A Tale of Three Fish

I have always loved to walk through fish markets, ever since I was a kid.  It’s the shapes of the fish that fascinates me; they are all so sleek and muscular, so well suited to cutting through the water.  I like seeing them alive in aquariums too, but you can’t appreciate their wonderful volumes so well when they keep moving away from you.

Not a surprise, then, that I also like pictures of fish.  The one at the top and below here is from Tropical Fishes of the East Indies by Samuel Fallours, published as a  catalog in 1719, and one of the earliest such studies of exotic animals to be made available in color.  While his rendition of the shapes of the specimens is not bad, his coloring and elaborations of the their surface patterns is completely fanciful.  The fish shown here is of the tetradon group commonly called puffer fish.

Look at this unbelievable pattern on the side of this fish here:  it looks like woven fabric.

These illustrations are more credible.

Here is representation of another, related fish, from a contemporaneous book, Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities.  Clearly, this one is more of a ‘scientific’ study of the actual appearance of the fish, though this book too includes flights of fancy, such as a seven-headed monster reptile.  (Fallour’s book has an illustration of a mermaid that the author swears was in his possession for four days.)

Take a look at the pattern in the wings of these bugs, too.  Not quite what I’ve seen on dead ones I have encountered…

Finally, we have this work from my Selections from the work of the Comte de Lacepede which reproduces engravings published by the Count, usually without color.  The illustrations in his works seem totally ‘modern’ in their objective recording of the appearances, and their avoidance of dramatic or picturesque details.  (Although he does illustrate whales with rather ornamental spouts coming from their blowholes.)

Clearly, this problem of accurate illustration bedeviled natural history for centuries, since it began in ancient Greece, up until the invention of photography.  Say what you will in a post-modern vein about the pseudo-objectivity of all science and documentary photography, pictures made with cameras’ at least have the useful and undeniable property of being reproduced ad infinitum, and of mindlessly recording what is placed in front of them.  William Ivins discusses this brilliantly, and at length in this fantastic book.


3 Responses to A Tale of Three Fish

  1. troutsky says:

    From someone who spends an inordinate amount of time holding fish (part of my job), let me say I appreciate this notion of fish volume. Also remain fascinated by the unbelievable muscularity and power of live ones after four decades. I can also discuss fish personalities at length but perhaps not now.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    I kept a 3-inch long piranha as a pet when I was a kid. The power contained in that tiny body was astounding. Taking him out to clean the tank was an adventure.

    So where can I get me one of them seven-headed, two-armed turtle things?

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