History Illustration Science
Jean Baptiste Vérany’s Wildly Influential Cephalopod Chromolithographs Depict Sea Creatures in Stunning Opalescent Color
In 1851, French pharmacist-turned-naturalist Jean Baptiste Vérany (1800–1865) published a collection of illustrations that captured the subtle colors and tonal variances of cephalopods. A class of mollusks that includes squid, octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus, cephalopods have pronounced, often bulbous heads, symmetric bodies, and arms and tentacles known to produce ink. The marine creatures became a source of fascination for Vérany after a research expedition with Franco Andrea Bonelli, a preeminent ornithologist and entomologist, who helped usher in the young naturalist’s interest in zoology.
Some of Vérany’s most-recognized contributions to natural history include the chromolithographs—lithographs with several layers of color—released in his book Mollusques Méditeranéens: observès, decrits, figurès et chromolithographies d’après le vivant, or Mediterranean molluscs: observed, described, figured and chromolithographs from life. The volume includes 41 illustrations that are rendered in exacting detail and exemplify Vérany’s unparalleled understanding of color. Subtle shifts from pink to aqua, vivid reds, and vast explorations of opalescence characterize his works, which sought to capture “the suppleness of the flesh, the grace of the contours, the flexibility of the membranes, the transparency, and the coloring,” according to Public Domain Review.
In addition to depicting the lively sea creatures with unprecedented accuracy for the time, Vérany also affected the work of several influential figures, including novelist Victor Hugo, glass artists Léopold and Rudolf Blaschka, and even the lauded biologist Ernst Haeckel, who Vérany first introduced to cephalopods in 1856. Haeckel even copied some of his mentor’s plates for Kunstformen der Natur, a volume of 100 prints recognized as one of the first books to close the divide between art and science.
Explore more of Vérany’s pivotal works in the always free and accessible Biodiversity Heritage Library (previously).
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