Psychedelic Fishes from the World’s First Natural History Encyclopedia of Marine Creatures Illustrated in Color
An explosion of wonder at the borderline of science and the ecstatic imagination.
By Maria Popova
“Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere,” Rachel Carson wrote in her lyrical 1937 masterpiece Undersea, which invited the human imagination to fathom the world of marine creatures for the first time — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — and paved the way for the awakening of the modern ecological conscience.
More than two centuries earlier, a strange and wondrous book titled Poissons, écrevisses et crabes… que l’on trouve autour des Isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des Terres Australes — Fishes, crayfish and crabs, of various colors and extraordinary figures, which one finds around the Moluccas islands and on the coasts of the Austral lands — flashed into being, dizzying and dazzling everyone who chanced upon the 100 precious copies of the first edition with its extraordinary depictions of extraordinary creatures.
The world’s first encyclopedia of fishes illustrated in color, promising a “natural history of the rarest curiosities of the fish of the Indies,” it advertised these curiosities as “drawn from nature.” The author identified himself as a secret British spy. He was, in fact, the Dutch publisher, bookseller, atlas-maker, and engraver Louis Renard (c. 1678–1746), employed at one time by the British Crown in the rather non-secret work of searching vessels as they departed Amsterdam’s ports to ensure they weren’t smuggling arms for a potential usurper of the British throne. Clickbait existed even in 1719.
The consummate images — 100 plates of them, populated by 460 individual hand-colored copper engravings, based on drawings by an artistically gifted soldier in the Dutch East India Company named Samuel Fallour, who worked with native artists — are even more vibrant than William Saville-Kent’s pioneering depictions of the Great Barrier Reef’s life-forms, even more otherworldly than Ernst Haeckel’s mesmerizing jellyfish, even more detailed than Harriet and Helena Scott’s Australian butterflies. They are seaborne butterflies, gilled and finned peacocks, psychedelic dragons of the ocean; they are candy-colored aliens, Earth’s proudest freak-flags, floating cosmoses of wonder; they are undulating living poems.
Reminiscent of Hindu deities and the marine creatures of Indian folklore, Renard’s creatures are so fanciful one might be tempted to take them for fictitious — a temptation significantly magnified by the depiction of a mermaid on page 220, its human portion appearing like a child’s drawing awkwardly appended to the elegant, elaborate paintings of the marine forms.
But while their beauty is embellished — by the artistic imagination filling in the gaps of science, as mythology has always done — it is not invented. When a modern ichthyologist examined the book a quarter millennium after its publication, he determined that only about one in ten of the species depicted was drawn from the imagination; the rest were identifiable down to the genus, many even to the species.
Their strange and wondrous countenances seem both alien and strikingly human, projection screens for our own emotions — their round unblinking eyes frozen in an expression of perpetual astonishment, their toothy underbites agape with aggressive incomprehension.
The wonderful Biodiversity Library has scanned a rare surviving copy of the posthumous edition published in 1754. I have spent some delicious hours — days, really — savoring it, restoring and color-correcting these time-washed treasures to their original splendor, to make them available as prints and, for the artworks that lend themselves to the pre-set cutting pattern, as face masks, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s tireless stewardship of this irreplaceable world.
Published August 15, 2020