How the Octopus Came to Earth: Stunning 19th-Century French Chromolithographs of Cephalopods
The art-science that captured the wonder of some of “the most brilliant productions of Nature.”
By Maria Popova
While the French seamstress turned scientist Jeanne Villepreux-Power was solving the ancient mystery of the argonaut, her compatriot Jean Baptiste Vérany (1800–1865) — a pharmacist turned naturalist and founder of Nice’s Natural History Museum — set out to illuminate the wonders of cephalopods in descriptions and depictions of unprecedented beauty and fidelity to reality. Half a century before the stunningly illustrated Cephalopod Atlas brought the life-forms of the deep to the human imagination, Vérany published Mediterranean Mollusks: Observations, Descriptions, Figures, and Chromolithographs from Life — a consummately illustrated catalogue of creatures entirely alien to the era’s lay imagination, suddenly and vividly alive in full color.
When Vérany began working on his dream of bringing the underwater world to life on the page, chromolithography — a chemical process used for making multi-color prints — was still in its infancy in France. Determined to capture the living vibrancy of these creatures that had so enchanted him, he set out to teach himself the craft. Looking back on his long labors at mastering this art-science and applying it to his dream, he reflects:
Despite having no practice at lithography and no knowledge of chromolithography, I launched myself, with courage and confidence, into this enterprise… Thanks to trial and error and patience, I have often succeeded in depicting the softness and transparency that characterize these animals.
The German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term ecology, was introduced to the wonders of cephalopods by Vérany’s work and incorporated some of the art into his own studies of symmetry. Victor Hugo copied one of Vérany’s illustrations in ink for his 1866 novel Toilers of the Sea. The book itself became a catalyst for the study of octopus intelligence.
Radiating from the chromolithographs is Vérany’s shimmering passion for his subject. He was especially captivated by the red umbrella squid, Histioteuthis Bonelliana, which he saved from a fisherman’s net and placed in a tub to study and draw from life, wonder-smitten by its beauty. He recounts:
It was at this moment that I enjoyed the astonishing spectacle of the brilliant points whose forms so extraordinarily decorate the skin of this cephalopod; sometimes it was the brightness of the sapphire which dazzled me; sometimes it was the opaline of the topazes which made it more remarkable; other times these two rich colors confused their splendid rays. During the night, the opaline points projected a phosphorescent glare, making this mollusk one of the most brilliant productions of Nature.
Complement with Ernst Haeckel’s otherworldly drawings of jellyfish from the same era, then revisit Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness.