The practice of illustrating nature began in antiquity but got a jump-start in the 16th century when the Americas and the Far East and their exotic wildlife and plants were discovered by Europe. Later scientific exploration of the Pacific world by explorers such as Capt. James Cook inspired an 18th-century passion for natural history art that lasted until the invention of photography in the 19th century.
The Morgan has drawn entirely on its own rich sources of drawings, watercolors, manuscripts, and printed books, many of them collected by Mrs. J.P. Morgan, in selecting the 91 images in the show, "Picturing Natural History," the first the library has ever devoted to this area of illustration. It will run through May 4, when the library will be closed for two years for extensive expansion by architect Rnezo Piano of its three-building midtown complex.
Some of the earliest depictions of plants and animals were made for medical treatises such as "The Materials of Medicine," written by Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D. A 10th-century copy in the show contains pictures of more than 750 sources of remedies for various ailments. The pages are turned to depictions of iris and curly dock in colors as fresh as when they were applied to the vellum.
The drawings in these treatises are stiff, highly stylized, and obviously not drawn from life, resulting in many obvious misconceptions such as the portrayal of a mandrake plant with a nude woman forming its roots in a hand-colored woodcut published in an early printed book in Germany in 1485. It was commonly believed at the time that the plant's roots resembled the torso and legs of a woman.
Naturalism in depiction was introduced in manuscripts such as Catherine of Cleves' Book of Hours (1440), illuminated by artist-monks who used tiny flora and fauna (including mussels and crabs) in decorative page borders, a custom that persisted until the dawn of the Renaissance in Italy. Only then do we get sketches from life such as the sketchbook of drawings of a hunting scene with dogs, and pictures of a hare, owl, boar and fox dating from the late 14th century.
The show is rich in these early Italian animal and bird drawings brushed with tempera. Particularly beautiful is a study of a quizzical-looking dromedary in a landscape attributed to the great 15th-century artist Gentile Bellini, carefully molded with cross hatching suggesting the fall of light on the camel's form. Bellini is believed to have sketched it in the Ottoman Sultan's zoo on a visit to Constantinople.
Contributions from French and Netherlandish artists are notable beginning in the 17th century. A sketchbook of watercolors by Frenchman Jacques Le Moyne combines flowers and insects, including lifelike grasshoppers, on the same page, and a page of nature studies by Dutch artist Jacques De Gheyn II is notable for a lively dragonfly about to soar on raised wings.
Album leaves of watercolors were highly prized by collectors and often depicted rarities from America and the Orient such as Johnannes Bronckhorst's watercolor, "Bird of Paradise," a study of a live specimen brought from New Guinea. The tulip from Turkey was the cause of a bulb craze in the Netherlands in the 1630s that ended in a financial debacle for many investors but not before it had inspired beautiful watercolors of tulips such as Jacob Marrell's study of a variegated red and white specimen.
Since natural history drawing was considered a ladylike occupation, it attracted many women. Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian painted "Heron Encircled by a Snake" and "Surinam Lizard" -- a fascinatingly belligerent reptile that is the poster animal for the show -- on a visit to the Dutch colony in South America in 1699. Her countrywoman Alida Withoos is represented by a lovely watercolor depiction of a nasturtium. Madeleine de Basseport, a French artist, specialized in brilliantly colored watercolors of butterflies.
Outstanding from a scientific viewpoint were the gouache paintings of 18th-century English artist-naturalist Mark Catesby, who published the first natural history picture books of American flora and fauna as the result of his visits to the American South. He is represented by studies of the bead snake and the lilythorn plant. Almost as well-known was his German contemporary, Georg Dionysius Ehret, amply represented by watercolors including coral, fungus, and sea holly.
Some of the most refined and graceful plant studies in the show are by Pierre-Joseph Redoute, the French artist who enjoyed the patronage of Empress Josephine and worked in her gardens and greenhouses at Malmaison. He made a specialty of watercolors of roses, reproductions of which are still popular for American bedroom decoration. Also still popular are Audubon's paintings for his four-volume "Birds of America," represented in the show by a hand-tinted double-elephant folio engraving of the brown pelican.
Some of the more recent artists have literary as well as artistic reputations. The British 19th-century nonsense verse writer Edward Lear was a landscape painter as well as a prolific painter of animals and birds. His unique study of a parakeet in flight is a showstopper. Also in the show is a highly professional 1886 watercolor of an orchid cactus by Beatrix Potter, the British author who illustrated her own famous children's books. She was only 20 when she painted it.