Why I like Scientific Illustrations

Quite simply, I can answer this question with two examples:


John James Audubon, Mocking Bird [plate 21], from The Birds of America (c. 1827) [from restoredprints.com]


Ernst Haeckel, Discomedusae [plate 8], from Kunstformen der natur (1904) [from wikipedia.org]

Of course, showing these two images doesn’t begin to tell why, exactly, I’m interested in scientific illustration. And I think that’s okay, since I can’t fully explain what about these images drew me into the subject. With Audubon, the sheer size of the illustration fascinated me. A volume of the double elephant folio that is The Birds of America is too big for most people to move by themselves. And it usually comes in four volumes, when bound. The 435 illustrations reflect Audubon’ ambition in the project–“I would have liked to raise an everlasting monument, commemorating with a grand effort the history and portraits of the birds of America.”

Haeckel’s depiction of jellyfish is similar, in some regards, to Audubon’s birds. While Audubon depicted the birds to the size of nature, using artistic license to contort birds in ways no ornithologist has recorded (see plate 431, the American Flamingo), Haeckel used the limits of the page to suggest that nature could not be bound within the margins of a book. His jellyfish seem to escape the page, with tentacles spilling into the folds of the pages.

In early stages of reading (and rereading) on the topic of scientific illustration, I reread Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s Objectivity, wherein they present a history of the idea of scientific objectivity, through the lens of scientific representation. Was objectivity in science something that has always existed? Or did it come about at a certain time, as a result of some technological developments? Or was it a cultural construct?

Daston and Galison piqued my curiosity in their discussion of “truth-to-nature” illustrations, that is, representations of a certain “type” in nature that could fit in for the whole. In presenting a normative idea of nature, these illustrators set some standard by which nature had to exist. Anything larger, smaller, or of different color would be compared to the type.

Similarly, illustrations followed a similar type. Audubon and Haeckel are not typical in scientific illustration, or even, more specifically, in natural history illustration. Audubon’s birds are not in profile, and they have clearly human expressions. Haeckel’s jellyfish emphasize fractal patterns; their tentacles resemble human hair. Yet, they are, or at least they have been, of some use to scientists.

This is where the origin of my interest in scientific illustration became clear– I wanted to know what was normal/typical in scientific illustration, and where the illustrators took license. In the tensions that exist in scientific illustration, cultural values come to light. What are the relative values of art and science? Where do artistry and utility coexist in these illustrations, and can they? Can art and science coexist at all? Arguments over artistic/scientific value of these illustrations continue long after the deaths of the illustrators, and they are important. The beauty of nature is something often heralded, yet the beauty of illustration is often degraded. The existence of the tension between art and science in illustration demonstrates that the two camps are not too far apart. In fact, all of humanity– artists and scientists, too– live somewhere in the middle ground.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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