Monday, February 11, 2013

The Elegantly Macabre Anatomical Plates Of Gautier-D'Agoty

by Stephen J. Gertz

A rare, stunning first edition, first issue copy of Jacques-Fabien Gautier-D'Agoty's  unsettlingly beautiful, elegantly macabre and disarming color-printed book, Anatomie des parties de la génération de l'homme et de la femme, published in 1773, has come to market. Within, what might best be described as fashionably attractive and eroticized living cadavers as still-life subjects depict the  reproductive as well as the musculatory, circulatory and nervous systems of man and woman.

Comprised of eight color mezzotints forming four pairs of figures with accompanying text, the plates are often found joined together, as reproduced here. Colin Franklin, in A Catalogue of Early Colour Printing From Chiaroscuro to Aquatint (1977), provides a spirited and enthusiastic description of the book:

"The Anatomie des Parties de la Génération begins with tall plates of a man and woman, each formed from two sheets and folding out from the book. All the old art is here, with a new discretion and moderation of tones. These first plates showing muscles, arteries and the nervous system are worked out and tabulated in detail. Behind the man is a ghostly arm and shoulder showing the patterns of veins. Among other adjuncts by his foot is an elegant wine-glass meant to demonstrate the texture of male semen mixed with water 'dans le moment de l'ejaculation.' Anyone may make this experiment, he says encouragingly, and repeat it several times.

"The female figure is a typical Gautier plate, stripped and dissected but with healthy head and throat, charming classical face and hair in perfect order, standing poised as a dancer. Indeed, a Gautier ballet might be devised with dancers in such disguise."

I'm thinking Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, performed in Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.

Franklin continues: "These later learned works have longer descriptive and discursive texts than the merely explanatory sheets with accompanied the early plates [he produced in 1745-46, 1748, 1752 and 1754]. Gautier became fascinated by his subject. In the next folding illustration we find a fair instance of his semi-erotic treatment of a scientific theme - one woman standing in profile, her living head looking back to us above a naked breast; the womb open, with folded figure of a foetus. At her feet and knees, almost in a lesbian attitude, a nude figure finely modeled sits to show the 'parties de la génération' and from the front her dissected womb.

"The final folding illustration is of a similar sort, two figures of which the lower seems a curious relaxed classical nude with impeccable hair, her child just born and resting on her lap, the umbilical cord still uncut. Woman and child are in open dissection. At the mother's feet is a debris of palcenta and cords as if they have not yet been cleared from last night's party.

"That Gautier found the whole theme a fascinating one is clear from his text, which ranges from moral and physical distinctions on the nature of virginity, to an anecdote about Mary Queen of Scots" (pp. 47-48).

Jacques-­Fabien Gautier d’Agoty (1717–1785) studied briefly with Jacob Christoph Le Blon, the "inventor" of color printing, before embarking on his own career with a series of anatomical and natural history illustrations that successfully exploited the potential of color printing. Gautier worked with an anatomist, Guichard Joseph Duverney, lecturer in anat­omy at the Jardin du Roi. Duverney prepared the corpses, Gautier drew them, and then transferred each drawing  to four mezzotint plates, yellow, blue, red, and black, that were printed in succession to achieve the desired result. This printing technique demanded precision in registration, often absent in the images but present here. Many of the larger plates were then covered in varnish, in part to hide the imperfections in registration, as well as to give them the glossy look of varnished paintings. In this copy with sharp registration varnish was unnecessary and the plates (the first dated 1771, the remainder 1773) are far more attractive. 

No copies have come to auction within the last thirty-six years. The asking price is £16,500 ($26,070).

GAUTIER D'AGOTY, Jacques-Fabien. Anatomie des parties de la génération de l'homme at de la femme: représentés avec leur couleurs naturelles, selon le nouvel art, jointe a l'angéologie de tout le corps humain, et ce qui concerne la grossesse et les accouchements. Paris: J.B. Brunet and Demonville, 1773. First edition, first issue. Folio (422 x 273 mm). [ii], 34, [4]. Eight color-printed mezzotint plates. Publisher's card portfolio with plates loose in pocket at rear as issued.

Wellcome III, p. 97. Blake, J., NLM 18th cent.,p. 169. Roberts and Tomlinson, Fabric of the Body n111.

Images courtesy of William Patrick Watson Antiquarian Books, currently offering this volume, with our thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stephen, are you sure you're correct when you say "No copies have come to auction within the last thirty-six years"? There was a copy (bound with other material) that failed to sell in the Richard Harris collection at Bloomsbury New York in 2010 (bonkers estimate of $150,000-200,000 which explains that). Then looking further back there was a copy at Sotheby's, lot 176, 29 June 1983, which sold for £2750. But as only these two records show, it really is a rare book. Cheers, Julian Wilson


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