Press release date: 
Tuesday, December 24, 2002

The wonder and beauty of nature, richly documented for over nearly a thousand years, is the subject of Picturing Natural History: Flora and Fauna in Drawings, Manuscripts, and Printed Books, the Morgan Library's first exhibition devoted to natural history illustration. This show brings to light the variety and splendor of some of the Morgan's most celebrated collections. On view from February 12 through May 4, 2003, Picturing Natural History is the last major exhibition before the Morgan closes to the public for approximately two years to undergo an extensive expansion project.

Picturing Natural History: Flora and Fauna in Drawings, Manuscripts, and Printed Books is sponsored by The Fay Elliott Foundation. Generous assistance is provided by The H. P. Kraus Fund, Con Edison, and MetLife Foundation.

The exhibition has been organized by Kathleen Stuart, Assistant Curator, Drawings and Prints, Morgan Library.

The term natural history illustration, which came into use during the seventeenth century, refers to images of plants and animals created by an artist for documentation and study. The practice of illustrating nature, however, began in antiquity. Using nearly a hundred drawings, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and printed books from the permanent collections, Picturing Natural History presents an overview of the varied ways artists and naturalists described, documented, and explained the world of nature through illustration. Dating from the tenth through the nineteenth century, the works on view also demonstrate how these developments in natural history illustration paralleled the European voyages of exploration and the emergence of science.

This exhibition is drawn largely from works acquired by Pierpont Morgan and his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., and especially Mrs. J. P. Morgan, who assembled an impressive collection of natural history drawings and printed books that came to the Morgan through the generosity of her sons, Junius S. Morgan and Henry S. Morgan. The Morgan's collections of works related to flora and fauna grew thanks to the encouragement of Charles Ryskamp during his tenure as director and through his gifts as well as those of numerous donors, in particular Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw and the Sunny Crawford von Bülow Fund 1978. This exhibition also honors the generous loans from Roxana Robinson and other collectors who wish to remain anonymous.

Exhibition Arrangement and Highlights

Picturing Natural History: Flora and Fauna in Drawings, Manuscripts, and Printed Books traces the development of the pictorial representation of plants and animals. The exhibition is organized in five chronological sections, ranging from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. Works on view include master drawings, sumptuous illuminated manuscripts, and rare illustrated books.

Some of the earliest natural history illustrations were made for ancient medical treatises as aids in identifying plants with medicinal properties. Because medieval artists copied existing illustrations rather than drawing from life, over time these representations became highly stylized and barely recognizable. The exhibition begins with a rare tenth-century copy of the most prominent medical treatise from antiquity, De materia medica (The Materials of Medicine). Written by the Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides (active about A.D. 50), De materia medica was the most popular compendium of remedies during the Middle Ages and was copied continually until the advent of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. The Morgan's copy comprises representations of over 750 plants, animals, and other naturalia.

Artists first attempted the naturalistic depiction of flora and fauna in manuscripts of sacred texts, where their presence signified God's beneficence. Such naturalistic portrayals helped establish the climate in which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists undertook a more systematic study of their subjects by drawing them from life.

Several extraordinary works from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance are on view, including a masterpiece of this period, the Book of Hours painted for Catherine of Cleves around 1440 with representations of a dazzling variety of plants and animals. Illuminated by a Netherlandish artist known as the Master of Catherine of Cleves (active 1430–60), the manuscript border of the page on view depicts mussels and a crab surrounding St. Ambrose in prayer. Such highly naturalistic representations of animals marked the shift from the medieval copying tradition to the empiricism that characterized the Renaissance.

Another significant work from the late Middle Ages is an illumination of a horse from Livro de la Menscalcia de li cavalli. The signs of the zodiac are represented in the areas of its body thought to be controlled by the astrological symbols. This veterinary treatise by the Roman author and veterinarian Lorenzo Rusio (1288–1347) was written and illuminated in Ferrara, Italy, about 1425. The manuscript once belonged to the library of Giovanni Maria della Salla (1505–1534), Master of the Horse to Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara. Astrology was linked closely to the practice of both veterinary and human medicine throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

Among the earliest drawings on view, Heraldic Lion; Hunting Scene with Dogs, Hare, Owl, Boar, and Fox are from a sketchbook of fourteen vellum leaves, executed by an anonymous northern Italian artist during the late fourteenth century. Other subjects in this sketchbook include children's games, labors of the months, and daily occupations. Since medieval artists generally made preparatory drawings on disposable wax tablets, very few drawings executed before about 1400 survive except those preserved in extremely rare books such as this one. Artists made and collected such drawings as a visual repertory of models to be copied into manuscript borders and other works of art.

Drawing from nature became a necessity for the illustrators of early printed herbals as plants unknown to classical authors were brought to Europe from newly explored areas of the world. The exhibition presents several examples of the Morgan's renowned collection of such works, including one of the first books with illustrations drawn from life, Herbarum vivae eicones ad nature imitationem by Otto Brunfels (ca. 1488–1534), published in 1530–32. On view is a woodcut of the herb pellitory-of-the-wall, which derives its name from its habit of growing on external walls and is found throughout central and southern Europe. A member of the nettle family, it was used in the treatment of kidney stones.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, artists made increasingly systematic studies of their subjects. These works also greatly proliferated owing to burgeoning interest in plant and animal science. Collectors gathered rare specimens from the Americas and the East and hired artists to document their holdings in drawings and prints.

Nicolas Robert (1614–1685), the greatest flower painter of the seventeenth century, was commissioned by Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) to illustrate a book of flowers and plants for a planned multivolume series documenting the collection of the royal gardens. The project was not completed during Robert's lifetime, and his designs were printed in 1788 and hand-colored by Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Henri-Joseph Redouté. On view is Muskmelon, an engraving after a drawing by Robert executed on this royal commission.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also witnessed the ascendance of the artist-explorer. Picturing Natural History presents a selection of works by some of the period's most important, including Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), the pioneering artist who traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam on the northern coast of South America in 1699 in order to study its flora and fauna firsthand. A superb example of her work, Surinam Lizard served as the model in reverse for the engraving that appears as plate 70 in her monumental publication, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (second edition, 1719). A gifted artist, Merian produced work that was highly prized during her lifetime and collected by such powerful rulers as Peter the Great (1672–1725).

Also on view are Bead Snake and Mountain Laurel, studies by the eighteenth-century British artist-naturalist Mark Catesby (1682–1749) for his most important book and the most significant work of natural history in eighteenth-century America, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, published in two volumes in 1731–43. Catesby was one of the first European naturalists to study the flora and fauna of the southeastern American colonies.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, artists sought ever greater fidelity to nature. Advances in methods of printing, especially stipple engraving and lithography, allowed for heightened accuracy in the delineation of plants and animals. Two artists who dominate this period are Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840) and John James Audubon (1785–1851). Redouté was the most celebrated flower painter of his day. Dubbed "the Raphael of flowers," he served as draftsman to the cabinet of Marie-Antoinette and after the revolution made for Josephine Bonaparte drawings of the rare and exotic plants in the gardens of Malmaison. He is represented by his lavish color-illustrated books Les Liliacées (1802–16) and Les Roses (1817–24) as well as individual flower portraits.

A copy of the most famous work by John James Audubon, America's preeminent artist-naturalist, is on view. Birds of America was published from 1827 to 1838 in four double elephant folio volumes comprising 435 plates. Audubon probably drew the Brown Pelican, on view, shown perched on a mangrove branch, in the Florida Keys in April or May 1832.