ecorche drawing

An Ecorche drawing would be an anatomical illustration of a body meant to show muscles and bones profusely by removing the skin


Ecorché is a French adjective meaning “skinned” or “flayed”, and is a derivate of Old French verb ‘écorcher’ which means “to peel” or “to skin”. The British Dictionary defines Ecorché as “an anatomical figure without the skin, so that the muscular structure is visible”. An Ecorché drawing would be an anatomical illustration of a body meant to show muscles and bones profusely by removing the skin. 

Basically, an ecorché is used as a figure study for a work or an exercise for the art students. This rather exclusive depiction of bones and muscles is largely credited to the Renaissance era painters and sculptors, although ancient Greeks practiced similar drawing technique, if not exactly the ecorché. 



With Pope Boniface VIII’s election as the new supreme pontiff in 1294, the practice of dissecting human bodies or cadavers, that had been banned for a long time, was now allowed. This led to a remarkable development in the field of anatomy and many Florentine painters and sculptors latched onto the opportunity and redeemed it for their art for centuries to come. The motto of the Renaissance was to revive classical Greek and Roman artistic heritage. Ecorché drawing was one such domain that more or less reminisced the ancient Greek figure studies. 

Two of the most well-known artists from Florence, Italy were Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Both of them produced exquisite works enriching the Ecorché drawing field. On one hand, Leonardo Da Vinci would go dig cadavers out himself and dissect them to create prim ecorché sketches and document his findings, and on the other hand, Michelangelo was provided cadavers to dissect and study from the church itself.  

Another influential artist by the name Andreas Vesalius published his work under the title De Humani Corporis Fabrica in the year 1543. His was a ground-breaking manoeuvre in developing medicine and anatomy. His work contains elaborate musculoskeletal sketches he spewed by performing several autopsies and cadaver dissections.    

Their works along with several other notable artists-anatomist from the Renaissance era contributed in laying foundation for medicine and anatomy. But the ecorché style wasn’t just limited to sketches and drawings. Many sculptors adopted the style and produced exquisite sculptures with elaborate muscle and bone arrangements. A Renaissance sculptor Lodovico Cardi is known for creating the first bronze flayed figures in Florence. Another sculptor by the name Jean Antoine Houdon of French origin, churned out striking ecorché sculptures. All these marvellous works of art are considered as priceless jewels in art academies across the globe. 


During 1600-1800, an upward leap in the popularity and importance of ecorché drawing can observed across the European continent. Medical and art academies stressed upon the significance of ecorché style. For the medical academies, the works of artists of the illustrious Renaissance era were the dens of elaborative study of muscular and skeletal systems and serves great purposes in anatomy as viewed from medical perspective. For the art academies, these works created the basis of figure studies for young artists who yearned to learn all the creative intricacies in every movement and gesture of human body to recreate them realistically onto the paper, or with their tools. Van Gogh was one such artist who executed the ecorché style of drawing in his work in late nineteenth century.

Several life-size ecorché sculptures were reproduced in a smaller size and larger number to make them accessible to students of art and medicine. Largely, these miniature figures were made out of cheaper materials like plastic, wax, wood, ivory, etc. By the end of the eighteenth century, most of these statues were made of wax, even coloured wax to make the model look more realistic. 


In the east, one can directly tap on the extensive and smart use of ecorché drawings in the medical field. The three dimensional ecorché figures have served as a foundation for acupuncture therapy. It happened when Emperor Wang Mang, a prominent ruler of the Chinese Han Dynasty in 1500s, ordered to let the body of a criminal deconstruct until the skin strips off and bones are all that is left. He ordered that every detail be documented and drawn systematically. This is how the profound knowledge of acupuncture was conceived. 

In Indian subcontinent, we come to know about Sushruta. He was an Ancient Indian physician who is also known as the “Father of Indian Medicine”. He is said to have existed between 7th to 6th century BCE near the banks of Ganges. Tales have that he and a bunch of his pupils used to pry the dead bodies that came floating with the currents of Ganges. He used to take them to his station and dissect them simultaneously recording and drawing ecorché-like sketches. His study changed the face of Indian Medicine as it observed remarkable progress in gynaecology, plastic surgery, and much more. His work Sushruta Samhita makes the foundational basis of Ayurveda and contains elaborate sketches suggesting his impeccable knowledge of anatomy. 


An aspiring artist with an inclination towards figure study understands how important grasping anatomy is. To draws figures and studies of animals and humans that are next to perfect and veristic, one must be careful of all the nuances pertaining to specific movements and  indications. That keen eye and peculiar skills come from an in-depth study of anatomical nature. Once a person is acquainted with the anatomy, one can smoothly capture candid postures and gestures of a  body and experiment with mediums and compositions for artistic pleasures. Some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance like Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Michelangelo applied this knowledge of anatomy in their work to produce lifelike artworks that spoke to the masses fluently as they seem so natural and alive. 

Of course, the level of understanding anatomy is very different for an artist and a medical professional. A medical professional will need a thorough study so as to go about treating or fixing the problem. For an artist, on the other hand, the importance and application of anatomical study has on a whole different meaning. It anticipates knowledge of motions of muscles if one wants to sketch a body in a certain moving state. In ecorché drawing, the muscles and bones are visible and thus, one need to get them perfect. But if you are drawing a sketch with skin, you need to be specific about the musculoskeletal arrangement and only focus on the postures and make sure that they do not look awkward or unnatural in any way. 


Animals likewise humans, have been the muses and subjects for ecorché style of drawing. In 1750s, a British painter George Stubbs produced flayed anatomical illustrations of a horse post dissecting it. Although, his work cannot be categorized purely as an ecorché drawing, for his used the ecorché sketches as a figure study to serve as a framework for his work to impart abundant realism to it. Another artist by the name Edwin Landseer devoted his time and efforts in producing flawless sketches that fed his interest in anatomy and creating a baseline for others to pick up from. Landseer produced his group of eight ecorché sketches of cats and dogs in his teenage years, and went on to take classes form a renowned surgeon Sir Charles Bell in Soho, London. 


The prominence of ecorché drawings continues to sustain in the 21st century. Artists and healers use various materials like, resin, plastic, wax, bronze, etc. to showcase their art. Better mobile applications are made to serve as another medium for ecorché drawing. Art academies and prestigious institutions still hold the works of early painters and sculptors to basis for initiating their pupils’ training arts and anatomy. Dissecting cadavers continue to remain a means of exploration and development in medicine. 


Ecorché is a French word which means “skinned” or “flayed”. And Ecorche drawing refers to an anatomical illustration that shows muscle and bone arrangement without having them covered with a layer of skin. The history of Ecorché drawing in the western context can be traced back to Ancient Greece where figures and drawing surmising ecorché drawings can be found. With changing laws and emergence of the Renaissance era, numerous Florentine artists were drawn towards ecorché figure drawing feeding both artistic appetite and medical famishing. Great personalities of art like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and several others, produced excellent works in ecorché figures which did a great deal of good to anatomy and medical advancements paced up. Similarly in the east, Indian and Chinese minds employed ecorché drawings in understanding the complexities and secrets of human anatomy. Ecorche drawing has been a vital tool in the progression of anatomy for both- humans and animals. In today’s time, ecorché drawing continues to fascinate young artists and serve a purpose in delivering the information regarding anatomy with the help more precise and modern-day technology. 


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