And if you liked this post, be sure to check out these popular posts:
1 of 78
Colorful bandfish drawn by Louis Renard in his 18th-century, Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes. Approximately nine percent of the fish featured in this 1754 work are completely fantastical.American Museum of Natural History Library
2 of 78
Asteridea, a flowering plant in the daisy family, drawn by Ernst Haeckel in Kunstformen der Natur or Art Forms of Nature from the early 19th century.American Museum of Natural History Library
3 of 78
Illustrations of "insektenfressnde pflanzen," or insectivorous plants, from the book Meyers Konversations-Lexikon in 1890. These are carnivorous plants.Biodiversity Heritage Library
4 of 78
A colony of beetles from Zhuki Rossii i zapadnoĭ Evropy by G. G. Iakobsona, which displays a variety of beetle species from Russia and western Europe. Biodiversity Heritage Library
5 of 78
This is a printing of a Southern African Hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis) from 1838's Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa, volume 1, part two. It was based on drawings by George Henry Ford and Charles M. Curtis. Biodiversity Heritage Library
6 of 78
Anatomy of a cephalopod drawn by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter in 1910's Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
7 of 78
Chitons, shown here, are marine mollusks. These were drawn by Jean-Gabriel Prêtre for the early 19th-century book, Voyage de la corvette l'Astrolabe, which was a rare publication on oceanic creatures that had been examined during a French expedition.Biodiversity Heritage Library
8 of 78
Artist Sarah Stone illustrated the 1790 book, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, which contained this depiction of a cassowary.Public Library
9 of 78
Colorful wrasses illustrated by artist and ichthyologist Mary Margaret Smith for The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa published in 1949.Biodiversity Heritage Library
10 of 78
A Cotinga River Toadhead or Phrynops tuberosus, a fresh water turtle endemic to South America. This was the work of J.D.L. Franz Wagner for Monatsberichte der Königlichen Preussische Akademie des Wissenschaften zu Berlin in 1870.Biodiversity Heritage Library
11 of 78
A crested cockatoo by nature artist Sarah Stone. Her work was so popular that she was invited to exhibit her paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts, which was still closed to women artists in the 18th century.Public Library
12 of 78
Anatomy of a cucumber plant from the 1737 book A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell. She was one of the first successful female botanical artists and she handmade her book in order to secure funds for her husband's release from prison.Biodiversity Heritage Library
13 of 78
Drawing of Sturt's Desert Pea, Swainsona formosa, one of Australia's most recognizable wildflowers. The artwork was done by P. Stroobant for volume 12 of L'Illustration Horticole. Biodiversity Heritage Library
14 of 78
A fairy shrimp by Christine Etiennette Pernette Jurine for Histoire des monocles qui se trouvent aux environs de Genève which was authored by her father, Louis Jurine, in 1820.Biodiversity Heritage Library
15 of 78
A vibrant rendering of the flaming torch plant from Annales de la Société Royale d'Agriculture et de Botanique de Gand in the 19th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
16 of 78
The young hippopotamus Obayasch who lived in the Cairo garden of the British Consulate. The calf was drawn by artist Joseph Wolf.Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London/American Museum of Natural History Library
17 of 78
A fox illustration from the book of British mammals from the early 20th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
18 of 78
Drawing of a Guinea pepper by Elizabeth Blackwell in the 18th- century book A Curious Herbal.Biodiversity Heritage Library
19 of 78
These hand-colored plates depict frogs from Senegal and the Gambia. They were published in a rare book describing 700 animals titled Faune de la Sénégambie.Biodiversity Heritage Library
20 of 78
A Velodona togata octopus which was first described by Carl Chun in 1910. Artist Friedrich Wilhelm Winter drew the cephalopod for Chun's Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
21 of 78
Gem anemone (Aulactinia verrucosa) by George Brettingham Sowerby for his Popular History of the Aquarium of Marine and Fresh-water Animals and Plants from 1857.Biodiversity Heritage Library
