All in a Day's Work

On the cover of G. Oster and E. O. Wilson's 1978 Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects, there's arresting illustration of African weaver ants, each of whom typifies or stands for a "caste" within a larger, hierarchically ordered ant-society. The illustration is credited to Turid Hoelldobler, otherwise known as Turid Forsyth, a Canadian artist specializing in botanical illustrations and photographs. If this acknowledgment [search on "turid"] of her contribution to some fieldwork with Steodota fulva is any indication, she was once married to Bert Hoelldobler, a German myrmecologist and co-author, with Wilson, of The Ants (1991), for which they won the Nobel Prize.

While Turid Forsyth is not (yet) listed on Wikipedia's page devoted to scientific illustrators, many other women are. And although this year's meeting of the History of Science Society included three or four sessions devoted to the absence of women in both science and the history thereof, I didn't find any sessions devoted to scientific illustrators. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that they are often cast in a helpmeet's role. One need only think of Catherine Boucher, otherwise known as Mrs. William Blake, who was responsible for etching the plates for many, if not all, of "his" most famous works, to understand how easily this kind of work is forgotten or effaced as a result of long-standing historical misapprehension: the "author" of a book is not by a long shot the only person responsible for its appearance in the world.

You might also be surprised to know that Beatrix Potter made scientific illustrations. So did Cecilia Beaux, one of the most celebrated society portraitists of the Gilded Age.

Beaux's case is interesting: While still a student, Beaux took on various work-for-hire projects including making etchings of fossils for the US Geological Survey. In her autobiography, Beaux reflects on the fossil drawings. At the time, her uncle had just taken her to visit his lithography business in Philadelphia, where she was deeply impressed by the huge stones used in making commercial lithographs. Meanwhile, she was trying to draw fossils from another, smaller set of stones, which recorded an impression in mirror-image, like the lithograph. "Reading" the fossil image off these stones was tightly connected, for Beaux, from what she had seen in at the lithographer's.

But the fossil record was thousands of years old. Beaux' first commercial lithograph was for an advertisement that appeared in a newspaper. Given that her initial work involved her in such extremes of duration -- the eternal, the ephemeral -- is it any wonder that she finally settled on portraiture, the representation immortalization of a single moment in a human life, as her preferred métier?

By 1890, with her lithographic work twenty years behind her, Beaux's artistic star was well on the rise. In the next decade, she would paint portraits of Charles Darwin's daughter-in-law, Maud DuPuy Darwin, Dr. John Shaw Billings, surgeon and librarian to the Army Medical Museum and Library in Washington, DC, and Mary Scott Newbold, wife of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, before winning a gold medal at the 1899 Carnegie Art Institute's international exhibition, where she was praised by William Merritt Chase as "the greatest woman painter of modern times."

1890 also marked the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray -- which famously concerns itself with matters of temporality and portraiture. If this were the only connection between Wilde and Beaux, pointing out the presence of these themes in their artistic lives would be fairly, er, spurious. But other connections, perhaps equally spurious, can be excavated from the historical record... For instance, Wilde was a close friend of J. M. Whistler, whose famous painting of his mother provided the inspiration for the wistful, ambiguous canvas that is widely believed to have launched Beaux's career, "Les derniers jours d'enfance (The Last Days of Infancy)," which she completed in 1886. Wilde's novel also made explicit reference to the decadent novel, A Rebours, by J. K. Huysmans, who was also an astute critic of impressionism and much admired by Whistler (it seems the feeling was mutual).