William Orpen Anatomical Study, Male Torso 1906
William Orpen
Anatomical Study, Male Torso 1906

There is something profoundly disturbing about this drawing of what appears to be a dead body reanimated in a pose of dynamic movement. On a large sheet of black sugar paper we are presented with an aggressively frontal and closely cropped male torso that is completely stripped of skin. This body tilts suggestively at the hip with one arm extended upwards, reaching out of the composition. This starkly asymmetric posture exaggerates the tautened muscles, each of which has been carefully delineated in red chalk and numbered in white. The major bones of the torso and upper leg are lettered, beginning with the clavicle (A) and sternum (B).

Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) used his meticulously detailed drawings of the human figure – including this Anatomical Study, Male Torso – to teach his students at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin during the first decade of the twentieth century. This monumental series presents the body as a biological specimen in a variety of poses taken from both artistic and medical sources (such as the Gray’s Anatomy textbook). A selection from the series is currently on display as part of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change. This is the first time these works have been exhibited since their acquisition by Tate in 2011, and their inclusion alongside Willem de Kooning’s ‘closed-eye’ female nude studies (drawn in front of a model while the artist was blindfolded) is a reminder of the persistent relevance of human figure drawing to contemporary artistic practice.                     

A live model was posed in the studio during Orpen’s anatomy class (in a radical departure from Ireland’s conservative art academy traditions), alongside these large-scale drawings that became a reusable resource, pinned to the blackboard for students to reference. Thinking back to my own challenging experiences of life drawing at art college, I can appreciate the incredible level of skill in Orpen’s draughtsmanship, which masters both detailed medical knowledge and Renaissance-inspired drawing techniques. Anatomical Study, Male Torso is an example of an écorché study, a French term that literally means flayed. Many écorché studies were executed by Leonardo da Vinci after direct observation of cadavers, and it was a technique recommended for artistic study by Leon Battista Alberti. Other works in Tate’s collection, such as this eighteenth century drawing by John Hamilton Mortimer, use écorché to expose the body’s interior and enable a better understanding of its surface rendering and potential for movement – just as Orpen did.

In the opening pages of a sketchbook that Orpen used to prepare for both his classes and these drawings, he recorded a short introduction that was read out to students beginning his anatomy course. It includes a stern warning that gives us an insight into his teaching technique and the value he placed on direct, analytical observation:

Before starting these lectures I wish to put it clearly to you: that unless you work very hard you will not be able to keep pace with me and the lectures will be useless to you…. The first thing to get well fixed in your mind is that no two human beings are alike – look at every new person with a fresh eye – and take nothing for granted.

This work is currently on display as part of Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change.