Art and anatomy: an audience with Dr William Hunter
Online event
William Hunter demonstrating at the Royal academy.
William Hunter demonstrating at the Royal academy, by Johan Zoffany (X182).

As part of the first Art History Festival, join Sarah Backhouse to explore insights into art, medicine & Georgian society inspired by Johan Zoffany’s famous painting of 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.

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Art History Festival

The Art History Festival is the first annual celebration organised by the Association for Art History from 20-25 September with events online and at the National Gallery.  A celebration of the diverse narratives that enrich our enjoyment of art, visual culture and the world around us there is a fantastic range of events to enjoy.

Both the digital and National Gallery events will include lively presentations and conversations exploring a wide range of subjects, perspectives, historical periods and geographies. In a variety of ways they will address how works of art, design and architecture give us insight into ourselves, others and cultures past and present.

Check out the programme and book tickets at: