After Austrian artist Ferdinand Bauer visited the Australian coastline in the early 1800s, it took him up to a decade to complete his watercolors based on his on-site sketches. Yet the colors are just as precise as if he was witnessing the living animals and plants, thanks to an extensive color code Bauer created. Involving up to 1,000 hues, the code was used to exactly label colors on his small sketches, which are now an invaluable record of Australian flora and fauna.
The DX Lab, a cultural-heritage innovation lab at the State Library of New South Wales (NSW), has launched Painting by Numbers: The Works of Ferdinand Bauer, an online interactive that investigates Bauer’s art through this color system. The site was developed in conjunction with the upcoming book Painting by Numbers: The Life and Art of Ferdinand Bauer by botanist David Mabberley, out January 1 from the University of New South Wales Press. Mabberley and his colleagues have worked on deciphering Bauer’s code since 1999. An exhibition called Botanical Inspirations at the State Library of NSW in Sydney further explores Bauer’s legacy through botanical drawings, maps, and rare books.
Visitors to the Painting by Numbers site initially encounter a large gridded palette of all the colors Bauer employed. Hovering over a muted beige or bright blue activates a numbered annotation in Bauer’s handwriting, as well as stats on how many drawings in which it appears, and its average area of coverage in these drawings. Further sections and data visualizations invite users to explore collected specimens, watch videos, examine a digital archive of almost 300 works from institutions like the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford and the Natural History Museum in Vienna, and interact with a spectrum that organizes groups of images by color. A before and after feature scrolls back and forth between an original pencil sketch and a finished watercolor, showing how Bauer brought the biodiversity of Australia to life on the page.
Each element on the site illuminates how the artist had an extraordinary memory for color in his scientific work on the Australian coastline. As a member of the English navigator Matthew Flinders’s 1801–03 voyage along the shore, part of Flinders’s mission to circumnavigate the continent, Bauer witnessed such creatures as rainbow lorikeets, western barred bandicoots, weedy seadragons, black cormorants, wombats, and jewel spiders. Some of what he sketched are “types,” representing a pioneering observation of a species identification; others depict species that are now extinct, including the Streblorrhiza speciosa shrub on Phillip Island. Unlike many nature artists of his day, Bauer was not sketching from dead specimens in a studio. Nevertheless, he couldn’t resist a bit of perfection, whether depicting the flawlessly long petals of a gymea lily, or the flowing green feathers of a red-winged parrot.
The Sydney Morning Herald, which recently reported on the book and site, noted that although Bauer’s artistry and scientific eye were incredible, his work had the misfortune of being created during the British Admiralty’s occupation with the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, Bauer had to self-publish his botanical studies, which were a financial flop. His animal illustrations wouldn’t be published until the 1960s. Through the digital project, viewers can not only witness his dynamic depictions of animal and plant life, but also delve into his color code that gave them their vibrancy.
The Painting by Numbers: The Life and Art of Ferdinand Bauer site is online from DX Lab. Botanical Inspirations continues through January 28, 2018 at the State Library of New South Wales (Macquarie Street, Sydney). Painting by Numbers: The Life and Art of Ferdinand Bauer by David Mabberley is out January 1 from the University of New South Wales Press.