You would be forgiven for thinking the soft-sculpture above was a modern or contemporary piece of art. In fact, it bears impressive resemblance to the corporeal sculptures of Annette Messager and Louise Bourgeois. However, this fabric torso, replete with a removable fetus still attached to the umbilical cord was made in the eighteenth century (the first version was made in 1756) by Angélique du Coudray, a French midwife who was commissioned by King Louis XV to reduce infant mortality. As a childbirth educator, she trained around 10,000 women to be midwives, and published a formative textbook on childbirth, Abrégé de l’art des accouchements (The Art of Obstetrics, 1759). Du Coudray assumed her prominent role as the “king’s midwife” in the fall of 1759. She traveled around rural parts of France to educate midwives on safer and more effective childbearing procedures. This was in light of a massively high infant mortality rate, totaling over 200,000 deaths per year (Gelbart, 1998).
Du Coudray called her sculpture, known as an obstetric phantom, La Machine. The use of La Machine as a teaching resource was an early example of medical simulation. It allowed for professionals and students alike to practice both routine and complex procedures prior to and as a supplement to their fieldwork. Within the curriculum developed by du Coudray, midwives simulated a variety of birthing issues. She and her students also focused on issues that might impact the mother and child’s health during and after childbirth. In addition to physiology, du Coudray’s teachings incorporated what we would today call social and emotional learning (SEL). Coursework often included the ways midwives could improve communication with their patients and exhibit empathy while in practice (Scharf et al, 2022).
Du Coudray’s artful rendering of an anatomically accurate torso, womb and fetus revolutionized eighteenth century obstetrics. In fact, the models and methods she introduced are still cited and used today. The fabric material used to make La Machine was also innovative in its time, and also connects to the conceptual usage of fabric in latter twentieth century artworks by the aforementioned Massager and Bourgeois. Prior obstetric phantoms, mostly made by male medical professionals, sought to imitate natural anatomy as much as possible by incorporating actual human skeletal structures and preserved pelvic remains. However, La Machine‘s application of textiles was more realistic, sophisticated and utilitarian than prior obstetric phantoms (Scharf et al, 2022). Linen, silk, canvas and other soft, yet durable materials allowed La Machine to appear and to function like a natural body would. Cotton was used as means for stuffing and shaping, and as a reference to the body’s soft inner tissue. Du Coudray combined and layered these materials so they can expand and contract, in order to mimic the act of labor. Her attention to detail is evident in the way her sculpture both looks and moves. Even though it is clearly made from textiles, the anatomy is realistic. She even incorporated different dyes and thread colors to signify and differentiate between the tissues, arteries, veins and amniotic membranes.
Contemporary art curator Anna Souter (2018) posits that “fabric speaks directly to the female condition and to the female body.” She adds that, “fabric’s softness and malleability, along with its tactile similarity to skin (particularly in Bourgeois’s pink fabric), associates it both with sensuality and with childhood recollections of maternity and its material comforts, and therefore with the feminine” (Souter, 2018). While Souter wrote this to describe Bourgeois’ soft sculptures made in the 1990s, the same sentiment can be said about du Coudray’s use of fabric materials and embroidery techniques to make La Machine. Fabric and the art of embroidery has a complicated relationship with femininity. This past and present connection between fabric and identity is the subject of feminist scholar Rozsika Parker’s book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (1984) and the 1988 exhibition of the same name that was based on her thesis.
Parker (1988) notes that: “Embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it – witness the history of samplers, for instance – but it has also proved a weapon of resistance to the painful constraints of femininity. […] Limited to practising art with needle and thread, women have nevertheless sewn a subversive stitch, managing to make meanings of their own in the very medium intended to foster polite self-effacement.”
Du Coudray was not a self-declared feminist, however, her status and accomplishments within a male-fronted medical culture certainly merits a discussion within the framework of feminism. Her curriculum is also worthy of mention within a feminist lens because she became somewhat of an advocate for rural women to receive competent and safe access to midwife care. Du Coudray’s work as an educator instilled the importance of her students approaching the principles and methods of midwifery with a focus on employing ethics and empathy. Du Coudray’s materials and methodology highlight the importance of sensory and social and emotional learning (Scharf et al, 2022). Her La Machine and other models serve as prime examples of how haptic learning and materials-based learning connect the arts and sciences, which results in a humanized approach to understanding and addressing social, cultural and physiological concerns.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Gelbart, Nina Rattner. 1998. The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame Du Coudray. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parker, Rozsika. 1984. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine.
Parker, Rozsika. 1988. ‘Foreword,’ In: The Subversive Stitch, exhibition catalog, ed. Pennina Barnett. pp. 5-6
Scharf, J. L., Bringewatt, A., Dracopoulos, C., Rody, A., Weichert, J., & Gembicki, M. (2022). La Machine: Obstetric Phantoms of Madame Du Coudray … Back to the Roots. Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development, 9. https://doi.org/10.1177/23821205221090168
Souter, Anna. “Louise Bourgeois: Subservise Stitching,” Roman Road Journal, 6 January 2018. https://romanroadjournal.com/louise-bourgeois-subversive-stitching/#