The Otherworldly Wonders of This World: Stunning 19th-Century Natural History Illustrations of Lizards
From geckos to chameleons, a scaly journey down the hallway of evolutionary time through the portal of beauty.
By Maria Popova
Regard anything attentively enough and it becomes an astonishment, shimmering with the miraculous.
Take lizards — some of Earth’s commonest creatures, populating every continent except Antarctica in their infinite varieties, and at the same time some of Earth’s most otherworldly life-forms. They move through the world in their contortionist bodies, waterproof and heatproof in their keratin-scaled skinsuits, navigating not by smells in our familiar sense but by pheromones streaming in through their vomeronasal sensory system. Some have tongues longer than their bodies. Some have gloves of primordial velcro that helps them scale the steepest and most slippery of surfaces. Some change color to blend with their environment. Some can steer their eyes in different directions. Some can run across water.
An epoch before the chemical birth of photography, the German zoologist Alfred Edmund Brehm (February 2, 1829–November 11, 1884) set out to capture the science and wonder of lizards in one of the volumes in his voluminous series Brehms Tierleben (Brehm’s Animal Life). Illustrating the detailed scientific writing are hundreds of black-and-white etchings and a dozen consummate color lithographs that capture these strange and wondrous creatures in a way partway between diorama and fairy tale.
Complement with some stunning natural-history illustrations of owls, marine mollusks, and beetles from the same century, then leap another century back with these striking drawings of real and mythic serpents and the trailblazing artist Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct species.
Published October 31, 2022