I originally found this fabulous polar bear image from the Bechstein volumes a couple of years ago and chose at the time not to pursue the series. I felt that, although there was a BibliOdysseyesque diversity of material (in terms of artistic merit and style, absurdity, and range of species types), the illustrations had been largely stolen or adapted from earlier works (Buffon & Von Schreber come immediately to mind).
With the passage of time and the random rediscovery of the series website, I've had something of a change of heart. Repeated appearance of some of the illustrations (both in contemporary publishing terms and on this blog) underlines the importance and relative ubiquity of the contrived sketch settings, human-like emotions and absurdly humorous representations of some of the less familiar species in Early Modern natural history literature.
In fact, after skipping through the multiple volumes of similar material that constitute Bechstein's zoological encyclopaedia, the appearance of the anatomically correct and detailed renders among the more bizarre illustrations can feel the more incongruous finds. It's a snapshot reminder of progress in popular scientific reporting and accuracy.
Johann Matthäus Bechstein (1757-1822) was a German ornithologist and forestry expert and a pioneer in animal and environmental conservation.
After studying and teaching theology, Bechstein's casual interest in natural history was formalised professionally with the founding in the 1790s of a forestry school and a forestry society in the German state of Thuringia.
Bechstein was a prolific author - if only a modest figure in the history of science - and is probably best remembered in the English-speaking world for his series on singing birds. He also provided the first description of several bird species, wrote a monograph on caged bird diseases and advocated for preservation of animals considered to be pests in his day (bats, for instance).
- The 8-volume series by Johann Bechstein, 'Getreue Abbildungen Naturhistorischer Gegenstände' (Realistic Pictures from Natural History), was issued between 1795 and 1807. Seven of those volumes are available from the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. (click through on a volume - band - then on anything below 'Inhalt', and then on 'Vorschau' for thumbnail pages. Easypeasy.)
- Bechstein books: Amazon | German National Library | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Googlebooks.
- Wikipedia bio.
- Previously: science | fauna.
- BibliOdyssey on Twitter.