22 of 78
A ribbon lizard (top) and broad-tailed lizard (bottom) drawn by Sarah Stone in the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.Public Library
23 of 78
Meadow rose (Rosa blanda) and hairy beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) by Agnes Fitzgibbon Chamberlin for Canadian Wild Flowers in 1868.Biodiversity Heritage Library
24 of 78
Sketch of an emu which is endemic to Australia. According to the inscription along the bottom, the bird stood at 12 feet tall.Biodiversity Heritage Library
25 of 78
A variety of mollusks in A Conchological Manual published in 1839. It was authored and illustrated by George Brettingham Sowerby II.Biodiversity Heritage Library
26 of 78
A table of vegetable poisons illustrated with hand-colored lithographs by George Edward Madeley. These species of plants can be found around the U.K.Biodiversity Heritage Library
27 of 78
A soft drawing of narwhals by Louis A. Sargent from volume two of The wild beasts of the world published in the early 20th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
28 of 78
Left is an engraving of an owl by Alexander Wilson in the 19th century. It was later transferred to copper plates and then printed and hand colored by artists.American Museum of Natural History Library
29 of 78
Illustration of a potoroo, an endangered marsupial the size of a rabbit, from Sarah Stone's Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.Public Library
30 of 78
"Venomous Australian Snakes" illustrated by Helena Scott Forde for Snakes of Australia which was meant to be the country's definitive guide to endemic snakes.Public Library
31 of 78
The rattan palm (Ceratolobus glaucescens) from Java, Indonesia, as depicted in Historia naturalis palmarum which described all the then-known species in the palm family.Biodiversity Heritage Library
32 of 78
A vibrant flower illustration by by Louise-Cécile Descamps-Sabouret. The artwork was published in Revue Horticole in 1899. Biodiversity Heritage Library
33 of 78
Various illustrations of Opisthoteuthis verrill otherwise known as the flapjack octopus from Carl Chun's groundbreaking journal Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
34 of 78
A 1922 illustration of a komodo dragon from Indonesia.
Biodiversity Heritage Library
35 of 78
Art work of a reel fish from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London published in 1871.Biodiversity Heritage Library
36 of 78
A purple-winged roller (Coracias temminckii) from Indonesia created by John Gerrard Keulemans for the Monograph of the Coraciidae, or Family of the Rollers.Biodiversity Heritage Library
37 of 78
Purple amaranth or Amaranthus cruentus drawn in 1898 by Helen Sharp. The artwork was included in the fifth volume of her watercolor album of North American and European plants.Biodiversity Heritage Library
38 of 78
Sacoglossans or "sap-sucking sea slugs" are a species found in the western Mediterranean and nearby Atlantic regions. This artwork came from Æolididae e famiglie affini del porto di Genova published in the 19th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
39 of 78
Lithograph of sea urchins from Echinoidea for the Expedition Report. Biodiversity Heritage Library
40 of 78
Species of snake drawn by Sarah Stone.Public Library
41 of 78
The ocean sunfish or mola mola is one of the heaviest known bony fishes in the world. This artwork was published in 1898's Spolia Atlantica by Johannes Japetus Sm. Steenstrup and Christian Frederik Lütken.Biodiversity Heritage Library
42 of 78
The tree houseleek (Aeonium arboreum) from the Canary Islands as drawn in Flora Graeca by Ferdinand Lukas Bauer for John Sibthorp.Biodiversity Heritage Library
43 of 78
The Vampyroteuthis infernalis or "vampire squid from hell" named by explorer Carl Chun after his 20th-century oceanic expedition. This was drawn by Friedrich Wilhelm Winter for Chun's 1910 Cephalopod Atlas.Biodiversity Heritage Library
44 of 78
The pungent chatedon (above) and granulated Balistes (below) by artist Sarah Stone. As a child, she learned a kind of folk chemistry by using materials from local plants and household items.Public Library
45 of 78
Artwork of a buck and deer from a book of illustrated British mammals by Archibald Thorburn.Biodiversity Heritage Library
46 of 78
A 19th-century illustration of a crab covered in barnacles by naturalist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst.Biodiversity Heritage Library
47 of 78
Anatomy of a peach from the 19th-century nature journal Le Règne végétal.Biodiversity Heritage Library
