Art of nature: a depiction of world and culture

By Judith Magee 8 March 2010
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Artistic impressions of the natural world reveal as much about the artist’s cultural perspective as they do about the subjects themselves.

OF ALL THE SCIENCES, natural history lends itself best to being represented through visual media. Whereas words can be abstract, ambiguous, misunderstood or mistranslated, a picture drawn with skill and accuracy portrays a reality everyone can relate to. Drawings, it can be argued, give the visible facts so that words become subordinate to the image.

British naturalist George Edwards stated in 1758: “Where accurate figures are given, much pains may be spared in verbal descriptions.” Yet although natural history illustrators strive to draw specimens as true to life as possible, what they depict is always selective. Variations in scale, manipulation of the subject to conform to design, the placing of the subject with other animals and plants that have no natural connection, and the projection of the artist’s own preconceptions about the flora, fauna, landscape and people of other lands inevitably influence natural history art.

Early natural art

From the earliest civilisations, plants and animals have been portrayed as a means of understanding and recording their potential uses, such as their economic and healing properties. From the first illustrated catalogue of medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, in the first century, through to the late fourteenth century, the illustration of plants and animals changed very little.

Woodcuts in instructional manuals and herbals were often repeatedly copied over the centuries, resulting in a loss of definition and accuracy so that they became little more than stylized decoration. With the growing popularity of copperplate engravings, the traditional use of woodcuts declined and the representation of plants and animals became more accurate.

Then, with the emergence of artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo Da Vinci, naturalists such as Otto Brunfels, Leonhard Fuchs in botany and Conrad Gesner and Ulisse Aldrovandi in zoology, nature began to be depicted in a more realistic style. Individual living plants or animals were observed directly and their likeness rendered onto paper or vellum.

Lizards by Ernst Haeckel, 1904

Lizards, depicted by Ernst Haeckel, 1904

Voyages and discovery

As nautical exploration opened up new parts of the world to Europe, the Dutch, British and Spanish soon established a worldwide trading mechanism. European expansion into areas across the globe encouraged and stimulated curiosity about the natural products of these previously unexplored countries, and scientific exploration became an important part of this expansion. The interests of commercial companies and governments often coincided with those of scientists and naturalists.

The great European powers were maritime nations and they relied on supplies of wood for shipbuilding, plants with medicinal properties and crops that potentially could be grown outside of their native land. A specimen or a drawing was often the key to identification of these plants and so natural history art served not only a taxonomic function for the scientist but also provided information for the decision and policy makers of commerce and government.

The first major expeditions to discover the exotic plants of the Americas, India and Africa were undertaken by those in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Their purpose was to find plants that were considered useful in medicine and to record their location and glean as much information as possible on their supposed virtues from the local inhabitants. Men such as Garcia d’Orta in India and Francisco Hernandez in Mexico were amongst the first Europeans to describe accurately the flora and fauna of these parts of the world. And accompanying these men of science were artists instructed to draw the plants and animals of interest.

What motivated these artists, collectors and travellers to risk their lives in search of the unknown? Aspirations varied; some sought fame as scientists or artists, some financial gain or at least the prospect of making a living from what they loved doing. For others it provided the opportunity to present their view of nature to a wider community. Whatever the motives, few would have contradicted Alexander Humboldt’s comment that he was “spurred on by an uncertain longing for what is distant and unknown, for whatever excited my fantasy: danger at sea, the desire for adventures, to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvelous world”. Joseph Hooker, who became director of Kew Botanic Gardens, chose to travel to India and the Himalayas because the land was a “mystery equally attractive to the traveller and the naturalist”. And almost without exception, the scientist, artist, philosopher or dreamer who travelled in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries conducted their work with a view to it being published.

Representation of plants and animals

For taxonomic purposes, natural history art was and remains today an important element in classifying a species. It serves as an aid for the scientists in their work of identification, allowing them to describe, classify and name the thing depicted. Once classified, an illustration can be studied by others, enabling them to know the plant or animal almost at a glance instead of spending hours pouring over written descriptions. This was particularly useful for people in the medical profession, especially when travelling in foreign lands. Recognizing and selecting the correct plant could be the difference between healing or poisoning oneself and others.

In botanical illustration the purpose is to show the different stages of development of a plant: in bud, blossom and in fruit. The illustration may also include dissected parts showing the internal structure often drawn at greater magnification. This method of drawing was directly influenced by the work of Carl Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth century, who stamped his authority on the natural sciences by introducing a classification system based on the sexual characteristics of plants.

Representation of animals can be a more challenging art. For a zoological illustration to be of real service to the scientist it requires realistic morphological appearance together with accurate internal anatomical structures. Artists that remained in Europe often had to rely on their imagination when depicting animals, as the only specimens they had to observe were dead and mangled carcasses.

For species that metamorphose through distinct stages, often the whole life-cycle is depicted.

Natural art develops in the modern world

With the development of complex theories about the natural world, the role of natural history art also changed. By the mid-nineteenth century Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories of natural selection were well nigh impossible to illustrate. For other new ideas illustrative diagrams were used. Alexander Humboldt was a master in portraying his system of plant geography through diagrams.

Technological progress also led to new ways of looking at things. For centuries instruments have helped capture images not visible to the naked eye and some wonderful examples include Hooke’s depiction of the ant and Franz Bauer’s drawings of pollen and seed germination, all made with the assistance of a microscope. By the second half of the nineteenth century the microscope enabled artists such as Ernst Haeckel to delineate structures of beautiful marine organisms.

Many of the great collections of natural history art built during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are held in eminent institutions of learning and culture throughout Europe. Formed by wealthy individuals, powerful trading companies and various agencies or arms of the state, these collections represent natural history from around the globe. The importance of much of the artwork is enhanced by its association with some of the most significant and momentous events in the history of the natural sciences.

The history of each piece is often symptomatic of the opinions held by Europeans of these unknown and far off lands and their people. The expectations they had for the future of these lands, of how they should be understood and explained, all contributed to the varying impressions and interpretations produced by artists and naturalists of the places they visited. It is for these reasons the art is very much a view of the natural world from a European perspective, and can reveal as much about European cultural history as it does of the natural history it depicts.

VIEW gallery of art of the natural world throughout history

Art of Nature by Judith Magee

This is an edited extract from Art of Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World by Judith Magee.
Published by Hardie Grant Books.
RRP $55.00 hardback, available in bookstores nationally.