Invading Hands & Sleeping Beauties


Wounds (2007)
Nicole Natri

I ran across this collage by the talented Nicole Natri shortly after attending an interesting lecture, “When Sleeping Beauty Walked Out of the Anatomy Museum,” by Kathryn Hoffmann, who is a professor of French at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. The connection here is pretty cool, but it’s roundabout, so bear with me.

Dr. Hoffmann’s talk was my introduction to Pierre Spitzner’s traveling museum, the “Musee Spitzner”: a collection of anatomical models, moulages, specimens, paintings, dioramas, etc., that toured Europe for about a century before being dismantled circa WW2. Some of the Spitzner pieces ended up at the University of Paris, but unfortunately many others are now lost. The Spitzner’s centerpiece was a wax anatomical model of a sleeping woman, which opened to reveal her internal organs – much like the Anatomical Venus by Susini at La Specola, but simpler in execution. Unlike Susini’s model, however, the Spitzner Venus had a mechanical movement intended to emulate breath: her chest rose and fell as she lay there in her white nightgown. That’s a dramatic dissolution of the distinction between life, sleep, and death – and with its vivisectionist overtones, quite disturbing!

As if the breathing, sleeping Venus wasn’t interesting enough in her own right, the Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, known for depicting languid naked (or nightgowned) women wandering the streets of Paris, was heavily influenced by the Spitzner collection (as mentioned in a recent post over at Morbid Anatomy). He encountered it at the Brussels Fair in 1932. Delvaux painted the Spitzner itself several times (The Musee Spitzner, 1943, below), but I didn’t realize until Professor Hoffmann’s talk how direct the connection is.

Compare Delvaux’ Sleeping Venus (1944) to Susini’s Anatomical Venus (the Spitzner’s wax Venus did not look exactly like this, but was probably close). Then compare The Musee Spitzner (as David Scott recommends in his book, Surrealizing the Nude) to Wiertz’ La Belle Rosina (1847):


The Sleeping Venus (1944)
Paul Delvaux


Anatomical Venus
Clemente Susini


Musee Spitzner (reproduction; original destroyed; 1943)
Paul Delvaux


La Belle Rosina (1847)
Antoine Wiertz

I always thought all these skeletons and somnambulant nudes were simply Delvaux’s bizarre imagination run amok. But it appears Delvaux was just as obsessed with, and influenced by, medical curiosities as we are today. (Life and death, you know – heavy stuff!)

In The Musee Spitzner this [juxtaposition of living structure and emblem of death] is achieved by the creation of a masterly confluence of related themes. First, there is the almost scientific interest Delvaux shows, like so many figurative painters, in the structure of the human body, both in its skeletal form and in its musculature (Delvaux had studied his Vesalius). The skinned male thus appears in The Musee Spitzner, as it appears the following year in another version of the Sleeping Venus, in which it stands before wall-charts illustrating various aspects of the male anatomy. (Surrealizing the Nude, David Scott; the ecorche, or skinned male specimen, Scott describes is in the back left of The Musee Spitzner, and unfortunately barely visible behind the seated woman in the image above.)

So how do we circle back to that Nicole Natri collage, Wounds, at the beginning of the post? Well, another fascinating thing Dr. Hoffmann shared about the Spitzner was that many of the wax surgical models, particularly the obstetrics models, were festooned with disembodied surgical hands! No arms, just cuffed wrists and hands, “operating” on the models. Yikes! I think I find this image more disturbing than the “breathing” wax Venus.

Most anatomical models I’ve seen are arranged cleanly, even elegantly, as if they had always been so – without blood or signs of surgery. A few obligingly hold their bodies open, or pose to show their innards to the viewer: fantasies that pleasantly veil the reality of death. (See my previous post on this topic for examples). But disembodied, foreign hands opening the body for the viewer evoke both the messy, unaesthetic surgery that is really required to reveal those inner structures, and the undeniable fact that, fantasy aside, the body itself is not in control of its own revealing. No matter how drowsy, ecstatic, or peaceful the Venuses look, they’re invaded – if only by our eyes. The hands make that invasion overt; the anonymity of the hands makes them universal. How many hands, over the years, have opened Susini’s Venus, and unfolded her organs? Is invasion the ominous force that permeates Delvaux’s Sleeping Venus – who lies oblivious, while her distraught doppelgangers wail?

Nicole’s piece captures my own disquiet perfectly. The disembodied hands and surgical implements are black-and-white, from another world than the technicolor body underneath them. Their intentions seem ambiguous. Are they clinical, or just curious? And what’s our excuse for looking, anyway?


Kathryn Hoffmann’s 2006 article, “Sleeping Beauties in the Fairground,” in Early Popular Visual Culture

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7 Responses to Invading Hands & Sleeping Beauties

  1. Joanna says:

    What a wonderful post. I read “Sleeping Beauty in the Fairgrounds” in one gulp. I also made a pilgrimage to a museum in Brussels which claims to exhibit some of the Spitzner models–will post on it in the days to come. Great work, and lucky you that you got to see that lecture!

  2. D says:

    The anatomical model collection at the Josephinum has a room of obstetrics models that are very disturbing because of the inclusion of forceps into the model. It somehow breaks the spell and becomes much more gruesome and graphic. Great post!

  3. Pierre Carlès says:

    Fascinating post indeed. Your blog is really a treat, as usual.
    About Delvaux’s interest in the gruesome and in medical anatomy: many years ago, I viewed a TV interview of Delvaux in his late days (he must have been way over 70 at the time), in which he presented his studio and the way he worked (or had worked, rather, since he was no longer painting at the time). And I remember very clearly his recollection of his first “encounter” with a skeleton. It was in school, as a 10-year old pupil, when the schoolteacher had taken the school’s skeleton out of its closet for a lesson on human anatomy. And it was funny and touching to hear the 70+ year-old Delvaux re-live the mix of fascination and unease he felt at the time he was 10, when faced with a “real” human skeleton for the first time. And how he came back home to his mother and talked about that skeleton for a week thereafter. And he clearly pinned that emotional shock as one of his most explicit sources of inspiration.
    He did not say anything about his first visual shock at a nude woman, though ! ;-)
    So you see Jess, having been an anatomy teacher, you may have unknowingly awaken the hidden talent of one of your students. Keep the list of names for future records, just in case. :-)

  4. John C says:

    It’s not always pointed out but the Belle Rosina is the skeleton in Wiertz’s painting. The title is written on the label glued to the skull.

  5. estetik says:

    Very interesting pictures. Anatomy is the basics of medical education.

  6. kop says:

    It’s not always pointed out but the Belle Rosina is the skeleton in Wiertz’s painting. The title is written on the label glued to the skull.

  7. Sophie says:

    Hi there, the article “sleeping beauties in the fairground” by Kathryn Hoffmann looks interesting. Does anyone know where to read the article for free online? thanks S

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