Reproduction only for non-commercial use.
© April 2004; revised 7 August 2006 > HOME

Gallery Exhibit, Catalog Nos. 6 & 15 & 16 & 17 & 18 & 19 & 20 & 22 & 23 & 24

This is the 1st of four portraits in the Gallery Exhibit on Melancholy. Links to the introduction and other three parts of the exhibit are located towards the bottom of this page.
Portraits of Melancholy — I
Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514
Dürer's _Melencolia I_, 1514
AS WITH DÜRER’S OTHER nature studies, Melencolia I belongs to what Fritz Koreny has called “the incunabula of scientific illustration.” It is a brilliant psychological study by one of the most diligent observers of the phenomenal world. As Dürer himself stated:

... But life in nature manifests the truth of these things.... Therefore observe it diligently, go by it and do not depart from nature arbitrarily, imagining to find the better by thyself, for thou wouldst be misled. For, verily, “art” is embedded in nature; he who can extract it has it.
(qtd. in Koreny 1988, pp. 13–14)

As Koreny points out, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was neither a zoologist nor an anatomist, preferring to observe creatures and plants from the outside, rather than dissecting them in order to display their inner construction, as did Leonardo da Vinci. But with his artistic extractions — and “curious cuts,” as Burton called the engravings — Dürer achieved a level of visual cognition that Burton, for one, fully appreciated.

View an enlarged 1000 x 1288 pixel JPG image (457KB)

Dürer’s Melencolia I belongs to a very different visual culture than that associated with later Renaissance stylized portraits of melancholy. While the two traditions of psychological portraiture may share certain visual topoi (such as showing the subject’s head resting heavily on her hand), Dürer’s Melancholy is drawn in a spirit of natural inquiry similar to that pictured by words in Burton’s book. Colin Eisler has glossed it as follows:

Melencolia I, steeped in references to many a black art, including that of printmaking itself, is filled with magical numerical clues and charts, malevolent, baleful stars and evil humors, with a dog-faced bat acting as label, bearing the engraving’s title on its leathery, repulsive wings. The closer you get to the describable and the tangible, the keener an awareness of the elusive and the mystical becomes.

(Eisler 1991, p. 324)

Eisler describes the engraving’s subject as an

... aspect of contemplation, the personification of morbid thought ... The personification of that morbid temperament broods as a bat flies through the skies, proclaiming the print’s sad subject and tragic mood, one of knowledge without light, suspended between creativity and inaction, lost in black thought.

(Eisler 1991, p. 145)

As such, Dürer’s Melancholy and her dog

... are in a studious setting resembling a cross between a craftsman’s workshop and a cabalist’s alchemical courtyard, filled with all the tools and instruments that she is kept from using by her black humor. In Adam and Eve of 1504, Melancholy was depicted as a sad elk, looming in the background of paradise, but here the dog takes over that temperament. Believed to be supremely intelligent of all beasts, the dog was deemed necessarily the most melancholy. A writer of Dürer’s time noted how “the most sagacious of dogs are those who carry a melancholy face before themselves,” and in his Anatomy of Melancholy, [Robert] Burton observed that dogs were of all animals most often subject to that malady. ‘They dream as men do, and, through violence of melancholy, run mad.’ Under Sirius, an evil star, the dog days of summer start, those of wildest, blackest despair.
Squeezed between a tetrahedron and a globe, Melencolia I’s greyhound seems to be forcing his lean form into a compact pretzel. He dozes fitfully; his eyes almost closed, as if the active life, streaking through the woods and fields, were but a dream; in Dürer’s original drawing, known only from a copy, the hound’s eyelids seem to flicker. Even asleep, the dog shares his mistress’s restlessness.

(Eisler 1991, pp. 176–7)

As for the bat, another well-known symbol of melancholy,

Bats, like most nocturnal animals and other lovers of the dark, tend to carry connotations of evil. The fifteenth-century scientist and theologian Nicholas of Cusa wrote, “Just as the eye of a bat hides itself from the light of day, so does our soul’s eye hide from an understanding of what is clearest in nature.” Certainly the best known bat in all art before Goya’s flies in Melencolia I of 1514. Though its fearful head resembles that of the European brown bat, the creature’s widespread wings and curly tail are nearer Gothic fancy than zoological fact. A German scholar has suggested that Melancholy’s bat announces not only the subject of this print but also its cure. Boiled bats were prescribed in antiquity for ailments of the spleen, where excessive black bile, the melancholy fluid, was secreted.

(Eisler 1991, p. 98)

     These were all themes that Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would revisit, perhaps in ironic dialogue with Dürer’s well-known print. In the second partition of his very long book, Burton lists the “curious cuts” of “Albertus Durer” as among the visual delights capable of temporarily easing the black despond of melancholy. To what extent this was yet another example of Burton’s wry humor is anybody’s guess.

