Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty (1716–1785) was a French anatomist, painter and printmaker who, as part of his practice, had his own personal human dissectionist. His imagery makes the goriest of today’s horror movies look like Disney.
The Marseille born Gautier-d’Agoty, began his career as apprentice to a painter and engraver from Frankfurt named Jacob Christoph Le Blon. Le Born was developing a new method of colour-printing based on etching and mezzotint engraving and his pupil, Gautier-d’Agoty wanted a slice (excuse the pun) of this action. To Le Blon’s process, which used three colours (red, yellow and blue), Gautier d’Agoty simply added one extra plate (black), and claimed the whole process to be his own invention.
In 1737, for “his” new technique of four-plate colour mezzotint printing (a process derived from the 3-plate method of his teacher) Gautier-d’Agoty obtained a royal license. Although he began by making reproduction prints of paintings or of notable figures, Gautier-d’Agoty’s own special interests lay in anatomy, botany, and zoology – fields he felt would be revolutionized by the publication of accurate colour illustrations.
To showcase his new invention, and his anatomy credentials (by now he’d been elected a member of the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon) he chose as a subject, myology – the study of the structure, arrangement, and action of muscles in the human body. In 1745, he developed an ambitious plan to make his prints the recommended texts for all students of medicine. He would create the imagery and deal with the printing. For the human bodies and the dissections he would collaborate with Jacques Francois Duverney, a surgeon and lecturer in anatomy at the Jardin du Roy.
His large-scale publication, the Myologie complète en couleur et grandeur naturelle (Complete Myology in Color and Natural Size), an exhaustive treatise on the anatomy of human muscles, was published in 1746. This would be Gautier d’Agoty’s pièce de résistance.
According to the “Avertisement”, the principle aim of the Myologie complette was to “facilitate the study of Anatomy for all sorts of persons, above all students of medicine, surgery, painting and sculpture, all of those who, in a word, have the health and study of the human body as their subject.”
Ever enterprising, in 1752 he founded the first illustrated scientific journal in France Observations sur l’histoire naturelle, which featured his 4-colour printing technique and was later edited by one of his four sons, Jean-Baptiste. 2 years later in 1754, he produced Anatomie general, illustrated by 18 plates in his usual sumptuous style. He did all but three of the dissections for natomie general himself.
Gautier-d’Agoty published a further six more medical works and two on natural history before dying in Paris in 1785.
D’Agoty’s work has always been regarded dubiously by art critics and anatomists. The German physician and medical historian, Johann Ludwig Choulant was scathing of him. In 1852, Choulan wrote of him “His anatomical illustrations while they may perhaps be fascinating to the layman…impress the critical observer with their arrogance and charlatanery and do not recommend themselves to the student of anatomy either for their faithfulness or their technique”.