Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species
Potoroos, birds of paradise, variegated lizards, and other wondrous creatures brought to vibrant life by a visionary woman in the golden age of scientific exploration.
By Maria Popova
A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with her groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.
Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells — at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)
Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.
With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.
In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravely endangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegated lizard, and the doubtful sparus.
As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.
After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)
Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).
Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit these masterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.
Published March 12, 2019