     Certainly, Dürer’s works were well known in Burton’s day, and continued to influence the Baroque scientific imagination. Robert Hooke, for example, owned a copy of “Alb. Durers works,” which he purchased for four shillings on 23 July 1675. Like Burton, Hooke would revisit certain trademark Dürer themes, such as when he showed his window reflected 19 times in a fly’s composite eye (Schem. XXIII, fig. 3 in Micrographia), here repeating a detail from Dürer’s famous engraving of a rabbit, whose eye also showed a reflection.

As glossed by Fritz Koreny in Albrecht Dürer and the Animal and Plant Studies of the Renaissance (1988):

“The popularity of this watercolor lies not only in the subject and the ‘touching gentleness of the crouching animal,’ in the rendering of its body’s color and textual quality, or the feeling of ‘soft fur and delicate tone structure,’ but also in the masterly, unsurpassable sureness of the brushwork, which appears to register each separate hair precisely. Only closer inspection reveals how readily the eye can be deceived. One becomes aware of astonishing artistic economy, perceiving how the basic color impression is established simply and clearly, with a broad, fluent brush, in gray and light brown, over which several layers of detailed, very fine brush strokes work the optical effect. On top of that, white is used, sometimes mixed with yellow, or dark brown, to suggest the hairs of the fur and the brightness of the eyes. The many nuances of color gradations and the differentiated brush strokes evoke the illusion of thick, soft fur and throbbing life. The luxurious long fur on the breast, the curly fur on the forehead and ears, the fleecy fur on the belly and thighs and the hairs on the back, the whiskers on the nose, alive with tension, and those above the eyes — each part is endowed with individual expression.”

Albrecht Dürer. Hare (Lepus europaeus Pallas), 1502. Watercolor and gouache, heightened with white.
t is assumed that Dürer worked from a live model in his studio, because of the window crossbar mirrored in the hare’s eyes, and because Dürer “has not just painted the hare’s portrait but also captured the animal’s personality.”
View an enlarged 1000 x 1099 pixel JPG image (281KB)
Albrecht Dürer. Hare (Lepus europaeus Pallas), 1502. Watercolor and gouache, heightened with white.
Detail showing Dürer’s studio window reflected in the hare’s pupils.
Koreny again:

The “window shape in the eye is a classical topos that Dürer successfully introduced into German art via Netherlandish precedents. Used to great effect for the first time in Dürer’s Self-Portrait of 1500, where it has been interpreted as the ‘window of the soul,’ it was frequently encountered from then on, and was subsequently, as a formula, transferred to eyes of animals.”

Albrecht Dürer. Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel.
View an enlarged 720 x 953 pixel JPG image (121KB)
A spiritual conception of the eye as a “window of the soul” was central to optical arts & sciences throughout the early modern period. Mirrors, lenses, and eyes — whether animal or cameral — were typically thought of as cosmographical glasses — a sort of cosmic conduit for communicative interchanges of universal powers or energies (in this case, light). Within this greater framework, human vision was understood as a both/and (mind and body, culture and nature) process. Scientists such as Hooke never studied the eye in isolation from what another Royal Society Fellow, Hooke’s friend John Aubrey, called “hyper-physical optics ... drawn from the heavens.”
Albrecht Dürer. Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel.
Detail of Dürer’s first use of the window-in-the-eye topos to portray the visual organ as a window into the soul.
The fly’s head that greets the viewer of the fold-out plate, Schem. XXIV, is even larger than the human head viewing it — part of Hooke’s graphic play with fixed, anthropomorphic notions of scale and perspective that is a dominant theme in Micrographia. Not only does the subject and size of the illustration drive home Hooke’s point about interdependencies of scale, but the over-sized image was necessary in order to delineate the magnificent patterns in the fly’s “clusters of eyes” which Hooke found so “curious and admirable.”

As reported in his Observ. XXXIX, Hooke’s microscopy revealed “that the greatest part of the face, nay, of the head, was nothing else but two large and protuberant bunches, or prominent parts, A B C D E A, the surface of each of which was all cover’d over, or shap’d into a multitude of small Hemispheres, plac’d in a triagonal order, that being the closest and most compacted, and in that order, rang’d over the whole surface of the eye in very lovely rows.” (Micrographia, p. 175) These “rows were so dispos’d, that there was no quarter visible from his head that there was not some of these Hemispheres directed against; so that a Fly may be truly said to have an eye every way, and to be really circumspect. And it was further observable, that that way where the trunk of his body did hinder his prospect backward, these protuberances were elevated, as it were, above the plain of his shoulders and back, so that he was able to see backwards also over his back.” (Micrographia, p. 176)

Hooke estimates “that the number of the Pearls or Hemispheres in the clusters of this Fly, was neer 14000.” (Micrographia, p. 176) Nonetheless, “though it has pleas’d the All-wise Creator, to indue this creature with such multitudes of eyes, yet has he not indued it with the faculty of seeing more then another creature; for whereas this cannot move his head, at least can move it very little, without moving his whole body, biocular creatures can in an instant (or the twinkling of an eye, which, being very quick, is vulgarly used in the same signification) move their eyes so as to direct the optick Axis to any point; nor is it probable, that they are able to see attentively at one time more then one Physical point; for though there be a distinct Image made in every eye, yet ’tis very likely, that the observing faculty is only imploy’d about some one object for which they have most concern.” (Micrographia, p. 179).”