48 of 78
A white-jointed spider from the Australian wild as drawn by Sarah Stone. Public Library
49 of 78
A jungle cat taken from Part 1: Cats, Civets, and Mongooses of the 1896 book Handbook to the Carnivora.Biodiversity Heritage Library
50 of 78
Artwork depicting various winged insects by German artist Maria Eleonora Hochecker who created drawings for many natural history publications, including Ludwig Gottlieb Scriba's insect book Beiträge zu der Insekten-Geschichte.Biodiversity Heritage Library
51 of 78
This glorious fish is catalogued in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands which was published in 1754. The specimen is referred to as "the great hog fish."Biodiversity Heritage Library
52 of 78
Wrasses by Mary Margaret Smith for The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa of 1949. Biodiversity Heritage Library
53 of 78
These butterflies were illustrated by a renowned entomologist named Eugène Séguy circa 1925.Biodiversity Heritage Library
54 of 78
Illustration of a pink swan from an old scientific journal. Biodiversity Heritage Library
55 of 78
A rock manakin drawn by Sarah Stone.Public Library
56 of 78
This 1909 drawing of a shark attacking the front of a boat is included in a collection of fish tales. It's unclear whether this scene actually happened or whether it came from the artist's wild imagination.Biodiversity Heritage Library
57 of 78
An owl from an unidentified 1769 collection.Biodiversity Heritage Library
58 of 78
A saw fish from a 1796 book on the anatomy of various fish. Biodiversity Heritage Library
59 of 78
Illustration of Oxyrhina glauca — now called Isurus oxyrinchus — which is the Shortfin mako shark. Artwork from Systematische Beschreibung der Plagiostomen in 1841.Biodiversity Heritage Library
60 of 78
A mother sea lion with her pup on an Australian beach as drawn by a nature artist.Biodiversity Heritage Library
61 of 78
Lobster drawing from a German book on crabs circa late 18th century. Biodiversity Heritage Library
62 of 78
Various hyenas pictured together from an 1897 collection. These different species are likely all pictured together to display their differences.Biodiversity Heritage Library
63 of 78
A bizarre depiction of a lizard from an 18th-century book. It wasn't until later on that nature illustrations became less fantastical and more anatomically accurate.Biodiversity Heritage Library
64 of 78
Illustration of a purple flower in bloom.Biodiversity Heritage Library
65 of 78
A lion from a 1903 magazine of natural history. The inscription on the bottom refers to the lion's ability to camouflage itself as 'protective coloration.'Biodiversity Heritage Library
66 of 78
A gorgeous peacock from 1794's The Natural History of British Birds or A Selection of the Most Rare, Beautiful and Interesting Birds Which Inhabit This Country.Biodiversity Heritage Library
67 of 78
The elegant eggs of the Pomatorhine skua, a British sea bird.Biodiversity Heritage Library
68 of 78
A page from the 1919 journal The Book of Dogs by Ernest Harold Baynes and Louis Agassiz Fuertes.Biodiversity Heritage Library
69 of 78
An 1872 illustration of the South African Angulate tortoise. Biodiversity Heritage Library
70 of 78
A spiny butterfly or giant butterfly ray of yore drawn in the 19th century.
Biodiversity Heritage Library
71 of 78
A 1916 depiction of a polar bear over a ribbon seal.Biodiversity Heritage Library
72 of 78
Anatomy of a pomegranate by popular botany artist Elizabeth Blackwell from the 18th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
73 of 78
An anatomical rendering of the inside of an elephant's head from an early 20th-century journal.Biodiversity Heritage Library
74 of 78
A colorful chimaera fish or ghost shark.Biodiversity Heritage Library
75 of 78
A colored drawing of a saffrong plant, complete with its flower and roots. The artwork came from Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal.Biodiversity Heritage Library
76 of 78
A red lily and an eastern mudsnake as drawn in 1754.Biodiversity Heritage Library
77 of 78
A selection of colorful sea creatures that includes a pebble crab, a striped eel catfish, a longhorn cowfish, and a damselfish.Biodiversity Heritage Library
77 Fantastical Illustrations Of The Natural World, From Deep-Sea Octopuses To Carnivorous Plants
It's hard to imagine since the advent of digital imaging, microscopic enhancements, and high-resolution photography that once upon a time the natural world could be viewed only through our eyes.
