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The fascinating journey of natural history art

Karamu Festivities by Teyjah McAren

Natural history art dates to the simple yet mesmerizing cave drawings of the Paleolithic era up to present-day artwork depicting fauna and flora. This evolutionary journey makes natural history such an interesting art subject given that it not only records nature’s beauty, but has also helped in classifying, identifying and describing nature’s species for thousands of years.

One of the most interesting facts about natural history art is the fact that it isn’t humans who are depicted in the earliest known drawings; It’s animals. These oldest known cave drawings in Western Europe date back to thirty thousand years ago, and although there isn’t a clear answer as to why they chose animals as their subjects, it has been noted their drawings were greatly important to the people who created them. As the English broadcaster, historian and author David Attenborough describes in the book, Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery, “The fact that some people crawled for half a mile or more along underground passages through the blackness is evidence enough that the production of such pictures was an act of great importance to these artists.”

In other civilizations such as the Egyptians, it’s clearer why they chose animal subjects for their drawings. Egyptians worshipped and regarded certain animals as sacred, and so, they created animal images in the walls of the first cities they built. The innate beauty of these animals was also a contributing factor for their drawing fascination. Egyptians even drew them in their underground tombs as they believed the dead would enjoy and appreciate having these images to reminisce on the past world’s beauty.

The Egyptians also began to learn more about plant uses and cultivation, which is when they started to incorporate plants on their manuscripts and art. They’d categorize and record what they had learned about them and the resources they provided, such as fruits.

Art by BABA Collective

Five thousand years after the Egyptian civilization peaked, medieval monks adorned capital letters of manuscripts with animal illustrations, but it was not until the 12th century that full animal illustrations began appearing on books.

Later in the Renaissance era, natural creatures were of great interest to scholars. One of these scholars was Leonardo Da Vinci who wanted to learn more about animal movement, reproduction and growth. He performed animal dissections in order to study their bodies’ structures and mechanics. He believed by doing so, it would allow him to depict a more accurate portrayal of them. This was also the era when explorers were finding and bringing back new and fascinating species from places such as the Indies, the New World and Africa.

Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, artists themselves decided to travel and document new species around the globe. This was the only way to capture and describe what they had seen given that cameras weren’t yet available. When the lithographic process became the new book printing technique, a vast increase in natural history book production took place as it allowed for easier and much greater detail in printing and illustration.

It is quite reassuring to know that not even the camera could erase the joy of natural history art., To this day, some artists and scientists still prefer to do natural history illustrations by hand. As David Attenborough said, “For no matter what the ostensible motive for their work … there is a common denominator that links all these artists. It is the profound joy felt by all who observe the natural world with a sustained and devoted intensity.”

By: Alexandra Vergara


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