Robert Hooke. Eyes and head of a grey drone-fly, 1665. Engraving, after illustration by Robert Hooke; presented to the Royal Society of London on 9 September 1663.
View an enlarged 1350 x 1516 pixel GIF image (578KB)
As observed by Hooke, “each of these Pearls or Hemispheres is a perfect eye.” (Micrographia, p. 178) Every “one of these Hemispheres, as they seem’d to be pretty neer the true shape of a Hemisphere, so was the surface exceeding smooth and regular, reflecting as exact, regular, and perfect an Image of any Object from the surface of them, as a small Ball of Quick-silver of that bigness would do, but nothing neer so vivid, the reflection from these being very languid, much like the reflection from the outside of Water, Glass, Crystal, &c. In so much that in each of these Hemispheres, I have been able to discover a Land-scape of those things which lay before my window, one thing of which was a large Tree, whose trunk and top I could plainly discover, as I could also the parts of my window, and my hand and fingers, if I held it between the Window and the Object; a small draught of nineteen of which, as they appear’d in the bigger Magnifying-glass to reflect the Image of the two windows of my Chamber, are delineated in the third Figure of the 23. Scheme.” (Micrographia, pp. 175–6)

In sum, although the “organ of sight” in flies and crustaceans is “many millions of millions less then that in a man’s eye,” “we find that there is not less accurateness shown in the Figure and polish of those exceeding minute lenticular surfaces, then in those more large and conspicuous surfaces of our own eyes.”

Figure 3 of Schem. XXIII from Hooke’s Micrographia.
Detail of the composite eye of a fly, in which Hooke’s window is shown reflected 19 times.
The blue fly, whose eye clusters “are very much smaller then those of the Dron-fly, in proportion to the head,” “is a very beautifull creature, and has many things about it very notable,” including its wings (“very beautifull Objects” that “afford no less pleasing an Object to the mind to speculate upon, then to the eye to behold”). (Micrographia, pp. 182 and 172).”
Robert Hooke. Body of a blue fly, with separate detail showing the fabric of its wing, 1665. Engraving, after illustration by Robert Hooke; presented to the Royal Society of London on 19 October 1663.
View an enlarged 900 x 1387 pixel JPG image (269KB)
     Unlike Dürer, Hooke was a trained anatomist whose insights into what he called “the Anima of the Insect” (Micrographia, p. 173) relied on a combination of close observation and dissection, and at times, gruesome vivisection. Had he not been trained early on by the celebrated anatomists of Oxford’s Invisible College (Dr. Thomas Willis, in particular), the optical technology itself would have encouraged this: Lisa Jardine has rightly noted that “Microscopists inevitably became dissectionists” (Ingenious Pursuits 103).
In the case of the blue fly pictured above, not only does Hooke study the outer body of the fly — admiring its

most curious blue shining armour, looking exactly like a polish’d piece brought to that blue colour by annealing, all which armour is very thick bestuck with abundance of tapering bristles, such as grow on its back, as is visible enough by the Figure

(Micrographia, p. 184)

— he also dissects the living insect in order to peer at “the inside of this creature” and watch its inner moving parts —

cutting off a part of the belly, and then viewing it, to see if I could discover any Vessels, such as are to be found in greater Animals.

(Micrographia, p. 184)

The complex network of pulsating veins and arteries that Hooke finds within the abdomen of his fly convince him that its internal life mechanism is comparable to that of “larger terrestrial Animals” (Micrographia, p. 184), an important discovery for the comparative anatomist.
“Nor was the inside of this creature less beautifull then its outside,” Hooke notes, taking his usual pleasure in the new aesthetic born of the microscopist’s nanogaze. Svetlana Alpers has described this aesthetic (and 17th-century Dutch picturing in general) as fragmenting — a way of seeing and imaging that prized fragmentary beauty over the justly proportioned, harmonious wholes of Italian Renaissance visual artists. While there is some truth to this, there is also a sense in which the visual culture of the microscopists exchanged one wholistic perspective (privileging artistic ideals of balance and harmony) for another (focused on pattern and patterning, or what Philip Ball has called The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature).
     Despite his preference for invasive forms of natural inquiry, Hooke was never a disengaged observer of the creatures he dissected and studied in such intimate detail. In Observ. XLII. he describes the blue fly as

a creature active and nimble, so as there are very few creatures like it, whether bigger or smaller ... Nor is it less hardy in the Winter, then active in the Summer, induring all the Frosts, and surviving till the next Summer, not withstanding the bitter cold of our Climate; nay, this creature will indure to be frozen, and yet not be destroy’d, for I have taken one of them out of the Snow whereon it has been frozen almost white, with the Ice about it, and yet by thawing it gently by the warmth of a fire, it has quickly reviv’d and flown about.

