The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

January 25, 2019April 7, 2019

Hand drawing of mouse spinal cord

“…one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.”
— Roberta Smith, The New York Times

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of the brain are both aesthetically astonishing and scientifically significant. The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is the first museum exhibition to present these amazing works within their historical context.

Scientists throughout the world know Cajal (1852–1934) as the father of the study of the structure and function of the brain—i.e. modern neuroscience. One of his most important discoveries was that individual cells called neurons make up the brain (most late-19th century scientists believed that the brain was a continuous, interconnected network). All research on the brain and brain-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are based on Cajal’s concept of the structure of the brain. Neuroscientists consider Cajal as crucial to their discipline as Albert Einstein is to physics. In 1906, Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on brain structure.

Cajal did not set out to be a scientist. He wanted to be an artist, but such a career path was not considered an appropriate ambition in rural Spain where he grew up. In his research, Cajal produced more than 3,000 drawings of the brain, and these detailed studies are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Their clarity and ability to express fundamental concepts about the brain have never been equaled. Cajal’s drawings are also informed by his training as an artist—he made choices and aesthetic decisions, arranging forms on paper in intentional ways and highlighting certain features for emphasis.

The centerpiece of The Beautiful Brain is 80 original drawings by Cajal lent by the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. Contemporary neuroscience imagery provides a context for these remarkable works.

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“The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” is on now at the Ackland Art Museum in downtown Chapel Hill. Cajal, an artist who became the father of modern neuroscience, made drawings of the microanatomy of the brain that have never been equalled. “The Beautiful Brain” casts new light on the connections between art and science in ways that surprise and delight. Visit “The Beautiful Brain” at the Ackland Art Museum, where admission is always free. For more information, visit ackland.org. The Ackland: Look Close, Think Far.

Special Tours:

Free guided tours of The Beautiful Brain, led by our docents at 1:30 p.m. on the following dates:

Wednesday, February 13
Friday, February 22
Wednesday, February 27
Thursday, February 28
Friday, March 8 (New! Just added!)
Wednesday, March 13
Friday, March 15
Friday, March 22
NEW – JUST ADDED: Friday, April 5

Public Programs:

Friday, January 25, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Art for Lunch with Dr. Eric NewmanDrawing the Beautiful Brain: The Life, Art, and Science of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Friday, February 8, 6-9 p.m.: 2nd Friday ArtWalk: All About the Brain 
Featuring a Gallery Talk led by UNC neuroscientists + Ask a Neuroscientist!

Sunday, February 17, 2-3 p.m.: Music in the Galleries: Cajal-Inspired Dance choreographed by Killian Manning

Tuesday, February 19, 7-9 p.m. Ackland Film Forum: Fantastic Voyage: Cinematic Journeys Into the Brain

Sunday, February 24: Family & Friends Sunday: The Beautiful Brain, Inside & Out, featuring the return of Ask a Neuroscientist! and a screening of Disney’s Inside Out

Thursday, February 28, 5:30-7:30 p.m.: K-12 Educator Open House featuring The Beautiful Brain. Registration Required.

Friday, March 8, 6-9 p.m.: 2nd Friday Art Walk: Mapping the Mind featuring a public conversation about neuroscience and psychology, followed by a discussion of art and literature co-organized with Carolina Public Humanities followed by a guided tour of The Beautiful Brain (registration required for the art and literature event).

Sunday, March 24, 2-5 p.m.: Music in the Galleries x Family & Friends Sunday: Brain-Inspired Dance, choreographed by Killian Manning

Thursday, March 28, 12:20-1:20 p.m.: Art for Lunch with Dr. Cecelia Cavanaugh: Lorca and Cajal. Free; reservations preferred. Bring your own lunch.


The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal was organized by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota with the Cajal Institute, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Madrid, Spain.

The Ackland presentation of this exhibition has been made possible in part by generous support from Betsy Blackwell & John Watson and the UNC Neuroscience Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.


Friends’ First Look at The Beautiful Brain
January 24, 2019, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Members and invited guests only

Want to be invited to special events at the Ackland?
Become a member today by calling 919-843-5637

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Spanish, 1852-1934: Epitelio y neuroglia primitivos de ratón (Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord), 1899, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC).