That fascination resulted in drawings, paintings and other objects that are the inspiration for “Birds, Bugs and Blooms – Observing the Natural World in the 18th Century,” an exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
It’s the art of science.
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“Birds, Bugs and Blooms: Observing the Natural World in the 18th Century” will be on exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum through January 2017.
You’ll find admission and ticket information here.
“This exhibit is about the cultural phenomenon of studying natural history that took place in the 18th-century. More specifically, its shift from a scientific pursuit to an aesthetic hobby of keeping songbirds, gardening and botanical drawings,” said Kate Teiken, assistant curator for prints, maps and paintings at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Teiken and Margaret Pritchard, senior curator for prints, maps and paintings, did the research for the exhibit.
It features depictions of nature that had not been studied before, especially in this kind of detail, and the artists’ passion for their subjects is clearly evident. The beauty of native plants and animals in previously uncharted territory is particularly striking.
Now familiar natural beauty is on display. But the exotic plants, birds and insects were brand new to the European scientists/artists who studied and documented them.
Even the bugs are beautiful
Let’s not forget the insects. Naturalists, including Eleazar Albin, specialized in them, painting them bigger than life and in great detail.
“Students were studying plants and animals in school. People began hiring art teachers to learn how to create drawings of nature for their homes. In the early part of the 18th century, students were studying plants and animals in colleges like William and Mary,” Teiken said. “By the mid- to late 1700s, members of the upper class were even employing naturists as tutors for their children, allowing them to learn nature and drawing in their own backyard.”
It was during this period of the 18th century that gardening evolved into a pastime. Plant and seed exchange became common and plants were suddenly available on a worldwide basis. Huge, elaborate gardens became a showcase opportunity for the wealthy and even small-scale backyard plots were filled with plants in an effort to enjoy nature’s beauty as never before.
“It really takes off following the Enlightenment and colonization, in which you have an influx of new species, both plants and animals. It actually peaks with garden culture in the mid- to late 18th century. Even today you continue to see a great interest in natural studies. The great interest in natural studies and garden culture we still see today relates back to this peak in the mid- to late 18th century,” Teiken said.
It was during this period that the wholeness of nature was demonstrated through the paintings by Mark Catesby, who for the first time documented birds together with a native tree. This allowed horticulturalists to study both the bird and the tree in which it lived – or in some cases, where it ate.
How to teach a bird to sing
In addition to the surge in new science came new technology. One of the most fascinating objects in the exhibit is a hand-held crank organ called a serinette.
“People began capturing birds to sell or keep for pets. These little organs were used to teach them to sing popular melodies,” Teiken explained.
Evidence shows that Lord Botetourt had as many as 12 birdcages during his time in the Governor’s Palace.
“It was during the Enlightenment that science broke out of the laboratory and became a public focus. This exhibit demonstrates the global reach of natural studies. I wanted to open it up to artists from all over the world,” Teiken said.