(Micrographia, pp. 184–5)

Few of us today who freely criticize Hooke for his microscopical practices would even notice, let alone rescue, a petite, half-dead blue fly in a snowbank. For the most part, we have lost the sense of interdependence that the early microscopists felt with even the tiniest creatures they subjected to “ocular inspection.”
     Early modern scientists such as Hooke and Leeuwenhoeck, who saw themselves (like Einstein, three centuries later) as “a little piece of nature,” never forgot that humans were interconnected with mites and gnats and horseflies. Or that human beings were made of the same stuff as the stars. Dr. Slare’s famous phosphorus, which produced enough light to write with — “glorious Letters,” “radiant and legible Characters, which looked like words written with a Beam of Light” — and enough heat to “blaze like a Faggot, and burn the Carpet and Board it lay upon,” was made from human urine. “This I am sure,” wrote Frederick Slare in a journal article published by Hooke in December 1681,

that the Learned Willis (were he alive) would rejoyce to see such a Product out of our Bodies, who was very confident of something igneous or flammeous or very analogous to fire, that did kindle and impregnate our blood.

     There is now a tendency to trace the beginnings of our own postmodern preoccupation with the nanogaze back to the early-modern microscopists. But human interest in the mysterious workings of insects and arachnids and even more miniature forms of life, including the spiritual implications of these, extends back to the Ancients.
In large part, classical thought and scientific literature — rediscovered in the Renaissance, and highly valued by the so-called Moderns, who continued to draw on the wisdom of the Ancients throughout the age of scientific revolution — promoted a renewed interest in the miniature workings of nature. Pliny, for example, in the eleventh book of his Natural History, wrote

There remain some creatures of immeasurably minute structure — in fact some authorities have stated that they do not breathe and also that they are actually devoid of blood — insects ... with flexible vertebrae shaped like [roof] gutter-tiles show a craftsmanship on the part of Nature that is more remarkable than in any other case. In these minute nothings, what method, what power, what labyrinthine perfection is displayed! ... Nature is to be found in her entirety nowhere more than in her smallest creations.

(qtd. in Eisler 1991, pp. 121–2)

And other developing technologies besides the microscope contributed to the new aesthetic. As E. G. R. Taylor notes,

It was from the engravers, who knew the meaning of the phrase “to a hair’s breadth” that the mechanical-instrument makers took their first rise; Thomas Gemini, the first of the craft in England, was an exquisite engraver. Another group presently stemmed off from the clock-makers, themselves derived from blacksmiths and locksmiths, while optical-instrument makers, the last on the scene, emerged from among the glass-grinders and spectacle-makers. But there were other strains in their ancestry — the joiner, for example, the coppersmith, the jeweller ....

(Taylor 1968, p. 162)

Dürer, son of a goldsmith and a masterful engraver in his own right, had already during his twenties produced “a vast pictorial archive” of nature studies. His early animal studies were, to quote Colin Eisler, “prepared with microscopic intensity.” In essence,

Dürer felt a powerful affinity for the miniature world of insects, and his role as print-maker may also have given him a sense of kinship with the littlest creatures, finding their being close to that of his art. His sense of wonder for all animal life is often keenest on an intimate scale, where the drawing’s actual size comes close to its model’s.

(Eisler 1991, p. 124)

Human fascination with the most minute natural forms had formerly challenged classical artists to experiment with interdependencies of scale themed around the relationship of part to whole, microcosm to macrocosm. During the early modern period, artists and collectors were once again drawn by the visual world of miniatures, and always conscious of how their modern creations compared with revered classical models. We find this, for example, in the long “Letter from Dr William Oliver ... giving his remarks in a late journey into Denmark and Holland,” published in the 1702–3 volume of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. In his selective list of the most notable “Artificial Curiosities” sometimes on display to visitors in the 8 “Kings Chambers of Rarities ... built over the Royal Library” at Copenhagen, Oliver included one of Europe’s most famous engraved cherry pits:

... [I] did not see the Cherry-stone in the King of Denmark’s Cabinet, which I was told had some hundreds of Heads engraved on the outside of it; but I remember an English Gentleman shew’d me once in Holland, in the year 87, a Cherry-stone of this kind with a hundred and twenty four Heads on the outside of it, so that you might distinguish with the naked Eye, Popes, Emperors, Kings and Cardinals, by their Crowns and Mitres. ’Twas bought in Prussia, where it was made for three hundred pounds English, and is now in London, there having been a Law-suit not long since commenc’d about it in Chancery. Whither this or any Artificial Curiosities before-mention’d of Ivory, &c. may compare with Homer in a Nutshell? or the Ivory Ants and other small Creatures said to be made by Callicrates, whose parts were so very small, that no body cou’d see them, so as to distinguish one from another, but he that made them? or the Ivory Chariot made by Mermecides, which a Fly cover’d with his Wing, and a Ship of the same hid under the Wing of a Bee? And if those things be true, as Pliny and Solinus tells us, whether the Ancients have not out-done us in such kind of Impertinencies, I submit to your Judgment.

