Friday, August 17, 2018

How Stubbs Did His Horse Dissections

George Stubbs (1724-1806) was the first artist to do a thorough dissection of the horse for the benefit of artists. He found an isolated farmhouse away from curious neighbors where he could carry out the work.

(If you are squeamish, you may prefer to skip this blogpost.)


Dissecting a horse is not an easy task, because a horse cadaver is very large and heavy, and it won't stand up on its own. Fortunately, Stubbs was the son of a tanner, and was accustomed to dealing with carcasses. According to a book on his anatomical works:
"The horses which Stubbs used for his dissection were killed by bleeding from the jugular vein, a process which avoided damaging the carcass. The vascular system was then injected with warm tallow to preserve the course of the vessels and make them more visible as the dissection proceeded.
 "These preliminaries complete, the carcass was slung from the roof beams by iron hooks fixed to a bar of the same metal and thrust through the rib cage below the spine on the side opposite the one being dissected. The iron bar was attached to a tackle and suspended so that the horse's feet just touched the ground and the anatomist could have ready access to all parts. Dissection began with the abdominal muscles and worked down to the peritoneum and pleura covering the gut and lungs, at which point the viscera were discarded.... 
"Work on each specimen apparently occupied between six and seven weeks, and in one instance eleven weeks, but no mention is made of the method of preservation. No doubt Stubbs did most of his dissecting during the colder months of the year, or he may have used vinegar as a crude method of arresting decay, but the work can never have been easy or pleasant. The size of the animal and the enormous care needed for accurate dissection and drawing at each stage would have made work very slow, and inevitably a powerful stench could not have been avoided."

Quote from Anatomical Works of George Stubbs by Terence Doherty, Godine, 1975.
Also check out: The Anatomy of the Horse (Dover Anatomy for Artists)

Painting Animals from Life
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3 comments:

rock995 said...

So...Stubbs' dad was responsible for his knowledge of horses and dogs also I might add, Very interesting.

Daniele Guadagnolo said...

When studying anatomy at med school I have always wondered how 19th century anatomy artists did their works from dissections.

Most academic dissections nowadays are pretty fast, bodies are kept at very low temperature and many important structures are discarded to show a specific organ, vase or nerve.
Stench and conservation must have been big issues and I am still not sure how some accurate renderings of visceral anatomy could be achieved back then. Maybe the same drawing was done in multiple dissection sessions?

I can't imagine the difficulties of performing such a task on a horse.

Unknown said...

An interesting challenge. Presumanably done in the cool of early Spring when cold weather coincides with better natural light than in Fall. If the entrails and hide are removed and the carcass cleaned, large sections can be stored for several weeks, just as sides of beef are air-aged in a meatlocker without deterioration...longer if salted. Even today, beef and pork must be wet-aged or dry-aged several weeks at-least before being sold at the local market. It's poultry that has to be comsumed fresh for safety.

It's the entrails and blood that deteriorate fastest then the internal fluids, if hung and properly drained the meat and bones can be preserved.