The Refined Art of Picturing Natural History

An exhibition showcasing works by members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators opens at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center

Scientific illustrators, it seems, often keep uncommon company. For several months, Portuguese biologist and artist Nuno Farinha shared his Lisbon apartment with a water lizard he captured in the mountains of northeastern Portugal. Rhode Island illustrator Amy Bartlett Wright stocks her freezer with bird specimens, but insects, particularly caterpillars, are more difficult to preserve. For that reason, Wright spent two years raising 60 different species of caterpillars. She was also raising a young son at the time and spent many sleepless nights juggling feedings-leaves for the caterpillars, milk for the baby, or was it . . .

Smithsonian museum specialist Marilyn Schotte lived out a child's dream. In the company of dinosaurs and butterflies, flying fish and giant sloths, she spent the night at the National Museum of Natural History. Sadly, she had little time to explore. Closeted in a laboratory, surrounded by jars of pickled squid and octopuses, she drew larval squid for 24 hours straight to meet an impending deadline.

S. Dillon Ripley Center from June 29 through August 25, features works by members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, an international organization founded at the Smithsonian in 1968. Held in celebration of the Institution's 150th anniversary, the exhibit honors the long and fruitful history of scientific illustration at the Smithsonian. Whether etched in copper or conjured on computer, art is one of the most effective means of communicating new information about the natural sciences. From ancient herbal texts to medieval medical books, from accounts of the great exploratory voyages of the 15th century to chronicles of the cosmic journeys of the 20th, scientific illustrators have helped elucidate the secrets of the natural world.

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