9 Gorgeous Historic Scientific Illustrations

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9 Gorgeous Historic Scientific Illustrations

Scientific illustration has been the classic match between art and science for centuries. Even today, scientific illustrators compose accurate depictions of nature, medicine and basic scientific concepts through watercolor, acrylics, ink or oils. Not only do they appeal to the eye, the work must include the correct proportions, colors and anatomical structures as well, says the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. In fact, dozens of colleges and universities across the country offer scientific illustration programs for students to learn art history, accurate drawing skills and the science behind their subjects, such as botany, zoology and anatomy.

A “golden age” of scientific illustration throughout the 18th century sparked curiosity, exploration and experimentation with the natural world. Take a peek at some of the most detailed, vibrant and popular images from that time, which include animals, flowers, birds and bugs. You may even recognize a name or two.

Top image: Wikimedia Commons

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.


John James Audubon
Years: 1785-1851

You may recognize his name from the Audubon Society. He found sponsors in England for his book, The Birds of America, which features 435 hand-colored etchings. America's natural history was popular at the time, and he combined art, science and national pride into a narrative about the country.


Charles Darwin
Years: 1809-1882

Known most often for his work, On the Origin of Species, Darwin contributed to the science of evolution through drawings as much as he did through writing.


Charles D'Orbigny
Years: 1806-1876

D'Orbigny was a French botanist and geologist who published the Dictionnaire Universel d'Histoire Naturelle, which featured hand-colored plates by many leading French artists of the time.


Sarah Drake
Years: 1803-1857

Not many female scientific illustrators were honored during the 18th and 19th centuries, though many women helped male counterparts to complete drawings. Drake trained as a botanical illustrator in England and worked with London University botanist and illustrator John Lindley.


Philip Henry Gosse
Years: 1810-1888

Gosse was a zoologist who worked in the U.S., Canada and Jamaica. He's known for a book about the Devonshire Coast in England, as well as paintings of marine life in Britain. In fact, his works are credited with making the science of marine biology popular.


John Gould
Years: 1804-1881

Gould started out as a taxidermist, who earned a reputation by mounting King George IV's pet giraffe. Later in life, he pulled together a group of artists to create more than 3,000 images of birds in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Americas.


Ernst Haeckel
Years: 1834-1919

Haeckel was a German biologist who discovered thousands of new species and coined many biological terms, such as anthropogeny, ecology, phylum, phylogeny, stem cell, and Protista. Haeckel promoted Darwin's work in Germany and drew hundreds of marine images.


Robert Hooke
Years: 1635-1703

Hooke is best known for Micrographia, which documented his observations under a microscope. It's notable for being the first book to illustrate insects and plants under a microscope, coining the term "cell," and making the science of microscopy popular.


Maria Merian
Years: 1647-1717

Merian is another female scientific illustrator who didn't receive recognition until much later. She's known for illustrations of plants and insects from her trips in Suriname and South America.


Lorenz Oken
Years: 1779-1851

Oken, a German professor of medicine, espoused beliefs of mysticism and pantheism by incorporating God and nature into his works. He's known for a 13-volume book, Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (Natural History for all Social Ranks).