early american natural history



"A Single Living Filament": Illustrating Interdependent Natural Relationships


Early American naturalists developed a tradition of portraying species’ relationships with their environments in their drawings.  This tradition grew as time passed.


Alexander Wilson’s images may include some guide to the diet or habitat of a bird or animal, but they tend to focus on the key identifying markers of each species. 1  The traditional kind of cataloging image can be seen in Wilson’s decisions to isolate a bird in the blank background of the page.  At times, he groups  birds of a similar species together, communicating where these birds go in the developing Linnaean systems of the time.  However, he does offer some images of the life stages of various birds. This kind of image is part of the taxonomy project of the time: gathering a vast collected list of all species and their distinguishing features.


Often, Mark Catesby's images offer a greater sense of species in interaction with their surroundings: engaged in pursuing prey or devouring plants.  However, he still does produce images meant just to identify a species.


 John James Audubon’s drawings most frequently tend to emphasize the species interacting with environment , but with a more dramatic emphasis on survival or social interaction.


Suggested Activity:


1 Look at a selection of Early American Naturalist drawings to look for the ways these drawings tend to emphasize the relationships between a species and the environment.


What does each image seem to emphasize about the animal or bird and its environment?  Is it the food of that particular species?  Its life-cycle?  Its necessary climate conditions? Its predators or prey? Its impact on its environment?


2. Choose a contemporary species and research its relationship with its environment.  Then,  design an image that succinctly communicates particular key elements of that relationship without using words, diagrams, arrows, or other symbols.


With greater knowledge of the interplay between a species and its environment, your image can go much further than those of the early naturalists.  However, it must also avoid over-crowding or cluttering the image to the degree that it ceases to communicate effectively.  Therefore, you must establish some priorities.


Think about how you can use some of the design elements such as proximity, scale, the creation of a focal point, balance, color scheme or value to make such environmental relationships clear to your viewer.


3. To accompany your image, draft a piece of writing detailing why you choose to emphasize particular elements of the ecology of that species.  Then, explain how your illustration achieves these goals.



1. Ann Shelby Blum,  Picturing Nature American Nineteenth Century Zoological Illustration,  Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993).


Arkansas Frameworks


* Parokeet is an older spelling of parakeet.  The Carolina Parrot was another name by which the parakeet was known.   The Carolina Parakeet was declared an extinct species in 1918.

This site  was created through a fellowship from the William Reese Company

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library