Scientific illustrations are a special, interesting category of art. There are thousand of ways to look at and view an object. The artist is someone who can both see the beauty and mystery of the world and has the skill to share it with others by reproducing and interpreting it. Motivation, focus, artistic style and skills vary. Some artists want to share their feelings so they emphasize what effects their mood. Others take the challenge of being as realistic as possible.
Scientific illustrators are artists with a special agenda. They want to be truthful. More importantly though, they want to be educational. They know their object from the outside as well as from the inside, they know its habitat, body functions, physiology etc. and they want to share and explain some of it in their paintings. But all along they have an artistic feeling and attitude. Scientific illustrations shouldn’t be considered lesser art, just because they serve a special cause. Many of the most valued paintings are portraits that were order by wealthy patrons. By comparison scientific art has a more noble purpose.
In the past centuries, there weren’t sharp borders between different fields of science. Also there wasn’t such a clear distinction between science and art. Many geniuses of art were also natural scientists. Leonardo da Vinci would be the best known example. But with more and more knowledge the distinction between art and science have become more clearly defined. Looking back at the relationship between these disciplines is tricky, because we are looking into the early stages of art and science using modern terms and ideas. It is interesting and useful not only for the sake of history to recognize that these terms had different meanings and importance in the past and to see how they evolved in time. Looking back helps to question today’s ideas of these terms. Perhaps our idea of science doesn’t have to be so square and art doesn’t have to be so exclusive. Old scientific illustrations are relics of evolution of human knowledge and spirit.
The styles of the illustrations vary a lot, depending on the artistic style of the times and also on the objectives and attitude of the author. Maria Sibylla Merian objective was to document life cycle of butterflies. Her approach was to picture all stages of butterfly’s life cycle in one painting, together with the plant that was essential habitat for it. Sometimes she added even more animals and interesting facts to make her painting more educative as well as dramatic. Her paintings are clearly both educative and artistic. It is just understood, that seeing such situation in real life is very unlikely. Because of her art, her science had a huge impact on masses, and thanks to her the 18th century Europeans learned basic facts about moths and butterfly’s life cycle. Ernst Haeckel wanted to show more of the object’s physiology on his paintings. He didn’t care how naturalistic his paintings were. He pictured his objects in cuts, symmetrically spread and he included as many important organs as possible. As one of the first passionate advocates of Darwin’s theories he also put emphasis on variety between species of the same family.
There is a feeling of respect and awe to nature in these old paintings. The pioneers of science were unraveling the secrets of nature, overcoming the age of darkness with the light of reason, as they would say. For many of them, God wasn’t the intellectual partner of man any more. The nature was. And they approached it with almost religious respect. And beauty of nature was its important feature they took seriously. According to German school of biology, beauty wasn’t just a coincidental side product of evolution, but it was one of ways the inner essence of organism presents itself to the outside world. For today’s viewer it’s sometimes hard to tell whether it’s the bespoken light of reason overcoming darkness, or Dr. Faust’s romantic quest into the obscure side.
Still today, scientific illustration remain a fascinating area where science and art overlap. Making a good scientific illustration takes not only craft and talent, but also humbleness to the cause of illustration and respect to the object itself. It takes a real craftsman and scientist to portray all the important features out in a single illustration. And it takes an artist to make it look natural and beautiful at the same time. Today’s scientist usually don’t paint, but you can hear them talk with big respect about good illustrators and they describe their skills for example as “the ability to capture the essence, the soul of the organism”. On this common grounds with art, scientists are more poetic in their language and their love for their thing has space to shine.