The Evolution of Paleontological Art
CONTAINS OPEN ACCESS
Fossils have stirred the imagination globally for thousands of years, starting well before they were recognized as the remains of once-living organisms and proxies of former worlds. This volume samples the history of art about fossils and the visual conceptualization of their significance starting with biblical and mythological depictions, extending to renditions of ancient life as it flourished in long-vanished habitats, and on to a modern understanding that fossil art conveys lessons for the betterment of the human condition. The 29 papers and accompanying artwork illustrate how art about fossils has come to be a significant teaching tool not only about evolution of past life, but also about conservation of our planet for the benefit of future generations.
William Smith’s Strata Identified by Organized Fossils, published between 1816 and 1819, was one of the most important books in the development of stratigraphy; it was also significant in the evolution of paleontological art and illustration. For the first time, Smith organized fossil illustrations in plates according to the order of the strata. Each stratigraphic plate showed characteristic assemblages of fossils. The publication was a joint venture between Smith and James Sowerby and it was Sowerby who elevated the work into the realm of art. Smith had been influenced by the work of previous authors, in particular Robert Plot and John Morton, who, some 150 years earlier, had published texts illustrated by fossil engravings. The difference between these engravings and those of Sowerby shows the extent to which fossil illustration had evolved. Unlike previous work where the engravings were very mechanical, Sowerby’s were extraordinarily naturalistic. By means of subtle lines, stipple, and water coloring, Sowerby was able to achieve extremely realistic and aesthetically pleasing artwork. Unusually, many of Smith’s originals fossils are still intact and when photographs of these specimens are compared to the illustrations, the quality of Sowerby’s work is striking. Smith also selected earth-colors for the paper on which the illustrations were produced, with colors reflecting the strata in which the fossils were embedded. Although this technique had some disadvantages, it aimed to bridge the gap between science and art.