“Creepy.” “Weird.” “Messed. Up.” Such are the visceral responses of my women’s history students to an admittedly bizarre and complex historical phenomenon: the Anatomical Venus.
Designed to be realistic and anatomically correct wax models of the female body, Anatomical Venuses emerged in eighteenth-century Europe (primarily Spain, Italy, and Austria) to help train medical students who had no access to human cadavers. This Venus was not only meant to be gazed upon and adored; she was dissectible. Her removable anatomical pieces were many but focused particularly on her reproductive parts. Often, after they extracted some of her other organs, students discovered a fetus in her womb.
In contrast to the Venus’s graphic, exposed internal parts was her strangely emotionless countenance. Some viewed her as beautiful or alluring. Others have perceived her expressions to be sexual or “ecstatic.” Recent commentators have responded more negatively, claiming that the Venus’s eyes are “dead, unmistakably.” Her face and hair were carefully arranged to reflect norms of beauty, and she often wore jewelry: a pearl necklace, or a gleaming headband.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was not only medical students who were interested in the Anatomical Venuses. Increasingly featured in museum exhibits for the public, Venuses became popular cultural displays, visited by thousands. How do we interpret such exhibits within the context of the time? What meaning should we attribute to them today?
Anatomical Venuses remind us that, as the “west” entered into the modern era, it also turned a corner in terms of views of gender, and not necessarily in a good way. The ideal of the passive woman, the objectification of the female body, the advent of the patriarchal male gaze, and the conflation between women’s bodies and reproduction were all part and parcel of the age of modernization, reason, and “progress.” This was a time, after all, when public figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, most notably in his wildly popular novel Émile, proclaimed that women’s only worthy and noble role was motherhood.
Is this what museum visitors saw when they gazed on the Venus—the advent of modern motherhood, the representation of evolving notions of gender and the female body—or were their reactions different? Perhaps eighteenth-century viewers were merely curious about anatomy, focusing on the wax model’s internal organs, which many may not have seen represented in public before. Perhaps their responses were related to necrophilia or other hidden sexual desires. Certainly, however, some must have absorbed a deeper message—that in the modern age, women were objects, not producers of science, for example.
By the early nineteenth century, “science” transferred its interest from wax models to the bodies of real women. Women of color such as South Africa’s Sara Baartman became the subjects of scientific curiosity and violence. Baartman, exhibited as a freak in London and Paris, became known as the “Hottentot Venus.” The phrase was, and is, derogatory and racist: black women, of course, could not possibly be true symbols of beauty and desire.1 The Hottentot Venus was sexual, however. People flocked to see her reportedly large buttocks and labia. Baartman stood in contrast to the Anatomical Venus; whereas the latter was passive, reproductive, and reflective of European beauty ideals, the former was viewed as a bestial, overly sexed spectacle.
It is no accident, of course, that even as Europeans observed and analyzed these different Venuses, scientists were “discovering” the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, claiming that white women were inherently asexual, while black women were sexually depraved and, ultimately, sexually available to white men. We live with the unfortunate legacies of these views today.
Students in my women’s history classes, I’d imagine, won’t remember much of what I teach in the years to come. Yet I doubt that all will forget the Anatomical Venus or the Hottentot Venus. My hope is that if and when they do remember these strange and puzzling examples, they will be able to move beyond the visceral, and remember to always look for the complex meanings in cultural representations. I hope, too, that the image of the modern Venus helps them recognize both the similarities between the past and the present, and the relevance of history in our own world.
Joanna Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2016.
Kathryn Hoffmann, “Sleeping Beauties in the Fairground: The Spitzner, Pedley, and Chemisé Exhibits.” Early Popular Visual Culture 4, 2 (2006): 139-59.
Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
Anna Maerker, Model Experts: Wax Anatomies and Enlightenment in Florence and Vienna, 1775-1815. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.
Sadiah Qureshi, “Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus,’” History of Science xlii (2004): 233-57.
Kara Reilly, “Historicizing the Anatomical Female Body,” Performance Research 19, 4 (2-14): 111-121.
Pamela Scully and Clifton Crais, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
- See Kara Reilly, “Historicizing the Anatomical Female Body,” Performance Research 19, 4 (2-14): 111-121, and Pamela Scully and Clifton Crais, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Return to text.