- NMNH Home ›
- Research & Collections ›
- Vertebrate Zoology ›
- Vertebrate Zoology Libraries ›
- Amateur Naturalists ›
Spotlight on Amateur Naturalists
Contributions to Vertebrate Zoology
Combining Art and Science
Art and zoology are integrally tied together, especially in the study of taxonomy. Species descriptions, even in medieval age publications, often include visual representations to complement text descriptions. Historic illustrations are still important to modern taxonomists. Before color photographs, painted images were the only way to capture the color pattern of specimens of fish, amphibians and reptiles before these features faded due to death or preservatives. In some cases, historic images are all that now exist of extinct species.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, many creatures were only known to the larger scientific world via secondhand descriptions and the illustrations that appeared in early zoological texts. A prime example is Conrad Gesner's mulitvolume publication, Historia Animalium (1551-1558). Gesner (1516 – 1565) would not have been called an amateur naturalist by Renaissance standards even though his main profession was a physician. During this time in history, the medical field and the study of natural history were closely intertwined due to the interest in medicinal remedies derived from plants and animals. This work is a collection of the accumulated knowledge, including illustrations, physical descriptions, descriptions of habits, medical uses of parts, and names in other languages of every animal, known to the intellectual elite of Europe at the time. It was compiled not only from Gesner's first hand observations of local fauna, but also from the descriptions sent to him by physicians, apothecaries, theologians, university professors, and lawyers, who had traveled farther afield than Gesner's native Switzerland. The drawings in this work are not scientifically accurate the modern sense, proportions and outlines at times bear only cursory resemblance to the species as we know them today. Scientific inaccuracy in illustrations was not uncommon at this time. Lacking living examples of creatures new to science, early artists often copied inaccurate drawings from predecessors, created illustrations from text descriptions, or based illustrations on distorted dried specimens and skeletons. Despite these shortcomings, the publication of Historia Animalium with its vivid illustrations is considered one of the starting points of modern zoology.
Images in books became more precise, thus more useful, over time, through improved printing techniques, the microscope, better specimen preservation, and the general increase in scientific knowledge. Newer methods of reproducing fine details with greater precision (e.g. engravings) were developed. Cheaper lithography, partially due to the ability to mass produce large numbers of images, became available in the 1800's. An amateur naturalist who took advantage of these advancements was John Edwards Holbrook (1794-1871). Holbrook, an American physician and professor of anatomy, had beautiful lithographic plates produced for his work, the North American Herpetology (1842). Holbrook hired an Italian immigrant, J. Sera, to produce the paintings. Many of these images are of sufficient quality to be used in modern scientific publications.
Successful artists, given their many hours of observation in the field and attention to detail in depicting realistic images of animals, often become accomplished naturalists in their own right. During the centuries that followed the Renaissance, there are many examples of skilled artists who became dedicated amateur naturalists. Mark Catesby (1683-1749), was a self taught artist and naturalist born to the gentry class in England. As a fifth son, he had only a small inheritance and limited prospects in England. He long desired to travel to the American colonies and was afforded the opportunity in 1712 when he joined his sister's family in Williamsburg, Virginia. Catesby, set about exploring, traveling westward to the Appalachians, and later to Jamaica and Bermuda. During his travels he made observations, collected specimens and drew sketches of the flora and fauna he encountered, purely for personal interest. Catesby sent collections back to acquaintances in England, and by the time he returned to England in 1719 he was known in the professional natural history circles. It was through these associations that Catesby was sponsored to return to the colonies to collect specimens of plants and animals for these naturalist's personal collections. Catesby again made meticulous observations and sketches, which he would ultimately transform into his published work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas (1731-1743). This two volume work is notable for the colored plates published in folio size, allowing the subjects to be drawn at nearly full size. He also was unique in combining animal and plant subjects juxtaposed in the same illustration, something novel for the time.
John James Audubon (1785- 1851) is one of the most famous amateur naturalists, though he ultimately parlayed his natural history endeavors into a living. Though many view Audubon's origins as American he actually was born in the West Indies as the illegitimate son of a French Naval officer. Audubon grew up in France, and after a failed stint in the French military, Audubon's father arranged a business partnership for his son in Pennsylvania. For many years Audubon earned an uneven living from various efforts including farming, mining, and trade, but his main interest was in nature and drawing. In his mid-thirties, Audubon set out to document all the living birds in North America for publication. Over the next several years Audubon traveled extensively though the southeastern United States. His naturalist work was supported mainly by his wife's teaching profession, though he did sell paintings and give drawing lessons. The resulting work, the magnificent folio the Birds of America (1827-1838), brought scientific illustration to a new level. Animals were depicted in naturalistic poses and were printed at folio size. The series was printed from 1827 to 1838, and features 435 hand colored life size prints of several hundred bird species. This work inspired other artists and naturalists to document the natural world in a realistic manner.
