Before a Google search let people see high-quality photographs of exotic animals on a whim, it was up to industrious artists to draw them for the world to see.
“Natural Histories,” which opened Oct. 19 at the American Museum of Natural History, features some of the first depictions people saw of many species. The pieces are enlarged reproductions of the actual engravings and lithographs from the museum’s collection of rare books. The exhibit focuses more on the history of scientific illustrations, with works spanning from 1500 to the early 1900s. These were the prints that elicited amazement from people seeing much of the natural world for the first time.
The engravings of Louis Renard, published in 1754, were the public’s first glimpse of tropical fish in full color, having only seen dried-out specimens in the past. The appeal is still apparent today. Renard’s works possess rich color, and the fish have expressive faces that are decidedly inaccurate but still appealing. The exhibit also includes phenomena likely unfamiliar to even modern audiences, like Robert Hooke’s depictions of fleas and frozen urine samples at the microscopic level.
The work of Ernst Haeckel is interesting not only for its subject matter but also for its composition. At the turn of the 20th century, Haeckel was the first scientist to illustrate ocean creatures. To demonstrate a comparison between species, he grouped his representations of specimens on one page. This decision created both an effective scientific diagram and a powerful artistic effect. The interlocking tendrils of comb jellies form intricate designs, creating a biological still life.
Like Haeckel, Sybilla Merian produces compelling art through organization. The entire lifecycles of various insects (egg, larva, pupa, adult) are depicted in one frame in her illustrations, surrounding a host plant. An especially striking piece depicts the stages of butterfly life surrounding a pineapple. The caterpillar and pupa rest on the fruit’s spiky surface while a mature butterfly flits around the leaves.
The exhibit informs the viewer, but it falls short in highlighting the bizarre and mythic quality associated with early science. Much of the work is from the Enlightenment, a period during which collecting outpaced research, and many specimens were wondrous and unexplained. More pieces like Albrect Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros, heavily armored and prehistoric (he had never seen a rhinoceros), would have highlighted changing patterns of thought.
Natural Histories runs through Oct. 12 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street.