Mark Catesby on SciArt

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-1-18-38-pmThe Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1729-1771) by Mark Catesby, a self-taught artist and naturalist, was first publication to describe scientifically the flora and fauna of North America. The first edition, published between 1729-1731, was written and illustrated by Catesby, with the exception of a few plates done by Georg Dionysius Ehret.

Catesby arrived May 23, 1722 in Charlestown in the colony of Carolina. A passionate explorer without formal scientific training, he taught himself scientific observation, illustration, and engraving. He describes his scientific and artistic methodology with much humility.


Catesby’s explanation of how he illustrated his plates shows how intent he was to recreate accurate representations so that his work would be part of the legitimate endeavors of the burgeoning scientific community. His attention to detail even extended to his description of how he painted greens in his illustrations.


Even with his efforts at accurate representation, one interesting feature of Catesby’s plates with multiple species is a varying perspective that doesn’t accurately account for size. For example, on Plate 20 of the Appendix, Catesby illustrated a Buffalo (Bison bison) with a Rose Locust (Robinia hispida).


Biodiversity Heritage Library has a wonderful post about Catesby and the realization of his lifelong dream to catalog the life of the new world in the North American British colonies of the south. All of Catesby’s illustrations from the three editions, along with links to those editions, can be found here with thanks to BHL.

As part of my research for BHL, I had the pleasure of adding taxonomy to each of these illustrations, with gratitude for the invaluable resource, The Curious Mister Catesby (2015), edited by E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliot for the Catesby Commemorative Trust.

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  1. Pingback: In Focus: Catesby’s Natural History | Historical SciArt

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