Observation of the Natural World

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, field research bloomed as a desire for exploration and documentation was met by artists with the access, expertise, and drafting skill to observe and record the natural world. From botany to ornithology to mycology and beyond, researchers with a deep appreciation for their surroundings (and perhaps a sense that the environment was changing before their eyes) set out with the artistic tools to chronicle the world as they saw it, filled with flora and fauna distinctive to their place, time, and ecosystems. Many of the specimens they recorded have since become extinct or changed habitats entirely. In these precise and thorough depictions lies an intuition—a sense of diligence and foresight to capture the organic world as it may not always be.

These artists, like so many of their peers, could have painted landscapes or portraits to adorn private homes or salons as was not only customary but fashionable at the time. Instead, a new hybrid of scientist and artist became visual stewards, creating guides and gathering data with the notion that they would reach the public and be of use. This effort would stimulate admiration and an understanding of nature in both printed matter and public consciousness. Identification and appreciation are adjacent to reverence, as anyone who has hiked with a pocket wildflower guide or listened for the distinctions between native bird calls can attest.

Part of the beauty of these works—beyond the clear mastery of draftsmanship, attention to subject matter, and composition—is that they were created to be disseminated. They were, rather uniquely within the art world, made to become prints. We find line work particular to the etching plate, accompanied by identifying and explanatory text, all of which are rigorously catalogued and editioned. The earliest examples viewers will see in this exhibit are etchings printed by hand with black ink and then hand-colored. Later editions after the advent of lithography allowed master printers to incorporate hand- selected colors into the printmaking process in addition to the meticulous recreation of etched black line. In short, printmaking helped to shape a legacy in which this new amalgam of fine art and visual index could be useful to the masses. Observational field work, elevated by impressive artistry and anchored in unflinchingly empirical realism, thus made its way into the collective aesthetic.