The birds and the bees...(and the flowers and the trees)

CHT163241 Plants from the 'Treatise of Theriac' after Galien, 1217 (vellum), Islamic/ Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Archives Charmet
CHT163241 Plants from the 'Treatise of Theriac' after Galien, 1217 (vellum), Islamic/ Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Archives Charmet

Naturalis Historia

Believed to span the entire field of ancient knowledge, Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder, consists of 37 books on topics ranging from botany, and zoology, to sculpting in marble. Published around AD 77, Pliny’s encyclopedia relates all subject matters to their implicit connection with nature.

De Materia Medica

The De Materia Medica, written by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist, is an encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related topics that was ready widely for more than a 1000 years.  In the middle ages, it was circulated in Latin, Greek and Arabic. Dioscorides' writings were widely commented on and referenced, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age when Arab scholars both preserved earlier traditions while contributing scholarship and innovations of their own.

Charles Darwin

In the 19th century the English naturalist, Charles Darwin, joined the HMS Beagle on a journey to chart the coastline of South America. During the 5-year voyage, Darwin collected and illustrated the many species of animals and birds he came into contact with. These illustrations were published in 5 volumes entitled The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. The H.M.S. Beagle voyage is also where Darwin discovered his inspiration for his theory of natural selection, which he would publish in On the Origin of the Species almost 20 years later. His natural selection theory caused a great deal of controversy and wasn’t fully accepted scientifically until 80 years later and is now the unifying theory of all the life sciences.

Birds of America

In 1820, John James Audubon, a French-American naturalist and painter started on a 14-year quest to find and paint all the birds of North America for eventual publication. In 2010, a well-preserved copy of Audubon’s original book, sold for more than $11 million at auction, making it the world’s most expensive printed book. Audubon's masterpiece is not only comprehensive, with illustrations of over 500 species, but it is huge, with the illustrations measuring 39 by 26 inches. Many of these illustrations come from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a Bridgeman represented collection.

BBC195913 Black-Billed Darter, from 'Birds of America', engraved by Robert Havell, 1836 by John James Audubon/ Private Collection
BBC195913 Black-Billed Darter, from 'Birds of America', engraved by Robert Havell, 1836 by John James Audubon/ Private Collection

ASC138165 Gold and Silver Fish from 'Drawings of Fishes from Malacca', c. 1805-18 (w/c on paper), Chinese / Royal Asiatic Society, London, UK
ASC138165 Gold and Silver Fish from 'Drawings of Fishes from Malacca', c. 1805-18 (w/c on paper), Chinese / Royal Asiatic Society, London, UK

The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings

On the other side of the world, at around the same time, Major General William Farquhar, a Captain for the East India Trading Company, and the British Resident and Commandant of colonial Singapore, was conducting a study of his new residence. From 1819 to 1823, Farquhar commissioned Chinese artists to illustrate the local flora and fauna. This extensive project, produced over 450 watercolors of plants, birds, insects and other animals and played a pivotal role in educating Western naturalists in the biodiversity of the Far East.

Bridgeman holds an impressive number of works from Farquhar's book through our partnership with the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

FIT55423 (detail) Insects (oil on copper) by Jan van Kessel the Elder/ Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK
FIT55423 (detail) Insects (oil on copper) by Jan van Kessel the Elder/ Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK

XIR212825 Iris, from 'La Guirlande de Julie', c. 1642 (w/c on vellum) by Nicolas Robert/ Private Collection, Giraudon
XIR212825 Iris, from 'La Guirlande de Julie', c. 1642 (w/c on vellum) by Nicolas Robert/ Private Collection, Giraudon

Notable Artists

The 17th & 18th centuries seemed particularly suited to the development of artistic subjects such as still lifes and landscapes. Perhaps the tumultuous socio-political nature of the times caused people to gravitate to more gentle, quiet pursuits. In the Dutch Golden Age, Flemish artist Jan van Kessel was known for his still lifes and allegories featuring the natural world. Kessel was obsessed with detail and he is known to have worked alongside scientific texts in order to render his subjects as realistically as possible. Nicolas Robert and Pierre-Joseph Redoute also made their artistic mark through botanical paintings. Nicolas Robert gained his fame through a series of paintings for a book of poetry entitled, Guirlande de Julie. The book, consisting of  36 poems written by the most talented poets of the time, was commissioned as a love letter from Charles de Sainte-Maure to Julie d'Agennes.  Known as the 'Raphael of flowers,' Pierre-Joseph Redoute was a court artist for Queen Marie Antoinette. Redoute was also a botanist and contributed over 2,100 plates depicting over 1,800 different species of flower, many never rendered before. Alongside his Impressionist contemporaries, 19th century French symbolist painter Odilon Redon rendered beautiful floral still lifes which retain a thoroughly modern feel.

Bridgeman represents many contemporary artists whose art focuses on the natural world. Ranging from whimsical works by artists Rebecca Campbell and Suad Al-Attar, to Expressionist works by Hungarian artist,  Marta Martoni-Benke to colorful landscapes and still lifes by Diego Rivera's grandson, artist Pedro Diego Alvarado.

Research & Copyright Assistance

This article only touches on the large and diverse collection of material available through the Bridgeman archive. If you are looking for images for an upcoming project, let Bridgeman researchers put together a selection for you. Send requests to: sales@bridgemanart.co.uk


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