Genevieve E. Jones (1847-1879) and Eliza J. Shulze (1847-1920?) were childhood friends who, inspired by Audubon's fine bird illustrations, set out to create a companion publication focused on the nests and eggs of birds. Jones and her family members collected the nests and eggs of birds in the area surrounding her hometown of Circleville, Ohio. She and Eliza set about illustrating the nests, making sure to match them to the correct species of bird. The resulting work, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, was first published in 1879 as a subscriber series of 20 parts. The Smithsonian Libraries has one of the few bound copies of this work and has produced a website highlighting the publication and biographies of the authors.
Edward Lear (1812-1888), may have greater fame as the author of nonsense poems such as the "Owl and the Pussycat,", but he was also an accomplished painter who was an unofficial artist in residence at the London Zoo. The twentieth child of a London stockbroker, Lear was self taught in both natural history and painting. He began gaining fame as an artist among zoological societies and naturalists while just a teenager. His landmark publication, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots first published in 1830 was ground breaking in that he was the first ornithological illustrator to publish a large folio size book dedicated to a single family of birds. Lear also contributed illustrations to Thomas Bell's Monograph of the Testudinata (1832). Unfortunately, Lear was plagued by health issues and poor eyesight. By age 25, he was unable to continue the fine detailed work of his earlier years and ceased working as a natural history illustrator. Anodorhynchus leari, a Brazilian species of macaw was named in Lear's honor by French Naturalist and nephew of Napoleon, Charles Bonaparte in 1856.
Andrew Garrett (1823-1887) was an American explorer, artist and self taught naturalist. In the 1840s Garrett worked aboard whaling vessels that took him across the far reaches of the Pacific. It was during this period when he began to collect natural history objects, mainly sea shells, but also birds and fish. He eventually settled in Hawaii in 1852,. His source of income is unknown, though it seems he had little regular employment. By the mid-1850s Garrett sent correspondence to Louis Agassiz, a preeminent Harvard zoologist, with the offer to provide natural history collections to the Harvard Museum. During the 1870s, Garrett set about finishing descriptions and watercolors of fishes he had collected across the islands of the tropical Pacific. One of Garrett's benefactors, Johann Godeffroy, edited and prepared this compilation with Albert Gunther, famous ichthyologist at the British Museum. The resulting publication, Andrew Garrett's Fische der Sundsee (1873-1910) comprised 3 volumes and remained the authority on the fishes of the Pacific Ocean for more than 40 years.
Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921) was a professional American portrait and landscape painter with a particular interest in birds. He became intrigued by the function of countershading, a condition where an animal is dark dorsally and pale ventrally. Visually, this has the effect of disrupting the shadows cast on the ventral region thus obscuring the animal's conspicuous outline. Thayer postulated that countershading was primarily an adaptation to provide camouflage and thus avoid detection. Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: an Exposition of the Laws of Disguise through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer's Discoveries (1909) was compiled by his son Gerald. Thayer's observations on the visual effects of counter- shading were accepted readily, but his theory that countershading was solely for the purpose of camouflage was considered by many in natural history circles to be too narrowly focused as it did not account for coloration contrasts thought to be adaptive for breeding displays. Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid amateur naturalist, stoked the controversy by publishing very adamant rebuttals of Thayer's theory in The Auk, a natural history journal. Thayer ultimately parlayed his observations on countershading in the natural world to military applications and is known as the father of camouflage.
Photography is a common tool to scientists today, but one of the earliest examples of a "nature film" was not created by a scientist, but by a professional portrait and landscape photographer named Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). His most famous photographic work, Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography … (1882), arose out of a bet. Leland Stanford, former California governor and university founder, wished to determine whether all four of a horse's hooves were ever off the ground at the same time during a gallop. Muybridge was the photographer hired to settle this claim. He did so by developing a system for instantaneous motion capture using a series of cameras spaced closely together. Each camera was triggered by a trip wire so that a continuous sequence of images was captured at 1/1000th of a second. The resulting image series was then transformed into a motion picture through Muybridge's invention of the zoopraxiscope. This device created the impression of motion by projecting images from rotating glass disks in rapid succession. Descriptive Zoopraxography, or, the Science of Animal Locomotion made Popular by Eadweard Muybridge (1893) documents the exact techniques used in this innovative process. The photographs from Horse in Motion... and Animal Locomotion: an Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements (1887) are perhaps more recognizable today as iconic images in popular culture, but they were an important early step in the study of vertebrate locomotion.
[ TOP ]