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Frog dissection illustration from the book “Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium…(Natural history of the native frogs…)” from 1758 (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

Before photography, the only way to bring back a visual of strange creatures in other lands was through illustration. Art has long been incredibly important to the development of science, as shown in the Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library exhibition now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Egg collection in “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände
(A general natural history for everyone)” by German naturalist Lorenz Oken (1779-1851), which grouped animals based not on science, but philosophy. (© AMNH\D. Finnin) (click for full resolution)

The 50 images included in the exhibition, which opened in October, were all reproduced from the Museum Library’s Rare Book Collection. During the year-long run of the show a rotation of books from the collection, many featured in the exhibition, are also being shown just outside the museum’s research library.

As Tom Baione, the curator of the exhibition at the Harold Boschenstein Director of Library Services at the museum, said in a video for the exhibition: “Natural Histories came about because we wanted to let people outside the museum know about the rich rare book collection contained here.” He goes on to explain that “in figuring out which works to include, we wanted examples that weren’t incredibly widely known; we wanted to find some hidden gems within the collection. We also wanted to show a range of works and the printing processes contained within.”

Flying Gurnard illustration from “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische (General natural history of fishes),” a 12-volume encyclopedia by author/illustrator Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), which described all fish species then known to science (and 267 previously unknown) (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

In other words, while Charles Darwin’s popular The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839) and the blown-up images of fleas and previously invisible microscopic views from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) might be familiar, there are less widely reproduced works like a beautiful illustration of a Flying Gunard from Marcus Elieser Bloch’s 18th century General Natural History of Fishes.

There’s also a dynamically drawn pineapple swarmed with a caterpillar, butterflies, and other insects by German naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian from her 1719 Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium based on her two-year travels in South America. Merian was one of the few women who got widespread recognition for her natural history work, being influential in entomology, in particular in observing the butterflies’ metamorphosis.

Pineapple illustration from “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium…” (1719) by German naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

Illustration by Joseph Wolf (1820-1899) from the Zoological Society of London showing two views of a young hippo in Egypt before it was transported to the London Zoo. (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

The art, which spans four centuries, was all aimed at capturing not just impressions of animals, but also their details. The exact number of spikes on a pufferfish or the attributes of a bird’s color patterns were meticulously replicated, so that scientists could also compare the depicted anatomy to species all over the world. Sometimes a specimen was even shown life-size, taking up a whole centerfold of a book. Yet the attention to detail doesn’t mean that they’re clinical drawings; just look at the frog dissection at the top of the post where the poor splayed amphibian’s spilled guts are so richly shaded and there are even shadows below its hovering pinned limbs.

Tasmanian Tiger illustrated by English ornithologist & taxidermist John Gould for his three-volume work “The mammals of Australia” (1863). The Tasmanian Tiger was the world’s largest meat-eating marsupial until going extinct in 1936. (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

The exhibition took inspiration from the AMNH’s 2012 book of the same name, and has been followed this year by another book focusing on stunning avian illustrations called Natural Histories: Extraordinary Birds (rather well-timed for an erudite holiday list or two). It’s a shame that all the rare books themselves couldn’t be displayed in some collective way, but as a glimpse into some of the natural history wonders that often get overlooked among the towering dinosaur skeletons and elaborate dioramas, it’s a tantalizing taste of the 14,000 volumes held in the museum’s rare book collection.

An octopus engraving from Conrad Gessner’s “Historia animalium” (1551-1558), which is accurate aside from the round, rather than slit, pupils, showing that he didn’t draw it from a live specimen (© AMNH\D. Finnin)

Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library is at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through October 12, 2014.  

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “When Art Was the Scientist’s Eye: 400 Years of Natural History Illustrations”

  1. My grand-grand father was the leading naturalist Robert Bénard, the one who did the engravings for the famous “Encyclopédie Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers”, edited by Diderot et Alembert.
    Robert Bénard, also drew for Buffon’s “Histoire Naturelle”. Le Comte de Buffon, who Darwin described as “the first author who in modern times has treated [evolution] in a scientific spirit.”
    Here’s one of his engravings from Histoire Naturelle, which was watercoloured afterwards.

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