French Artist Paul Sougy’s Stunning Mid-Century Scientific Illustrations of Plants, Animals, and the Human Body
By Maria Popova
On a recent visit with a friend and her newborn daughter, I was completely taken with an enormous scientific diagram of a snail hanging by the crib, aglow with the thrill of science and the unmistakable vibrancy of mid-century graphic design. I asked about it — she said it was a vintage French classroom poster she had acquired at the Oakland Flea Market. Determined to find out more about its creator, I had only the tiny inscription in the bottom right-hand corner to go on: “P. Sougy, 1955.”
This is what I discovered after weeks of trawling catalogs, libraries, antiquarian bookstores, and French government archives: In the 1940s, Paul Sougy — a curator of natural history at the science museum of the French city of Orléans, and a gifted artist — was commissioned by the estate of the pioneering 18th-century French naturalist and anatomist Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux to create a series of illustrations based on Auzoux’s work, to be used in textbooks, workbooks, transparencies, and large-scale educational charts for classroom walls.
Over the next two decades, Sougy proceeded to draw some uncommonly beautiful and distinctive diagrams of the natural world: bats and butterflies and sea urchins; pines and ferns and peas; the human brain and heart and respiratory system; the fly, Willam Blake’s existential muse; the horse, that emancipator of human love; moss, that subtle teacher in the art of seeing.
Today, all that is remembered of Sougy is the tiny 270-meter street in Orléans named for him, as his gorgeous drawings — his life’s work — perish out of print, to be chanced upon by young twenty-first-century mothers at flea markets.
Having culled as many of these gems as I could find from various government repositories, vintage textbooks, and classroom posters — crinkled and worn, savaged by time and schoolchildren’s eager hands — I have endeavored to restore them and make them available as prints for the scientific edification and aesthetic delight of generations to come, with a portion of all proceeds going toward The Nature Conservancy in support of their noble, necessary work to preserve the living splendor and biodiversity of this irreplaceable planet.
Complement with the gorgeous natural history paintings of the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone, then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s stunning paintings of mushrooms, which revolutionized mycology and still help scientists identify species.
Special thanks to the archives of the University of Artois
Published November 29, 2019