Albert Seba’s (1665-1736) four volume Thesaurus (Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauriaccurata descriptio…) illustrated the Dutch apothecary’s enormous collection of animal and plant specimens amassed over the years. Using preserved specimens, Seba’s artists could depict anatomy accurately—but not behavior. For example, this two-toed sloth is shown climbing upright, even though in nature, sloths hang upside down.
Micrographia (1667), the first book in English to illustrate the microscopic world, was popular in part because it presented an enormous range of subjects. The meticulous illustrations of a flea and other minute creatures, foretold a new chapter in natural history, in which organisms could be classified according to precisely detailed descriptions of their anatomy—even the tiniest.
This image, by author and illustrator Robert Hooke, depicts geometric formations in frozen urine (presumably his own).
Johann Friederich Wilhelm Herbst (1743-1807), a German churchman, naturalist, and superb artist, drew this illustration of the crab Cancer reticulatus for his book series Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabbenund Krebse… (Attempt at a natural history of crabs and crayfish…). In this three-volume work, Herbst illustrated and described crabs and crayfish. Thanks to their meticulous detail and coloring, the beautiful images endure as a useful scientific resource.
In Erpétologie générale …(General herpetology…), the first comprehensive account of all amphibians and reptiles then described by scientists, organized by French zoologist André-Marie-Constant Duméril (1774-1860), dead and sometimes poorly preserved museum specimens appear in remarkably lifelike postures. This illustration depicts the Madagascar warty chameleon (Furcifer verrucosus).
Ernst Haeckel in his work Kunstformen der Natur (1899-1904), grouped together these specimens, including trilobites (which are extinct) and horseshoe crabs, so the viewer could clearly see similarities that point to the evolutionary process.
In an effort not to disappoint Europeans who saw collections of preserved tropical fish lacking their brilliant colors, Louis Renard (1678-1746) compiled the book Poissons, with fancifully colored engraved plates depicting fish and crustaceans from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Louis Renard’s artists embellished their work to satisfy Europeans’ thirst for the unusual. Some illustrations in Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires…, like this one, include fish with imaginative colors and patterns and strange, un-fishlike expressions.
"Natural history illustration is a wonderful art" says curator Melanie Stiassney in this video. "It can…subtly highlight the features that are very important for a particular species in a away that a photograph can’t necessarily."
In this illustration, Maria Sibylla Merian captured the life stages of three different insects around their host plant, the passion flower. One fellow naturalist called her book, Metamorphosis, the “most beautiful work ever painted in America.”