‘Anatomical Venuses’ are extremely realistic models of idealised women. These figures consist of removable parts that can be ‘dissected’ - a breast plate is lifted to reveal the internal organs, often with a fetus in the womb.
In the 19th century, the anatomical Venus formed the centrepiece of museums and travelling shows of all kinds, and possessed great power to draw crowds. ‘Know thyself’ was a common phrase associated with the exhibition of such models, suggesting their educational value.
In the 19th century, despite the best efforts of body snatchers, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outstripped the supply. One solution to this gruesome problem came in the form of lifelike wax models [some] models were more macabre, showing the body ravaged by ‘social diseases’ such as venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.
With their capacity to titillate as well as educate, anatomical models became sought-after curiosities, displayed not only in dissecting rooms but also in sideshows and the curiosity cabinets of wealthy Victorian gentlemen. For a small admission fee, visitors seeking an unusual afternoon’s entertainment could visit displays of these strange dolls in London, Paris, Brussels and Barcelona.