Long before the days of instant and modern photography, scientists relied on the skilled hands of artists to recreate their discoveries on paper. The results were surprisingly lifelike — and occasionally rather fantastical.
Botanical illustration, in particular, was a crucial art form for centuries. Dating back to ancient Egypt, these detailed renderings helped people to identify edible plants or plants that could be used for dyes and wares. As the ages progressed, the practice of botanical illustration remained useful for traders in 17th-century Holland, for example, to help tulip bulb collectors to record rare differences in their precious flowers during the so-called Tulip Mania.
As the sciences advanced along with our ability to explore the world so too did the art of nature illustration. The results were stunning.
The Merging Of Science And Art
Biodiversity Heritage LibraryBotanical illustrations such as this commonly displayed the many parts and stages of a plant and its life.
Natural illustrations were vital educational tools and the art itself became rather esteemed. For example, artist Sarah Stone was among the first and few successful female nature artists and she was a highly-sought collaborator on scientific journals.
By the age of 21, Stone was invited to exhibit four of her works at the Royal Academy of Arts — a proud achievement since the institute was still closed to women artists at the time.
Stone received commissions from many notable explorers, including Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales which popularized the intriguing beasts seen by British settlers when they arrived in Australia.
Despite the labor and cost that these nature illustrations commanded, for centuries they gave readers an even better look at wild specimens than early photographs.
"An illustration can show various parts of a plant at the same time, something a photo really can't," said Robin Jess, director of the New York Botanical Garden's Botanical Art and Illustration program.
"The illustration does it better than almost anything else," added Laurence J. Dorr of the Botanical program.
"And does it much, much better than a photograph."
Over time, this niche art form has naturally become less popular with the invention of modern photography which has rendered the documentation of nature quicker, easier, and cheaper.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library
Public LibraryThe Variegated Lizard by Sarah Stone from her pioneering nature book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.
In 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution digitized thousands of natural illustrations from as early as the 1400s in a collection made accessible to the general public.
The extensive collection ranges from black and white line drawings to full-color paintings, allowing the general public the opportunity to explore a world of newly identified flora and fauna which were then still untouched by the effects of human presence. The collection is both educational and eye-catching. It also features a range of scientific illustrations of mythical creatures that the world's naturalists once believed could be real.
While the images are undoubtedly beautiful glimpses into a bygone era, they are also a useful tool when it comes to preservation and cataloging species.
Researchers at the BHL believe that the vintage artwork could help modern-day entomologists better understand how insect species have been affected by natural disasters, such as the Australian wildfires. The collection can also prove vital to researchers in their attempts to recreate damaged ecosystems in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Indeed, some of the flora depicted in the collection have changed dramatically since they were first illustrated, demonstrating life's ability to adapt to change.
The images also demonstrate a way of thinking about the natural world that is different from how scientists think today. Some images show how societal norms influenced art and science. For instance, many of the animal illustrations depict creatures in family units in order to make them more relatable to humans in accordance with their own social values.
Many of the elephant images, specifically, show a mother and father elephant accompanied by a baby. Unfortunately, drawing the natural world in accordance with social norms would sometimes fail to portray how these animals actually lived. In reality, young elephants typically live only with their mothers while the male elephants tend to roam alone.
Launched in 2006, the BHL is the world's largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. The library aims to provide the public with access to archival materials that are generally only available in small libraries or aging volumes.
The consortium hopes to bring these small volumes to researchers around the world in order to expand the appreciation for the importance of biodiversity.
With the newly-digitized library, the BHL is bringing an appreciation for history, an understanding of art, and education on the importance of both to the masses.