Fragonard’s flayed figures

© T. Joly
One of the most astonishing museums in France is hidden in Paris suburbs behind the walls of the Veterinary School of Maisons-Alfort. Devoted to anatomy and zoology, it houses monstrosities as well as incredible dissected and mummified corpses staring at the visitors with theatrical poses.

[ Practical ]

- Getting there
Metro line 8. Maisons-Alfort / Ecole Vétérinaire station.
Voguéo shuttle boat from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz to Maisons-Alfort / Ecole Vétérinaire.
- Opening dates and hours
Open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 2pm to 6pm.
- Admission
Museum : 7 €, audio guide included. English language available. Free for under 26s.
Botanical garden : only open on specific dates for group visits. Inquiry : 0143967362.
- Information
Val de Marne Tourist Office
Tel : 0155091620,
Musée de l’Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort
7 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, 94700 Maisons-Alfort
Tel : 0143967100
Housing human and animal anatomy, zoology and pathology collections the Musée de l’Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort is neither the most known nor the most visited French museum. It even doesn’t make it into some guidebooks.

© C.Degueurce
 A reference for the naturalists
Nevertheless it’s one of the oldest, one of the most astonishing, and the first one to have been open to the public, in 1766, as soon as it was founded. Then named “Cabinet du Roi”, in homage to king Louis XV who had supported the creation of the veterinary school, it was a reference for all naturalists at the time of the Siècle des Lumières, and later its collections were used as tools for teaching anatomy.
Situated in Maisons-Alfort, just outside Paris, at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne rivers, it is better known as Fragonard Museum. It was so called from the early 90’s till its recent renovation that gave it back the look it had when it was set in those walls in 1902. The emblematic works and masterpieces of its collections are indeed flayed figures that were prepared by 18th century anatomist Honoré Fragonard, first cousin of the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

© T.Joly
 Real cadavers
They are real human and animal cadavers that were dissected to expose their organs, then mummified to allow the teaching of anatomy
At that time it was a common practice in Europe and hundreds or maybe thousands were created. But all have disappeared except Fragonard’s ones because his process of conservation made up of Venetian turpentine (larch resin) protected them against insects. However, only 21 of them made it through the centuries. Now on display in a 80 sq meters room with constant temperature and hygrometry, they attract scientists and inquiring minds from all over the world. Indeed, Fragonard not only skinned off the corpses and open the flesh to expose veins, organs and tendons identified with different colours, he also gave his flayed figures theatrical poses. A horse in full gallop, mounted by a stiff-backed rider evokes Durer’s painting the "Horseman of the Apocalypse".

© T.Joly
 Works of art or macabre compositions ?
A standing character, the shining orbs of his eyes staring fixedly into the distance, holds a donkey jaw in his right hand like Samson fighting over with the Philistines. Three human fetuses are dancing a jig. Two human heads - one with swollen arteries and veins, the other drilled to allow the brain to be removed – seems to come out from science fiction or horror movies.
Visitors are struck by these astonishing flayed figures listed and protected as historic monuments. Works of art, scientific specimens created for educational purposes, macabre compositions,… they spark off diverse and conflicting opinions. Anyway, they testify of Fragonard’s scientific brilliance because their execution requested a long and meticulous work. First of all he made incisions in the large veins and arteries of the arms and thighs to drain the blood remaining in the vessels. Then he prepared a mixture of sheep fat and pine resin which he heated until it boiled.

© T.Joly
 Collection of monstrosities
After having opened the thorax to expose the heart, he injected this hot mixture into the arterial system through cannulas inserted in both ventricles. As to the veins, they had to be injected individually starting from the extremities of the body. Following that the corpse was dissected and plunged into a vat of alcohol in order to be dehydrated then stretched on a frame in the desired position. The alcohol slowly evaporated leaving the preparation rigid and once it had completely dried a red paint was applied on the arteries and blue one on the veins. Last step, the whole body was covered with a larch resin varnish.
But there are many other reasons to visit this museum that counts more than 4 000 items presented on 500 sq meters. Following the example of 18th century cabinets of curiosities, it houses a collection of monstrosities devoted to teratology. A siren floating in a cracked jar of liquid -- in reality a baby, born in Maisons-Alfort, whose joined legs make it look like a mermaid. A two headed veal. Siamese twin lambs locked chest-to-chest or head-to-head. A colt head having only one huge eye, a mutation caused by a malformed facial bone. A five legged sheep.

© T.Joly
 Botanical garden
The remaining sections are less spectacular. They display animal skeletons and skulls as well as organs presented dry, in formaldehyde or represented in the form of plaster and papier mâché.
After so many strange visions, it’s enjoyable to get back to open air and to stroll around the school botanical garden. Also founded in 1766, it’s France’s oldest one and it covers half hectare. Cultivated exclusively with bio methods, it has 2 400 vegetal species : rare trees including Sichuan pepper plants and a 200 years old gingko biloba, toxic, medicinal, aquatic and honeybees plants. The school indeed has beehives and produces a honey you can only buy on the spot. This garden is open all over the year but, of course, is at his best during the spring and fall seasons.

May 20, 2017
Thierry Joly 

[ Art Deco ]

Besides the Veterinary School and facing the subway entrance stand two interesting Art Deco buildings from the thirties. The most imposing is Sainte Agnès church, one of the first examples of contemporary architecture. Built between 1932 and 1933 using concrete, it has a voluntarily sober decoration and is lighted by a stain glass window with an A shape, the initial for Agnés. The 53 m high hexagonal bell tower is topped by a 8 m wrought iron cross and has, according to an anecdote, a Suze bottle shape. That’s indeed the director of this aperitif brand who donated up to 80 % of the sum needed to build the church. Once right next door, the factory doesn’t exist anymore but it remains its façade decorated with metopes featuring the coats of arms of several French towns.