Posts Tagged art

Herpetological Review: The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins

It has been some time since my last contribution to the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘ journal, Herpetological Review (see also SSAR’s facebook page), so I was honored when I was asked to contribute a retrospective on the late herpetologist and artist Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Cyril Stebbins (March 31, 1915—September 23, 2013) for the column, “Art in Herpetology.”

Hot off the presses in the second issue of the 2017 volume (page 472-473), The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins looks back at the life and career of a man whose contributions to the field of herpetology are still not only celebrated, but put to work on a daily basis as biologists young and old pick up their copy of Stebbins’ field guide, A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, and thumb through the pages to identify this or that lizard, check a species’ range, or compare a specimen to the carefully illustrated plates within.

In the process of preparing this piece, I had the opportunity to handle Dr. Stebbins field notebooks and original intricate illustrations at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Bancroft Library, and had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Emeritus David B. Wake, former Director and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and Theodore Papenfuss, research specialist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, about their experience working alongside this venerable herpetologist. But nothing says more about Dr. Stebbins’ passion for herpetology than his artwork.

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2017. Art in Herpetology: The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins. Herpetological Review 48(2): p 472-473.


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Book Review: The Unfeathered Bird

unfeatheredbird_k9843The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw, Princeton University Press (, 2013, 304 pages, $49.95

In The Unfeathered Bird, taxidermist and fine artist Katrina van Grouw breaths new life into avian anatomy, unveiling a beautifully imagined world where birds slip off their skins. But these never-before-seen glimpses of birds in their birthday suits are not what you might expect. Van Grouw’s world is not a peek into the sterile laboratory of natural history museums, but instead nature’s dressing room, a place where in spite of their nakedness, the subjects of van Grouw’s drawings preen and perch, flap and fly, strut and stalk their prey. Think of these as unusual natural history accounts of all things plucked.

Rather than morbid or macabre, however, van Grouw’s drawings are alive and animated. Here a Gentoo penguin erupts from the frigid Antarctic water, there a European robin alights on the handle of a shovel with a worm clasped in its naked beak. Comically-crowned Cornish broilers and English game Bantams cavort in their goose-pimpled skins as though, having just awakened from a bad hangover to find themselves plucked and sandwiched in an eggshell of plastic wrap and styrofoam, they’ve clawed their way free to explore the frozen food section of the butcher’s display case. The hindquarters view of a Eurasian oystercatcher – head craned to peer over its shoulder, one leg upraised in a calculated stride – reveals more about the character and behavior of this plover-like wading bird than you might otherwise glean from the individual bones.

Accompanying van Grouw’s fine drawings are narratives describing first the anatomical features of birds in general (Part One: Generic), followed by subsections devoted to related groups of birds (Part Two: Specific). Van Grouw’s writing is as illuminating as her illustrations are alive, full of facts and thoughtful observations at a clip appropriate for the layperson.

Whereas an amateur might need some background in osteology or physiology to understand what a jig-saw-puzzle-jumble of bones have to say about their previous owner, van Grouw’s re-assemblages are artfully all-telling through their purposeful poise and posture. Never has there been so much life in a still-life. The Unfeathered Bird is perfect for the bio-curious, for those who’ve ever wanted to peek under the hood of a hummingbird, and for those interested in seeing their cold-cuts come to life.

[Visit The Unfeathered Bird‘s Website]

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Herpetological Review: Scribner’s Monthly’s “In the Larder”

In the Larder HR 44-2 2013I am again excited to announce the publication of my most recent contribution to the new quarterly column, “Art in Herpetology,” one of the many new features of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘ new-and-improved, full-color journal, Herpetological Review (see also SSAR’s facebook page).

Hot off the presses in the second issue of the 2013 volume (page 253), you’ll find featured the moody engraving In the Larder prepared for the article, “Canvas-Back and Terrapin“, in the 1877 issue of Scribner’s Monthly magazine. In the gloomy larder depicted therein teeter two terrapins, surrounded by other decadences of the 19th Century – oysters, canvas-back ducks, Flor Fina cigars, Bordeaux wine.

