century critics took a robust line against the anatomical “pedantry” of “dissecting room” art: “Better that a statue should not be quite correct in anatomy, than that it should look like a mummy, and smell of putrefaction.”