     Despite the demonstrable successes and discoveries of the early microscopists, there were those such as the accomplished botanical illustrator and entomologist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), who continued to do important work in Dürer’s less invasive tradition of observation and research with live specimens.
     Dürer’s poetic and scientifically accurate renderings of the living landscape introduced a new approach to nature studies. The best known of Dürer’s plant studies, Large Piece of Turf, creates an imagined landscape in which “every blade and bloom of hundreds of wild grasses, assembled from studies made in different seasons, are recorded with uncanny sharpness of focus and precise observation” (Eisler 1991, p. 31).

compare Dürer’s picturing of flies, “prepared with microscopic intensity,” in the artist’s tradition of classical realism as modeled by the Greek painter Apelles

from Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983):

“... I want to consider at least three useful terms of comparison between the activity of the microscopist and the artists, terms that are based on notions of seeing held in common and posited on an attentive eye. First and second, the double cutting edge of the world seen microscopically is that it both multiplies and divides. It multiplies when it dwells on the innumerable small elements within a larger body (Leeuwenhoek’s animalcules in a drop of liquid) or the differences between individuals of a single species. It divides when it enables us to see an enlargement of a small part of a larger body or surface — as Leeuwenhoek studied the grain in wood or Hooke the weave of a bit of taffeta. Third, it treats everything as a visible surface either by slicing across or through to make a section (as Leeuwenhoek was one of the first to do) or by opening something up to expose the innards to reveal how it is made.” (Alpers 84)

“A contrast can be made between such fragmentary beauty, a function of infinite attentive glances, and a notion of beauty that assumes the just proportion of a whole and thus admits to a prior notion about what makes an entire object beautiful. The prime example for Renaissance picture-makers of beauty so conceived was the justly proportioned human body — constructed or imagined, but never seen.... The ideal nude did not win general understanding or acceptance in the north.... The eye of the northern viewer inserts itself right into the world, while the southern viewer stands at a measured distance to take it all in.” (Alpers 85)

As glossed by Fritz Koreny in Albrecht Dürer and the Animal and Plant Studies of the Renaissance (1988):

With this pivotal work, Dürer “took an important step forward [in the genre of true-to-life flower studies] by simplifying the motifs. His reduction from flower to grass, from the individual appearance of a plant, with its shape, color, and symbolic meaning, to the uniform, nameless thicket of green meadow grasses — to a picture of vegetation — represents a radical generalization: even the simplest thing in nature is worth painting. As a result of an altered aesthetic, of a new relationship between art and nature, attention turns from the specific to the general, to the diversity of phenomena, to the little details of reality. Inasmuch as Dürer demonstrates the potential of a modest piece of nature, he stimulates awareness of the optical sensations provided by the everyday. Only in their artistically heightened form do things that have long been accessible and visible to everyone become consciously noticed. Nature in its homeliest form, which was taken for granted by everyone and seemed not worth mentioning further, as generations of artists before him had seen but not grasped it, is transported herewith into the realm of visual consciousness, becoming, in terms of visual concept, a fully valid testimony to the powers working within it.”

Albrecht Dürer. Detail from The Large Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolor and body color heightened with white.
View an enlarged 1540 x 1977 pixel JPG image (397KB)

    Merian’s plant and insect studies were similarly prepared with microscopic intensity, balanced by an artistic manipulation of the resulting wealth of detail.

Maria Sibylla Merian. Study of Plant and Insects, ca. 1696.
Engraving, Colored brush drawing for Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.
The back of the drawing (copy at the University of Leiden) is inscribed “M.S. Merian” and “Een Spinne die een Vogel uytsuygt en in syn poten gevadt heeft rode klaeuwen, 1 Sprinckhaen of Levendig bladt, Chrysanthemum Africanum alata Caule de Vera Crus. annua.” [A spider sucking a bird dry, its legs grasping red claws; a grasshopper or praying mantis; Chrysanthemum Africanum alata Caule de Vera Crus, annua.]. (from Gelder 1959, p. 49)
View an enlarged 1740 x 1237 pixel JPG image (646KB)
While Merian’s watercolor studies of plants and animals reinterpreted some of the visual topoi of Flemish flower painting, her style of naturalist representation differed significantly from the popular still life paintings of prominent Dutch artists such as Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), court painter to the Elector Palatine from 1708–1716, whose artfully arranged fruits and flowers are posed with snakes, lizards, and numerous insects in order to emphasize the variety and beauty of nature, and hence of divine creativity. In Ruysch’s pictures, “the profuse plants flaunt many different colors, shapes, and sizes; their stems twist and curve energetically; and the compositions are open, with irregular contours” (Heller 1987, p. 41). But Ruysch’s vibrant paintings lacked the strict scientific accuracy Merian sought in her own work, or Rachel’s father, Frederick Ruysch, sought with his macabre art of waxworks.

