NEW HAVEN — The art museum as we currently know it — the natural history museum, too — has its roots in the 17th-century Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Aristocratic and wealthy collectors would put on display their precious, and usually scattershot, holdings. The rarity and peculiarity of objects, not any idea of conceptual integrity, were what mattered.
“William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” which runs through May 20 at the Yale Center for British Art, has an abundance of pleasures to offer. What other exhibition this year will include a Rembrandt and three Chardins to go along with three dozen human teeth and an 18th-century obstetrical forceps? Great as is the very considerable inherent appeal of the 370 items in the show, their larger virtue is how they collectively illuminate the progression from Wunderkammer to the modern museum of the show’s title.
William Hunter (1718-1783) was a remarkable man who left an even more remarkable legacy. A Scot, he was educated at the University of Glasgow. He soon moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life. Internationally known as a teacher of anatomy (hence the punning appearance of that word in the show’s title), Hunter was elected to both the Royal Society and Royal Academy and appointed Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III. The status that appointment conveyed, along with his impressive medical skills, made him the most sought-after obstetrician for wealthy Londoners (hence the presence of the forceps). Fees from that work formed the basis of Hunter’s fortune. That fortune underwrote his becoming one of the great collectors of the era. He left that collection to his alma mater, where it is housed in The Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest public museum.
Hunter represents a kind of Enlightenment ideal, a man of varied, capacious, and energetic interests. It’s fitting that the exhibition includes a volume from the Encyclopédie, that summa anti-theologica of the Age of Reason. Hunter owned the 35-volume second edition.
His coin collection, comprising some 30,000 items, was greater than that of George III and likely exceeded only by the French royal holdings. Hunter owned 10,000 books and 650 manuscripts. Among the latter is the 12th-century illuminated manuscript now known as the “Hunterian Psalter.” It’s one of the more beautiful objects in a show replete with them. The books include a second edition of “The Wealth of Nations” presented to Hunter by the author, his friend Adam Smith, and one of only 29 surviving copies of the first edition of “Don Quixote.”
The most charming item in the exhibition is a ledger Hunter started keeping in 1771 of titles borrowed from him. “From having lost many books by lending to my Acquaintances, I resolve from this time to enter all lent Books into this Volume; and to draw a line through every article as soon as the Book is returned to me. And that this Volume may be depended upon as an evidence, I shall take care to be correct.” Alas, not all entries on the two visible pages have lines through them. Among the borrowers was Benjamin Franklin; perhaps in recompense, he gave Hunter a mastodon tooth.
The items at the Yale Center for British Art that presumably mattered the most to Hunter relate to his profession — more specifically to his great work, “The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures” (1774). These drawings and casts are not for the faint of heart. Far more pleasing are selections from the 7,600 insect specimens Hunter owned and “my Fossils shells Corralls and dried Plants.” The former includes a glass-topped drawer containing several dozen bees. Unexpectedly, even enchantingly beautiful, it recalls an apiary version of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. No less beautiful — wondrous, really — are the 11 seashells on display. There are multiple items brought back by Captain James Cook from his voyages to the South Seas, objects of both aesthetic and, as we would now say, anthropological interest.
One of the museum’s most beloved holdings is George Stubbs’s painting of a zebra. The zebra belonged to Queen Charlotte, and it was Hunter who helped Stubbs get permission to do the painting. The zebra hangs by Stubbs canvases of a moose, a nilgai, and a blackbuck (the latter two are types of Indian antelope). Hunter commissioned the last three.
To see this quartet of paintings displayed together is an exercise in quadruped joy. Their grouping marks the show’s culmination twice over: visually and thematically. That is, the paintings are both beautiful in themselves and a reminder of the scientific basis of so much of Hunter’s collecting. Actually, a more accurate word might be educational: in the sense of pursuit, and enlargement, of human knowledge. This would be knowledge for its own sake, as an intrinsic good — like beauty for its own sake, as a different but related intrinsic good.
WILLIAM HUNTER AND THE ANATOMY OF THE MODERN MUSEUM
At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, through May 20. 203-432-2800, britishart.yale.eduMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.