Their painstaking documentation of the New World’s natural resources—fossils, minerals, insects, shells, plants, butterflies, birds and animals—not only benefited education in the universities of the day, but also advanced trade between the Old and New Worlds in valuable herbs, spices and animal products. The best creations are considered works of art and are highly sought after by collectors.
If we can barely imagine the hardships faced by America’s early settlers, it’s even more difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of these early artists—both European and American—many of whom were also avid naturalists. They faced incredible obstacles and dangers in documenting America’s geography, flora, fauna and indigenous tribes. Challenges included exposure to inclement weather, lack of shelter and attacks by predatory wildlife. Yet, driven by curiosity and a desire to make some sort of order out of unfamiliar surroundings, they persevered.
As they began to understand their subjects better—and as advances in printing methods were introduced—their work became more accurate and detailed. Gradually, publishers organized the illustrations of plants and animals into volumes, catalogued according to genus and various subcategories.
Cartographers were constantly redrawing maps of the New World as new expeditions shed light on unfamiliar areas. Adding to the difficulties was that information was closely guarded because of competition for valuable resources like spices and gold. Also, since many maps in circulation were European mapmakers’ copies of earlier inaccurate maps, or charts marked with explorers’ ad hoc corrections, errors were perpetuated for long periods of time.
The use of decorative cartouches as well as illustrations of flora and fauna added to the aesthetic appeal of these early New World maps. They provided a way to highlight the title of a map as well as to cover up geographic areas that were still unfamiliar.
In any case, what often made these early maps highly desirable were additions to them of the latest geographic discoveries of the era.
Laura Vardell, owner of Carolina Antique Maps & Prints in Charleston, says she suspects there are still valuable undiscovered works, some that may have been created by relatively unknown artists. She advises clients to “resist the temptation to remove illustrations from books simply to frame and hang them on a wall, since they’re more valuable in their original volumes.”
Some collectible artists
Among the most important artists was Englishman Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749). His two-volume set, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America. Catesby, in fact, was the first to use folio-sized colored plates in natural history books. His two volumes include an important New World map as well as some 220 illustrations of birds, snakes, fish, quadrupeds, botanicals and insects.
Another renowned artist was Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717). This German-born illustrator and naturalist became famous with the publication of her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, based on her findings during a sojourn in South America. Her observations and documentation of butterflies showed that caterpillars and butterflies are one and the same creature. Ultimately, she was recognized as among the most important contributors to the field of entomology.
American-born artist William Bartram (1739 – 1823) accomplished a four-year journey through America’s southern colonies from 1773 to 1777, making notes and drawings of the flora and fauna and the Southern Indians. In his book, known in abbreviated form as Bartram’s Travels, he wrote about his journey and offered detailed observations of plants, animals and animal behavior. He also described the language and habits of Indians he met along the way. Travels was considered, in its day, one of the most important books on American natural history and was praised for its original descriptions of the American countryside.
John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), America’s best-known artist and naturalist needs little introduction. His major work, The Birds of America, was published in London between 1827 – 1838. Unlike any artist before him, he issued a Double Elephant Folio (39” x 26”), which illustrated birds in life size. Later, between 1845 – 1854, he published The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America in Imperial Folio size (22” x 28”), with the help of his sons and Dr. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately, Audubon died in 1851 before the publication was finished.
John Gould (1804 – 1881), a contemporary of Audubon, was an extraordinary English ornithologist and illustrator who published a number of volumes about birds worldwide, including the Americas. One of his best-known books, A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-Birds, contains some 360 plates. His hummingbird illustrations remain highly sought after today.
Finally, wonderful portraits were made of Native Americans during the 19th century. Thomas McKenney, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, commissioned artists James Otto Lewis, Charles Bird King and George Cooke to make paintings of the chiefs and warriors, as well as some of the women, who came to Washington to meet with President Monroe. Lithographs of the paintings were eventually included in a 3-volume set by McKenney and James Hall titled History of the Indian Tribes of North America, published between 1837 – 1844.
For more information, visit Carolina Antique Maps & Prints at 91 Church St., carolinaantiqueprints.com or call 843-722-4773.