As glossed by Lisa Jardine in
Ingenious Pursuits: Building the
Scientific Revolution

“The speed with which organic materials deteriorated, in the days before refrigeration, hampered all dissection work. Soon after the middle of the seventeenth century, anatomists discovered that the fine vessels of specimens for dissection could be preserved (and made more visible) by injecting them with mercury, milk, ink, and a variety of other variously tinted liquids. The most successful, and dramatic, of these methods was one developed by the microscopist and anatomist Swammerdam. Swammerdam invented a way to inject warm, coloured wax, which solidified in the vessels, allowing the anatomist to examine them at his leisure. The technique was taken up and further developed by Frederik Ruysch in Amsterdam. Although Ruysch acknowledged that Swammerdam had been the first to have the idea, he insisted that his own technique was unique ... Ruysch guarded the secret of his own procedure jealously. By 1700, he had developed wax injection to the point that he could claim that it appeared to restore the specimens to life, ‘as all bear witness’. Visitors to Ruysch’s display of preserved materials did indeed remark on the startling ability of the ‘Ruyschian art’ to restore and preserve the lifelike appearance of the human body and its parts, and Ruysch’s museum of elaborate and often bizarre preparations was cited as one of the great wonders of the Dutch Republic.”

Frederick Ruysch (1638–1731). Arrangement of wax-injected anatomy specimens.
Frederick Ruysch was an Amsterdam anatomist and microscopist who became the first Professor of Botany associated with the Amsterdam Botanical Garden after its foundation in 1682. He was “renowned for his invention of a method for injecting the fine vessels in cadavers with tinted wax for display purposes.” (Jardine 1999, p. 389)
View an enlarged 790 x 1345 pixel JPG image (299KB)

While Rachel Ruysch’s beautiful paintings of insects and reptiles in landscape settings sold for anywhere from 750 to 1250 guilders, Rembrandt’s pictures rarely brought more than 500 guilders, and Ehret’s tabella of botanical illustrations sold for 2 guilders per copy. Merian’s own Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, a stunning book with its 60 large plates, sold for 15 guilders when it was issued in 1705 (or 45 guilders for a copy with plates hand-colored by Merian herself).
     Then as now, the natural world represented in still lifes was more highly prized than that of the botanical illustrators. Rachel Ruysch’s vibrant still lifes continue to sell for very large sums.

     When Merian began her field study of indigenous insect, plant, and animal life in the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America (Dutch Guiana) at the close of the 17th century, she intended to catalog only the insects of Surinam, but she soon extended her ethnobotanical researches to snakes, reptiles, birds, monkeys, and associated plant life. The exquisitely detailed plates of her Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (engraved after her own watercolor studies) delineate bananas, pineapples, lemons, grapes, pomegranates, watermelons, papayas, and other less familiar plants, all supporting the life stages of moths and butterflies, spiders and beetles.
Merian’s printed commentaries on the plates range from descriptions of how long it takes for insects to hatch, to recipes for cooking breadfruit, to the natives’ knowledge and use of local plants. The reader learns, for instance, of indigenous women’s evolving use of the plant Flos Pavonis (illustrated in plate 45) as a contraceptive and abortifacient, and subsequent to colonization, as a tool of political resistance: women who wished to avoid having children born into slavery, or adding to the labor force needed by their Dutch masters, turned to Flos Pavonis by choice.
     Merian planned to describe other animals she had observed in Surinam in a second volume of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, but it was never published. Merian’s final years were spent preparing a Dutch edition of the first two volumes of Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and [Their] Singular Plant Nourishment) and completing the drawings and commentaries for its third volume, published posthumously in 1717

from Ann Sutherland Harris & Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550–1950 (1976):

Merian “was, as would be expected, a meticulously careful technician who normally worked on parchment, using semi-transparent and opaque watercolors. Her drawings must convey specific information about the structure of blooms, leaves, buds, and insect anatomy. As a result, her compositions can seem archaic, the plants artificially turned this way and that as she reveals their form to the eye of the scientist, rather than to that of the connoisseur. Nevertheless she manages, above all in the Surinam plates, to provide a great deal of aesthetic pleasure while fulfilling her scientific duties. She has an exceptional sense of surface rhythm and pattern and is willing to curl plant tendrils with slightly artificial elegance and to twist the tails of monkeys and crocodiles in order to enliven the design. Her placing of the specimen on the page is often adventurous. In Der Raupen she gives us a spectacular close-up of an iris with a swallowtail butterfly. The banana in the Metamorphosis thrusts from the page like a rocket. Other pages simply delight us with their perfect sense of interval and repeated formal elements, for example plate 52 of the Metamorphosis.” (Harris & Nochlin 154)

