Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World


320 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-4225-2
DDC 502'.2'2




Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in
British Columbia.


Historians of science, notably Martin Rudwick, Martin Kemp, and David
Knight, have stressed the importance of visual depictions of the natural
world to our understanding of earlier scientific beliefs and practices.
Dickenson’s book is a valuable addition to a growing literature in the
study of scientific illustration. The images she has chosen to discuss
date from the 15th to the 19th centuries and depict the natural
landscape, plants, and animals of the northern part of North America.
How nature is seen has a history. For example, the entries in medieval
bestiaries were, among other things, part descriptive, part fable, and
part moral tale.

Dickenson begins her book by examining this more emblematic approach to
animals and its consequences for the images made at the start of the
early modern period. Keith Thomas has written of a major shift in
attitudes toward nature in the years between 1500 and 1800; Dickenson is
able to read this shift in the many images she discusses. Over time,
there was a greater interest in classification and “accurate”
description, perhaps associated with a new economic interest in what
nature could offer. Dickenson is not alone in seeing this interest as
being related to the discovery and subsequent exploration of the New
World. The discovery of America led to much questioning of the biblical
account of creation, and the multitude of new life forms had to be
accommodated in a new worldview. New kinds of truths needed to be
conveyed, and artists developed a variety of techniques for doing so.
Today’s computer manipulation of images should remind us that artists
have always had a similar freedom. How that freedom was used, while at
the same time being constrained by historical forces, is the main focus
of this book.

Dickenson’s theoretical approach is not especially novel, but the
empirical material that she presents (curious maps, images of the
landscape, people, plants, and animals) is fascinating. Her well-written
and illuminating book should interest more than a specialist readership.


Dickenson, Victoria., “Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2359.