Collector's Cabinet
Welcome to the George Glazer Gallery's Virtual Cabinet of Curiosities: an online exhibition of natural history prints and objects from the heyday of this popular pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these items are available for purchase; click on the pictures for enlargements and descriptions.

The rage for collector's cabinets was fueled by an interest in classifying and understanding natural phenomena. Below is a brief history of collector's cabinets.

Collectors' Cabinets: A Brief History

by Helen Glazer © 2002-2010

Apothecary's collection

The workshop and collection of an 18th century apothecary is depicted in the William Hogarth print Hudibras beats Sidrophel and his man Whacum.

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.

Albertus Seba, Etzela Oostfrisius Seba Prints - Tropical Flora and Fauna Albertus Seba Shells Nuremberg Monkey Prints

Albertus Seba (above left) assembled the prototypical collector's cabinet of the 18th century and published a massive catalogue of his holdings. Many plates featured unusual groupings of plants, animals or shells with a distinctly Baroque sensibility (above center and right).

Albertus Seba Shells

Marine life was featured in the great 18th C. encyclopedia compiled by Diderot and Alembert (above).

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.

Alexander von Humboldt portrait

Alexander von Humboldt (1759-1859) was a scientist and world explorer.

Butterfly specimens

Actual butterfly specimens mounted in a symmetrical arrangement under glass in a wood frame, c. 1900.

Shells by George Brettingham Sowerby

In England, the Sowerby family made a major contribution to literature on marine biology through their collections of mollusk prints, introducing an estimated 5,000 new names.

from Exotic Butterfliers from Three Parts of the World: Asia, Africa and America

Pieter Cramer was an 18th C. Dutch merchant who amassed a collection of exotic butterflies and undertook a large project to publish illustrations of them.

Manetti Ostrich

18th and 19th century European audiences were fascinated by collections of prints of birds, especially from faraway lands. This ostrich is from a 5-volume work overseen by the Italian physician and naturalist Saviero Manetti.

The collector's cabinet of the 21st century includes red coral, available for purchase from the Gallery.

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.


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