Deadly accuracy: Colenso BBDO finds signs of breast cancer in Renaissance masterpieces

Throughout his career, the artist Rembrandt witnessed countless dissections—often held as social events—in a ceaseless effort to learn as much as he could about anatomy. These learnings were then systematically incorporated into his paintings, melding the worlds of biology and art on each canvas. And he wasn’t alone in this somewhat macabre fascination with the human body. The brushstrokes of his contemporaries were often similarly informed by a fastidious attention to the exact details of the human body.

Now, 400 years on, the deadly accuracy of these paintings serve as the inspiration behind Colenso BBDO’s latest campaign for Breast Cancer Foundation NZ. Dubbed ‘The Survivor’s Collection’, the campaign centres on three painting by artists Rembrandt and Rubens, featuring nude female models whom modern medical experts have agreed had breast cancer and most likely died from it, with the artists unknowingly painting common signs of the disease.

Those original paintings have been recreated as photographs with a major difference – featuring three Kiwi breast cancer survivors Shona, Kelly and Anete. 

Photographed by award-winning Kiwi photographer Steven Boniface, the images will be displayed at the Auckland Art Gallery, alongside the stories of the original paintings and those of the survivors.

The campaign, launched for breast cancer awareness month, also encourages women to learn, and regularly self-check for, the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, with online information on risk factors and mammograms.

Evangelia Henderson, chief executive of Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand says while the hidden danger within the original masterpieces is tragic, they also wanted to show that with the right knowledge and awareness, breast cancer can be overcome.

“That’s shown through the celebration of three women in our Survivor’s Collection.”

The theme of knowledge is echoed by Angela Watson, head of account management, Colenso BBDO.

Watson says with the knowledge available today, breast cancer is a disease that can be overcome. 

“Just look at how far we’ve come in being able to treat it when you compare the tragedy of the original masterpieces to the brave women who feature in our recreations. Hopefully, they will serve as a reminder to us all that we should stay breast aware. We would also like to personally thank the amazing women who feature in our portraits – what they have done is courageous and inspiring.”


Agency: Colenso BBDO​
Client: Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand
Evangelia Henderson, CEO, Breast Cancer Foundation NZ
Kim Barker, Digital Communications Manager, Breast Cancer Foundation NZ
Survivors: Shona Kelway, Anete Smith, Kelly McDiarmid​
Photographer: Steven Boniface
Stylist: Sarah Cooper
Hair & make-up: Natalie Clements
Retouching: Jason King
Post-production: Creature
Colourist: Pete Ritchie
Audio: Franklin Road
Special thanks to Auckland Art Gallery

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