Like the Pacific Coast’s western pond turtle (before the market demand for western pond turtle, in fact), diamond-back terrapins were collected along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast, first as a staple to feed slaves and later, as their numbers waned, as a culinary delicacy destined for the linened tables of the upperclass. Because so little is known about the market trade in “terrapins” along the Pacific Coast, species like the diamond-back terrapin can be used as a model to better understand the market demands for, harvest techniques in pursuit of, and eventual decline in western pond turtle populations throughout California and the west

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2013. Art in Herpetology. Herpetological Review 44(2): p 253.

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Book Review: Bird Watching

Bird Watching, by Paula McCartney, Princeton Architectural Press (, 2010, 120 pages, $50.00

As publishers and birders strive for the perfect birding book – be it The Crossley ID Guide‘s photodigital-realism or The Sibley Guides‘ careful scientific illustrations – the field guide Cold War currently under way has increasingly become an arms race toward capturing an image of that perfect bird unmistakably representative of its species. Now, photographer Paula McCartney’s most recent through-the-looking-glass vision turns that concept inside out.

Not quite a coffee-table book, and in no ways a field guide, Bird Watching is instead the journal of a tongue-in-cheek experiment that explores people’s perception of nature. And if there is an object lesson to be learned from McCartney’s Bird Watching, it is that books can be deceiving.

[Experience Paula McCartney’s Bird Watching photography at the Klompching Gallery]

Fifteen years ago, McCartney tapped the zoo exhibits of days gone by as a springboard for her “Bronx Zoo” [1997-1998] project, exploring the presentation of live animals displayed against painted backdrops. Now, it is instead the animals that are faked in these dioramic wilds, with McCartney affixing Styrofoam faux-fowl to outstretched limbs with wire mounts like a flock of cheap clip-on ties. Even in their fraud, these complicit chickadees and cactus wrens complete the vistas – purposefully posed, they alight on the perfect branch, they gambol and warble and preen for the camera, they do everything short of… well, flying.

[Preview Paula McCartney’s Bird Watching book]

While McCartney offers she “wanted to make the landscape more romantic, more idyllic,” one could just as well argue that these Styrofoam simulcra are really just the subjects of a philosopher’s field guide that provides a prophetic view of a future where our only encounters with wildlife are those painted, posed with wire, and planted in the landscape – stuffed turkeys in every sense of the word. Writing in the forward, curator Karen Irvine suggests that McCartney’s fictions question our relationship to nature and wildlife, asking “What are our expectations when we approach the natural landscape?” But Irvine overlooks what McCartney’s fiction also reveals about that relationship – that in the present day where extinction is a very real consequence, McCartney’s fictions may all too closely mirror reality. With the Wild Kingdom and Planet Earth experiences of instant gratification we’ve come to expect every time we set foot outdoors becoming increasingly untenable (were they ever?), pseudo-safaris such as imagined by McCartney could become more true than – though equally as strange as – the fiction they represent.

What does this mean for you, the reader? Bird Watching is life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum. Judging from the reactions of co-workers as they thumbed through the book, you’ll either appreciate the trickery with a wry grin or be offended at the perceived treacherous transgression against the natural world.

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Herpetological Review: Jacques Burkhardt’s Western Pond Turtle

I am excited to announce that I was recently asked to contribute to the new quarterly column, “Art in Herpetology,” one of the many new features of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘ new-and-improved, full-color journal, Herpetological Review (see also SSAR’s facebook page).

Hot off the presses in the third issue of the 2011 volume (page 382), you’ll find featured the never-before-published watercolor work of Jacques Burkhardt, one of over 900 scientific illustrations in the Ernt Mayr LIbrary‘s Jacques Burkhardt Collection in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), Harvard University. And of course, the skeletal turtle illustrated is none other than a western pond turtle, noted in this undated watercolor illustration as Actinemys marmorata.

This is just one of two western pond turtle illustrations in the collection – the first (featured here) from the San Francisco area [Physical Piece Id: bAg 168.60.10 (10)a], the second from Southern California ca. 1856 [Physical Piece Id: bAg 168.60.10 (23)a].

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2011. Art in Herpetology. Herpetological Review 42(3): p 382.

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