ATLAS OBSCURA

Notes from the Field: Musee Fragonard

By Allison Meyer

I am drawn to experiences that blur the beautiful with the grotesque, and I think it is this that has interested me in exploring museums of the anatomical. There’s something fascinating about the transformation of what was living into an object that often occurs in these settings, where the visceral is as much an aesthetic as a material quality.

This is usually a result of the purpose of anatomical models: science and studying. Yet there were some early practitioners of preservation that did turn their work into an odd art. One of these was Honoré Fragonard, who in the 18th century used a still-secret technique to create “écorchés,” or flayed figures, from the cadavers of humans and other animals, posed dramatically like classical statues. 

While most of his hundreds of flayed figures have now been lost, several are still on display in the Musée Fragonard at the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort, a veterinarian school just outside of Paris. During my recent trip to France, I decided to make the trek out to the museum, to not just see these relics of a a man’s grotesque art, a man who some accused of losing his mind completely later in his life of sculpting the dead, but the other specimens on display as well. They’re mostly of domestic animals, this being a veterinarian campus after all, with a surprising focus on monstrous anomalies. 

Have a tour yourself, here !