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Classic Illustrated Zoologies and Related Works, 1550-1900

Illustrated books from the 16th century to the early 20th depicting the fish, birds, and animals of the world. Based on the scholarly bibliography by Miriam Gross that appeared in Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library in 1994; her introductory text has been adapted for this presentation.

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Surmulet, Mullus Surmuletus. Digital ID: 429318 Surmulet, Mullus Surmuletus. Digital ID: 429318

Collection History

Among the riches of The Research Libraries is an enormous collection of pre-1920 illustrated zoologies from Europe and the Americas. Not generally well known, these impressive holdings are comparable to those in specialized natural history libraries. However, they do not comprise a discrete collection, but are distributed among various units of the Library, chiefly the department previously known as the Science and Technology Research Center (now part of the Science, Industry and Business Library), the George Arents Collection of Books in Parts, the Rare Books Division, the Stuart Collection, and the General Research Division.

Illustrated zoologies are both scientific documents and repositories of examples of reproductive printmaking before photomechanical processes became the primary method of producing book illustrations. These woodcuts and wood engravings, metal plate engravings, and lithographs constitute an enormous body of art. With the exception of the colorful prints of artists such as John James Audubon, Mark Catesby, and John Gould, this art is familiar mostly to specialists. Gross's bibliography was devoted to a selection of 201 of the most important and interesting titles, representing only a very small percentage of the Library's total holdings in natural history.

Background

Zoological illustration is a specialized branch of art. Its primary purpose is scientific -- the accurate depiction of animals, usually, but not always, in partnership with descriptive text. It differs from animal portraiture, which is the artist's interpretation of an individual rather than a species, and, ideally, is free of narrative, moral, or theological messages. From a strictly scientific viewpoint, aesthetic considerations are secondary: if renderings are also decorative, that must be considered a bonus. But, in reality, the best and most effective illustrations are those that serve both art and science.

Despite the dominance of photography as a documentary tool in the twentieth century, only drawings can focus on and highlight details that the scientist needs; thus, zoological, botanical, and other technical illustrations continue to be created side by side with photographs (and films). The invaluable series of Peterson field guides are famous examples of contemporary zoological illustration.

About Zoologies

As used here, the term "zoology" indicates a book about animals. In addition to works that are in the strictest sense zoologies -- such as monographs devoted to a specific animal group, or fauna of one region, or an encyclopedic work embracing all animals -- there are other literature formats on the subject. Reports of voyages and expeditions of exploration, catalogs of private and public collections, zoological journals, general encyclopedias, and reports of learned societies are all rich sources of zoological knowledge, and often are lavishly illustrated.

The classic zoologies and their illustrations serve more than historic purposes. They are documents referred to often by working zoologists, even when the information in their pages is incomplete or has been superseded or refuted by more recent research. The search for the first report and depiction of a species -- crucial information in ongoing zoological research -- may end with a description and an engraving located in an eighteenth-century, or even earlier, publication. And sadly, because of extirpation of species, this first record may also be the only one.

The modern science of zoology began with the work of five giants of the sixteenth century: Konrad Gesner, Pierre Bélon, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Guillaume Rondelet, and Ippolito Salviani. Although they perpetuated many pagan and religious superstitions, as well as earlier inaccuracies, these pioneers usually studied their subjects firsthand and then described what they saw. The often-crude illustrations accompanying the descriptions are integral to the texts, and even in this early period were in many cases amazingly accurate.

In early zoologies, as in those published later, artists drew most accurately those animals most familiar to them. This circumstance accounts for the greater attention paid to domestic and native mammals and birds, especially before voyages of exploration introduced new and sometimes improbable creatures from foreign lands. Before the development of better techniques of taxidermy in the eighteenth century, animal specimens were badly preserved. They could not yield the information that later became available when artists joined expeditions to draw their subjects in their native habitats, and when live animals were brought back for private menageries and, eventually, public zoos.

The Animals Portrayed

As subjects of the zoological artist's attentions, some animals are more equal than others. There is no doubt that bird illustrations predominate -- in quantity, arguably in quality, and certainly in popularity. This reflects the special fascination that birds have had for humans throughout the centuries, owing at least in part to their often colorful and sometimes spectacular plumage, as well as the awe inspired by their mastery of the skies.

Until the nineteenth century, many ornithological illustrations, usually drawn from skins or mounted specimens, showed a bird perched on a bare branch. Despite some noteworthy exceptions, it was the art of John James Audubon and of John Gould and his colleagues (particularly Josef Wolf) that first consistently imparted motion and life to bird illustrations.

Colored lithographs were an ideal medium to capture the vivid hues of a bird's plumage, with colored engravings running a close second.

