Art History Festival | Art and Anatomy: An Audience with Dr William Hunter

Around the year 1770, the artist Johan Zoffany painted his friend Dr William Hunter teaching anatomy to a class at the Royal Academy (RA). Zoffany’s painting is now owned by the Royal College of Physicians.. Hunter was appointed as the first lecturer of anatomy at the RA shortly after it was founded in 1768, to give artists a greater understanding of the human form and improve their life drawing.

In this painting the spheres of art and medicine are united, and a closer inspection by Sarah Backhouse reveals a fascinating, alternative insight into the preferred pastimes of upper-class Georgian society. The events in the painting appear to be gentile, erudite and sanitary, and tell us much about the teaching of art and anatomy –but there is more to the painting than first meets the eye. The spectacle that Hunter has created hides the uncomfortable and truly gruesome reality of anatomical teaching, and the audience he has assembled hints at grave social injustices.

Today Zoffany’s painting remains an enigma. It may not show what it purports to represent: who are the mysterious, unidentified individuals attending Dr Hunter’s lecture, and why are they there? Is this scene actually set at the RA, and who commissioned the painting in the first place? This talk aims to explore the wide range of themes that Zoffany’s painting encompasses, as well as the hidden narratives that may cause us to pause for thought and give this painting a closer look.

This event is delivered by the Royal College of Physicians.


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