Johann Friederich Wilhelm Herbst (German, 1743-1807). Illustration of Cancer reticulatus from Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse… (Attempt at a natural history of crabs and crayfish…)

Sometimes the human eye, a good aesthetic sense, and a steady hand are the best scientific tools. During the late 1700s, the German churchman-turned-naturalist Johann Herbst demonstrated this when he produced a three-volume encyclopedia of crabs and crayfish. A skilled artist, he engraved and hand-tinted meticulous drawings of each species he identified, most notably of Cancer reticulatus and Cancer cedonulli. Later scientists, dismissing as overzealous Herbst's careful differentiation of the crabs' coloring, concluded that the two species were really one. They were wrong. DNA testing eventually vindicated Herbst's powers of observation; his classification had been correct all along. 

Reproductions of Herbst’s engravings are currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History as part of an exhibit entitled “Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library.” The exhibit’s name isn’t exactly riveting, and its unassuming location in a rear hallway hasn’t helped it compete with dinosaur fossils for museum-goers’ attention over the past year. But the sheer beauty, technical mastery, and backstories of the fifty illustrations testify to a very human side of natural history, making the exhibit well worth seeing before it closes on October 12.

The value of the editorial eye is seen in a display of Giacommi Saverio Poli’s work. The father of malacology, the study of mollusks, Poli was the first person to classify mollusks by their interiors instead of their shells. Dissecting the mollusks, he drew intricate illustrations of delicate shells with the shell’s resident outside, sometimes coiled around its home. The drawings are graceful and ethereal, a far cry from the scene Poli probably encountered while extracting the mollusks. In this sense, his drawings are inaccurate. Yet they are also true; Poli knew enough of the mollusks’ interiors to see past the messiness of a damaging extraction and articulate the beauty of the hidden creatures.

 

Guiseppe Saverio Poli (Italian, 1746-1825). Illustration of female paper nautilus (Argonauta argo) from Testacea utriusque Siciliae… 

Although it often resulted in beauty, the process of scientific illustration between 1500 and 1900 had some inherent flaws. The creation of a scientific illustration was complex; usually a naturalist would suggest the subject, an artist would sketch it, an engraver and a printer would produce prints, and a colorist would hand tint each copy. By the time an illustration made it into a book, it would be four or five steps removed from its subject. The colors of fish might vary, or the shape of a leaf might be altered because of misinterpretation during the production process. These errors were understandable but could also result in miscategorization.

There were also less excusable inaccuracies; occasionally illustrators used dead specimens as models or drew without any models at all, producing drawings bearing little resemblance to reality. Some mistakes, such as those found in Albert Seba’s otherwise accurate Thesaurus, are laughable; Seba had never seen a live sloth, so he drew an anatomically correct depiction of a sloth in an impossible upright position. Durer’s famous depiction of a rhinoceros in a suit of armor was based on a secondhand description. And Louis Renard’s colorful tropical fish sported shockingly human expressions, perhaps because Renard felt pressure to make his drawings sensational.

 

Louis Renard (French, 1678-1746). Illustration from Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires…

Despite their errors, illustrators were essential to the work of scientists classifying the natural world. Seba’s work, flawed as it was, illustrated the classifications of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, and his illustrations today clarify ambiguities in Linnaeus’s work. Other artists were less helpful to the classification process; Lorenz Oken, whose exquisite drawing of bird eggs is one of the finest pieces in the exhibit, classified his subjects by how many of the five human senses they possessed. Despite his flawed taxonomy, his drawings still recorded valuable detail.

The stories behind the other pieces in the exhibit range from the charming to the bizarre. Freidrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini quixotically attempted to document all 100,000 mollusk species but died before completing his project. John James Audobon’s sons married the daughters of his co-illustrator. Robert Hooke’s drawings of magnified crystals of frozen urine grace the wall next to delightful line drawings of jellyfish drawn by Ernst Haeckel, whose fraudulent depictions of embryonic recapitulation of evolution were conveniently omitted from the exhibit.      

 

Lorenz Oken (German, 1779-1851). Illustration from Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (A general natural history for everyone). 

Unfortunately, the exhibit has two notable flaws, the first relatively minor. While the enlarged reproductions of the drawings highlight their fine detail, it’s disappointing not to see the original artwork, or at least original editions of the books from which the illustrations were taken. Displaying even one or two of the old tomes would have lent a sense of scale and antiquity to the exhibit.

More concerning is the museum’s decision to include illustrations of indigenous peoples in the display. Drawings of Native Americans are mixed in with drawings of insects and Australian marsupials, leaving the viewer with the distinct sense that the artists thought their subjects were a little behind in their evolution. This is perhaps unsurprising, since social Darwinism was prevalent during several of the illustrators’ lifetimes, but a curatorial note explaining the origins of this hint of racism would have been helpful.

However, even this last flaw points to the beauty of “Natural Histories”—along with pleasing the eye and stimulating the brain, the exhibit reminds viewers that even today science is conducted by people who have points of view, use hands and eyes, and make choices about what is important. This human element sometimes results in error, but it also results in a beauty and accuracy obtainable no other way. 

 

"Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library" opened at the American Museum of Natural History on October 19, 2013, and remains on view through October 12, 2014.