Maria Sibylla Merian. Bird, with snake. Original watercolor study for Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.
View an enlarged 800 x 1025 pixel JPG image (291KB)
     In the tradition of Dürer, Merian preferred to work with living examples of animals and insects, in their natural habitat, recording their appearance and activities (“their transmutations”) in a series of original watercolor studies. It was a different, more contexted approach to the scientific study of natural phenomena than that taken by Hooke, the microscopists, and the anatomists, but like them, Merian too sought to capture the dynamic life process in a series of still portraits.
Compare, for example, Merian’s visually dramatic depiction of a spider on the hunt (above) with Hooke’s more fragmented representation in Micrographia of the eyes and legs of the “Carter, Shepherd Spider, or long-legg’d Spider” (Observ. XLVII.), as illustrated in figs. 1, 2 and 3 of Schem. XXXI. (below).

Robert Hooke. The Carter, Shepherd Spider, or long-legg’d Spider, 1665. Engraving, after illustration by Robert Hooke; first presented to the Royal Society of London on 29 April 1663, at which time it was reported as “not yet perfectly drawn.”
View an enlarged 910 x 1422 pixel GIF image (244KB)
     As usual, Hooke focused on those features of the spider “discoverable onely by the Microscope,” such as the fact that this particular spider had only two eyes, which “seem’d to be of the very same structure with that of larger binocular creatures,” such as human beings. The spider’s other most noticeable feature, which Hooke’s microscope accentuates, is “the prodigious length of its leggs, in proportion to its small round body, each leg ... being above sixteen times the length of its whole body, and there are some which have them yet longer, and others of the same kind, that have them a great deal shorter.” Hooke proceeds to explain the biomechanics of “these long Leavers (as I may so call them) of the legs” and the “vast strength” required to move them in terms of the human scale:

... if we should suppose a man’s body suspended by such a contrivance, an hundred and fifty times the strength of a man would not keep the body from falling on the breast. To supply therefore each of these leggs with its proper strength, Nature has allow’d to each a large Chest or Cell, in which is included a very large and strong Muscle, and thereby this little Animal is not onely able to suspend its body upon less then these eight, but to move it very swiftly over the tops of grass and leaves.

(Micrographia, p. 199)

He makes special note of “the two claws, K K” and marvels that

This creature, seems (which I have several times with pleasure observ’d) to throw its body upon the prey, insteed of its hands, not unlike a hunting Spider, which leaps like a Cat at a Mouse. The whole Fabrick was a very pretty one, and could I have dissected it, I doubt not but I should have found as many singularities within it as without ....

(Micrographia, p. 199)

In addition to its commonalities with humans, the spider revealed through Hooke’s microscope “much resembles” a crab, leading Hooke once again to hint at an evolutionary link between land and sea creatures:

... indeed, this seems to be nothing else, but an Air-crab, being made more light and nimble, proportionable to the medium wherin it resides; and as Air seems to have but one thousandth part of the body of Water, so does this Spider seem not to be a thousandth part of the bulk of a Crab.

(Micrographia, p. 200)

From here, Hooke moves on to an observation “Of the hunting Spider, and several other sorts of Spiders” noting that the very diversity of the species requires extensive scientific discussion beyond the more circumscribed format of “my present Essay.” Unable to accurately capture such multiplicity in a single picture, Hooke turned to words, converting Observ. XLVIII. into a dialogue of varied experiences (his own, and those of “the most accomplish’d Mr. Evelyn, in his travels to Italy ... which he was pleas’d upon my desire to send me in writing”).
Despite the editorial interventions of the Royal Society committee overseeing the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia, Hooke’s own tendency to connect his microscopical observations to what we might now call “the Big Picture” surfaced repeatedly in his text, as when he suggested that the prismatic “consecutions of colours” in the threads of a spider’s web (Observ. XLVIII.) proceeded “from the same cause with those colours which I have already describ’d in thin plated bodies.” With this, we have a curious link back to one of the most influential essays in Hooke’s Micrographia (Observ. IX., “Of the Colours observable in Muscovy Glass, and other thin Bodies”). In Observ. IX., Hooke had proposed that the colors of thin films be considered a new physical phenomenon, which he then explained by a principle of “interference” (an important, and influential, discovery in optics that would later be attributed to Isaac Newton; indeed, Hooke’s new phenomenon is now known as “Newton’s rings”).
     In applying his principle of interference to the rainbow of colors found in spider-created webs as well as human-created sheets of glass, Hooke was artfully constructing his own web of natural connections. For all his focus on microscopical minutiae, Hooke always linked his fragmented visions, often by way of what he called his “philosophical algebra.” Hooke believed this method of systematizing ideas to be peculiarly his own, and he is said to have frequently spoken of other researchers, even the most eminent, as “childishly contenting themselves with partial views of the corners of things” (qtd. in Gunther VI, pp. xii–xiii). But Hooke’s heuristic philosophical algebras also provided a new way of modeling nature’s multiplicity-in-unity — hence, refashioning ages-old themata in natural philosophy, as inherited via Dürer, and reinterpreted through the lens of Baroque culture.

