Natural Interactions in the Book as Art and Making Knowledge


Bellflower and common snapdragon from Jean Seris's Herbarium with dried specimens, 1761

Studying the natural world came under the lens of scholarly attention in early modern Europe. Between 1500-1800, naturalists conducted extensive studies of flora and fauna. They codified their hands-on observations, second-hand accounts of other naturalists, and ancient learning in exhaustive encyclopedias. Such hefty treatises were the primary platforms of a newly emerged discipline: natural history. Natural history treatises amassed all existing information about specimens, from the practical to theoretical, and even the magical.

The natural history book was also a site of art production and artistic experimentation about nature. First-hand observations and producing lifelike specimens were of central importance to artists, who were often commissioned to produce drawings and prints for treatises. Exquisitely detailed specimen illustrations often overshadowed the dense texts of encyclopedias. The illustrations, the page composition, and sometimes the naturalist’s instructions encouraged book users to manually engage with the visual and textual contents of these books.

This online exhibition showcases examples of the natural history book as an active work of art shaped by different hands. Drawing primarily from the rich collections of the Medical Historical Library, it displays how elite collectors, interested laymen, artists, and naturalists alike colored and annotated their respective copies of natural history books and albums, how they hid, preserved, and pasted plant specimens in these books, and folded pages in them. Many of these works highlight the color of the library’s collections and reveal the riches concealed under often unassuming book covers. They also call attention to their fragility and the special care and patience these books required of their users. This online display aims to show that manual engagement with the natural history book could be both inventive and informative. It demonstrates that users of natural history books could understand and experience nature through artistry and physical contact with the paper.

Curated by Renata Nagy, Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art and Renaissance Studies, Yale University