Illustrations of mammals, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, have often achieved popularity as decorative art apart from their scientific functions. The highly colored, scenic lithographs and engravings of the nineteenth century are especially popular. Many striking mammal portraits of this period appear in breeders' manuals devoted to the improvement of domestic animals. Depictions of other land animals are not as well known as their artistic merits might warrant. Snakes in particular have, since biblical times, often evoked loathing and fear, despite their attractive colors and patterns and the inoffensive nature of most species. Many herpetologies are beautifully illustrated, but these images will probably never vie with those of birds, horses, and butterflies as living-room decoration.

Although 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, home to representatives from nearly all twenty-nine phyla, or major divisions of the animal kingdom, zoological artists have devoted less attention to marine and fresh-water fauna. The relative inaccessibility of the ocean depths until this century was one reason. Another was the special fragility of aquatic creatures, which decay very rapidly. Colors fade quickly and boneless invertebrates collapse as soon as they are removed from the water.

Mollusks, because of their durable shells (and the tasty flesh of many) have long been familiar to humans, and thousands of species are documented in various multivolume conchologies. In many of these books, the artists grouped shells in geometric or otherwise highly ornamental patterns. Crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs (also longtime table fare) have also often been depicted. Illustrations of fish usually show them rather formally, in profile.

Until the seventeenth century, insects, which comprise more than four-fifths of all known living species, were generally considered too tiny and thus too insignificant to merit the attention paid to animals of the "higher" orders. The development and use of magnifying glasses and microscopes by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), and other pioneers opened the door to a new world. All the details of insect anatomy as well as previously invisible microbes could now be studied and illustrated. By the nineteenth century, microscopes had become standard tools of naturalists and zoological artists, and accompanied them on field trips and voyages. Engraving on metalplate, the dominant reproductive graphic method of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was an ideal technique to capture the tiny details of microscopic creatures and highly magnified insect parts.

Because of their beauty of color and form, the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) abound among illustrated entomologies. Numerous multivolume works were published, usually with many individuals illustrated life-size on each page. Sometimes the figures were simply arrayed in a grid pattern, a layout common in illustrations of beetles and other insects, but often, intricate geometric arrangements created pretty designs. Space was frequently conserved by flipping over one wing, thus showing both dorsal and ventral views simultaneously. Many artists also included the insects' food plants and all stages of their metamorphosis, from egg to adult. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was the first to depict these spectacular transformations, in her famed study of the insects of Surinam.

Printmaking and the Printmakers

The quality of published illustrations was dependent on the skills of the craftspeople involved in translating the artists' designs into a graphic medium. These essential middlemen (and women) have in general not been accorded the recognition due them: many prints do not display the engraver or lithographer's name, and many of these artisans were known only by their last names. Some zoological bibliographies do not even specify the medium of the illustrations, much less the identities of artists and printmakers. Those that focus on the art, such as the Bradley Martin catalogs and Nissen's bibliographies, are outstanding exceptions.

Although some artists cut their own woodblocks, or engraved or etched their own designs on the metal plate, it was lithography, invented at the end of the eighteenth century, and dominant in the second half of the nineteenth, that allowed artists to draw directly on the printing stone. Many zoological illustrators took advantage of this opportunity, creating what are sometimes termed artist lithographs. Others employed lithographers (who sometimes were illustrators in their own right) to transfer their drawings.

To produce colored illustrations, prints created by all of the above methods were colored by hand. Consequently, the quality of the coloring often varied from print to print. Even after techniques for printing in color were developed, retouching by hand was usual in the creation of a fine print.

The printmaker might or might not have been the person who actually printed the illustration (as opposed to cutting the design in the wood or metal, or drawing on the lithographic stone). Some illustrations credit not only the artist and engraver or lithographer, but also the printmaker. Those who hand-colored the prints were hardly ever mentioned, and were often female -- either members of the artist's family, or, especially in the nineteenth century, poorly paid artisans.

 

Related Resources

Gross, Miriam. "Classic Illustrated Zoologies (1550-1900) in the Research Collections of The New York Public Library: A Select Bibliography with Commentaries." Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library 2, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 19-123.

Works cited by Miriam Gross:

Anker, Jean. Bird Books and Bird Art (1938).

Balis, Jan. Merveilleux plumages. Dix siècles de livres d'oiseaux. Exhibition catalogue 1968-69. Trans. by Lambert Maka (1968).

Nissen, Claus. Die botanische Buchillustration (1952, 1966).

_____. Schöne Vögelbucher (1936).

_____. Die zoologische Buchillustration (1966-78).

Sotheby's, New York. The Library of H. Bradley Martin. Pt. 1: John James Audubon: Magnificent Books and Manuscripts (1989)

_____. The Library of H. Bradley Martin. Pt. 2: Magnificent Color-plate Ornithology (1989)

_____. The Library of H. Bradley Martin. Pt. 5: Highly Important and Scientific Ornithology (1989)

Wood, Casey A., comp. and ed. An Introduction to the Literature of Vertebrate Zoology; based chiefly on the titles in the...libraries of McGill University, Montreal (1931).

Zimmer, J. T. Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. 2 vols. (1926).

 

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