     Books on Dürer’s style and technique continued to be published in England throughout the 17th century. In the 1670s, enough young gentlemen were still being trained in the arts of Dürer for the printer, Sarah Griffin, to bring out an edition of Albert Durer Revived in 1679.

Sarah Griffin’s print shop brought out a number of scientific titles, including the two-part Resuscitatio, or, A Collection of Several Pieces of the Works of the Right Honourable Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, and Viscount of St. Albans ... (1657, 1670, 1671), George Castle’s The Chymical Galenist in 1667, and Thomas Trigge’s almanacs (which had previously been printed by Anne Maxwell). While Griffin never handled any of Margaret Cavendish’s works, she did print the commemorative verses by H. J. of Grays-Inne, To the most excellent princesse the Dutchesse of Newcastle, in 1667.

Anne Maxwell, another 17th-century woman printer whose shop produced even more scientific works than did Sarah Griffin’s, printed 9 different titles — 12 editions total — from Margaret Cavendish’s opus during the late 1660s and early ’70s (1666, 1667, 1668, 1671, and 1675).

Title page of Sarah Griffin’s reissue of Albert Durer Revived, printed in 1679 for one of the specialist dealers in the graphic arts, John Garrett.
The poster-like title page gives a nice synopsis of 17th-century practices of the graphic arts.
(Open a second window with an HTML version of the title page text.)
     What had become by then the standard English art manual first appeared under the imprint of Compton Holland between 1616 and 1620, with plates and a portrait of Dürer engraved by Francis Delarame. Originally titled The Booke of the Art of Drawing according to ye order of Albert Durer Jean Cosyn and other Excellent Picture-Makers describing ye true proportions of men, women and children, the art manual contained a digest of the principles enunciated by Dürer in his celebrated treatise Buch zu menschlichen Proportion, and by the French painter Jean Cousin in his treatise La Vraie Science de la Portraiture.
Holland’s The Booke of the Art of Drawing was then reissued by the bookseller Thomas Jenner in 1652, 1660, and 1666 under the title A Book of drawing, limning, washing or colouring of maps and prints and the Art of Painting.
John Garrett then issued it twice (in 1679 and 1685) under the title Albert Durer Revived (itself revived in a subseqent reprint by F. Collins in 1698).
And shortly before his death, another of the specialist print dealers, Robert Walton, brought out a newly-updated edition of the manual, which he titled Cosens Revived or the French Academy conteining examples of ye Fundamentall rules of drawing. Walton’s 1686 version was considerably enlarged so as to include an account of new trends and technologies in graphic design, including

direccons for the assistants of young practitioners in that most noble and ingeneous art, Instructions for Mezzo Tinto prints; in order for their being Painted on Glasse or otherwise; and for Mixing of Colours.

Walton’s updated Dürer manual sold for one shilling.

» next (Portrait II)
» Portraits of Melancholy  (Introduction)
» Portrait II   (Burton’s Anatomised Melancholy, 1628)
» Portrait III   (Cavendish’s “Studious She is and all Alone” frontispiece, 1655)
» Portrait IV   (Emblems for Melancholy and Pensiveness, 1709)
Related Links

• an IN BRIEF biography of Maria Sibylla Merian

• external link to a 15-image portfolio of Merian’s hand-colored engravings (from the 2nd edition in 1719 of Merian’s Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam) at the Web site of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

• Hooke’s drawing of a fly’s foot in the IN BRIEF topic on the bishop and the antipodes

• more on Robert Hooke’s affinity for flies (along with discussion of visual “species” and Hooke’s theories of light and vision) in the LIBRARY monograph, Time, Soul, Memory

• more on Hooke’s microscopy and drawings from Micrographia in the GALLERY exhibit, “Of Fleas and Men”

• discussion of alternate representations of human melancholy — deploying familiar landscape motifs — in the GALLERY exhibit on Roeland Saverij’s early 17th-century Melancholy Tree

• external link to article on Rachel Ruysch, “Rachel Ruysch, Amsterdam’s Pallas and Minerva of the Amsterdam IJ”

• external link to further discussion of the paintings of Rachel Ruysch

• more on the bookseller and print dealer, Robert Walton, in the GALLERY exhibit on the Frost Fair print



search this site

top of page | upper-level GALLERY page | HOME page | support this site

This Web page was last modified on:  07/18/2016 10:52 AM.