To put our everyday lives in perspective and jolt us awake to the wonder of so much we have come to take for granted, let us picture this:
It is the 1840s, and you, like most of humanity, have never traveled more than a few miles beyond where you were born, have never met a person native to a different country, have never seen a bird native to a different continent or a flower native to a different climate. Like most of humanity, you never will. Photography has just been born, too costly and cumbersome a technology to carry into the world, much less to bring the world to you. If you have had the privilege of setting foot in a library — that is, if you were born with a Y chromosome and very little melanin — you might have leafed through a heavy leather-bound encyclopedia or an herbarium and marveled at life-forms from faraway lands. Suppose you are among the slender portion of our species lucky enough to live near one of the world’s handfuls of natural history museums and botanical gardens. In that case, you might have glimpsed some specimens of exotic plants.
But you are you — whatever degree of privilege chance has conferred upon you at birth, you are curious, and you hunger for beauty, enraptured by the artwork that is your only portal to the living wonders of this world.
Before science made the technologies of image-capture and global travel possible, botanical and natural history illustrators were singular civil servants — artists in the service of their subjects, tasked with capturing and conveying what it is like to be a particular plant or animal living in a particular habitat. Here, each exquisitely rendered specimen seems to say to its remote viewer, aren’t I strange and beautiful and worthy of inclusion in the family of life?