Collecting natural history specimens began among doctors and pharmacists in the 16th century, and was taken up by European aristocrats. It continued as a popular hobby for the well-to-do through the 19th century. The craze for amassing collections of shells, insects, taxidermic specimens of animals and minerals was fueled by the Enlightenment mindset of the 18th century, which was preoccupied with creating comprehensive systems of classifying natural phenomena. This ideal was fueled by the exploration of distant territories that could only be reached by ship, where species hitherto unknown to Europeans were discovered and documented. The impulse to classify was accompanied by a fascination with exotic species, and also with oddities and aberrations such as two-headed snakes.
Collectors did not only accumulate objects: science met art in the production of natural history prints and books. A prototypical 18th century collector was the Dutch apothecary Albertus Seba (right), who recruited artists to document his holdings in a series of copperplate etchings which he published to order as his Thesaurus. Marine life was also featured in the great Enlightenment Encyclopedia compiled in 18th century France by Diderot and Alembert (below left).
This practice was continued in the 19th century by collectors such as the German scientist and world explorer Alexander von Humboldt (pictured below) and English Renaissance man Sir William Hamilton. Unlike Seba, these men and others of their contemporaries had the means to undertake their own expeditions to places like the Amazon and Sicily. Von Humboldt embarked on one of the early expeditions to the interior regions of South America and Central America, charting the land and recording the flora and fauna as well as the customs of native peoples. As a prototypical collector, his own study was filled with books, maps, globes, natural history specimens and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome, documented in portraits by his contemporaries.
18th and 19th century "cabinets of curiosities" formed the basis for many of today's natural history museums, and the natural history prints of the era are still appreciated not only for their scientific value but their aesthetic beauty. In addition to the examples pictured here, more can be found in our Natural History Prints section.
Copyright © 2002-2010. All rights reserved.
No part of this document may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written permission of the George Glazer Gallery.