Le Monde de la Mer: Stunning 19th-Century French Illustrations of the Wonders of the Sea
By Maria Popova
In 1866, the year the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology while working on his otherworldly illustrations of jellyfish, a kindred book appeared across the artificial divide of ecosystems that is the national border — a lavishly illustrated volume by the French naturalist and physician Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquin-Tandon, former Director of the French Academy of Sciences, published under the pseudonym Alfred Fredón three years after his sudden death.
Le Monde de la Mer — The World of the Sea — took readers into a world then more mysterious than the Moon. The first underwater submersibles were still across the horizon of the next century. Rachel Carson was yet to invite the human imagination into the marine world with her pioneering poetic masterpiece Undersea. What shimmered and lurked beneath the blue veneer covering most of our planet was still the subject of mystery and myth, probed with science fiction and crude speculation.
After eulogizing the author, the preface captures the spirit of his work:
Struck with admiration at the sight of the majestic painting of the ocean, touched by the magical spectacle of the life of the waters, the author paints the world of the sea in its luxury and its agitations.
Inspired by his painting of breaking waves, Fredón commissioned the scientific artist Pierre Lackerbauer to illustrate the book with hundreds of intricate black-and-white etchings and two dozen dazzling color plates. From sea slugs to seagulls, from psychedelic lobsters to candy-colored anemones, from the development of jellyfish to the hatching of shorebirds, the vibrant illustrations eclipse photography in their ability to beckon the human imagination into the underwater wonderland — a place that still, even after all of our scientific probings and discoveries, holds some elemental mystery hinting at the meaning of life.
Some of the art is clearly influenced by Haeckel’s drawings of radiolarians, which so inspired Darwin.
Others call to mind Willian Saville-Kent’s breathtaking illustrations of corals and anemones.
Radiating from the totality of them is a sense of exuberant wonder at the variousness of life on this improbable planet we are lucky to call home.
Complement with these sensual drawings from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures and some otherworldly life-forms from the coastal shallows, then savor these luscious botanical illustrations of terrestrial wonders from another French volume of the same era.
Published November 15, 2022