Special Collections


"The Animal Kingdom: Six Centuries of Zoological Illustration" is based on the superb collection of books in Special Collections containing scientific and artistic images of animals dating from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The exhibition includes images of animals from early printed herbals and travel books of the sixteenth century. These artists rarely work from actual specimens but from their imaginations or from the descriptions of others. The results were often fantastic creatures such as unicorns and mermaids. Books in the exhibit from this period include Petri Andreæ Matthioli senensis medici: commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis and Ortus sanitatis.

As the great age of exploration continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, explorers brought back animal specimens, both dead and alive, resulting in more realistic depictions. Later voyages included artists in their crews, creating the first drawings of exotic creatures done from life. Important works from this period include Mark Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Illustration during this period was also influenced by the development of the microscope, allowing for animals to be described at a cellular level. Robert Hooke's Micrographia restaurata of 1745 shows insects much larger than life.

The nineteenth century brought the great works of zoological illustration, both scientifically and artistically. The works of John J. Audubon still stand as masterpieces of illustration. The University of Delaware is fortunate to own several Audubon publications including the Bien edition of Birds of America (1860) and the elephant folio edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845). Other important works of the period in the exhibition include Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology (1808) and Spencer Fullerton Baird, The Birds of North America (1870). The great age of zoological illustration ended with the development of photography. While there were still some drawings and paintings used to illustrate natural history texts in the twentieth century, the era of the scientist/artist had come to an end.

The artistic use of animal imagery, however, remains strong. Many well-known artists and fine-press printers have produced books on animals, both real and imaginary. The artist Leonard Baskin made several including Diptera: A Book of Flies & Other Insects (1983). Images by books artists including John Digby, John De Pol and Peter Koch show the variety and creativity of animal illustration today.

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