UF wildlife ecology students merge science and art in project with Harn Museum
“The museum needed to know the names of the birds and plants depicted, whether they were accurately rendered, and if they were biologically realistic”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Art and science aren’t always birds of a feather, but a new University of Florida project has them flocking together.
Students from UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences recently worked with UF’s Harn Museum of Art to identify Brazilian birds and plants illustrated by famed naturalist painter Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.
A website detailing their work was launched earlier this year. It can be found here: http://descourtilz.wordpress.com/.
“The museum needed to know the names of the birds and plants depicted, whether they were accurately rendered, and if they were biologically realistic,” said Emilio Bruna, an associate professor in UF’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
Bruna and John Blake, a professor in the department, co-taught the graduate-level class that led the project. Both are members of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Students in the class, An Introduction to Tropical Ecology and Conservation, examined five prints – each portraying three to five birds and a plant species upon which the birds are perched. And while some of the birds were labeled by Descourtilz, none of the plants had identification.
The students were asked to accurately classify the birds and plants using modern taxonomic nomenclature and to prepare a report that outlined what the birds eat, where they live and in which part of the tropical forest canopy they reside.
Blake said one of the interesting findings from the project was that some of the birds portrayed together are not from the same part of Brazil.
“Some would be from the far corner of the Amazon and others would be from southern Brazil, and yet they’re all posed together on the same plant,” Blake said.
For example, in one print, the scarlet-headed blackbird, sharpbill and the pampas meadowlark are pictured on the same plant. However, the three birds do not share a similar habitat range and would not likely be found together.
On the same print, the birds sit on a ficus branch. And while the sharpbill may eat the plant’s fruit, the other three birds pictured eat mainly insects.
Bruna said he suspects that rather than being drawn from nature, the prints were drawn from memory or from museum specimens.
The artwork is part of Harn’s growing natural history collection of about 400 prints from the 16th to the 19th century by European and American artists that depict birds, rocks, mammals, plants, shells and more from Asia, the Americas and Europe.
Eric Segal, the museum’s education curator of academic programs, said once information is obtained about artwork, it is kept for later use when writing wall labels or essays.
“It’s very powerful information for us,” Segal said. “Everything that the students have done for this project is really useful and will come back again when those prints are shown.”
These works arrived at the museum in 2010 as part of an acquisition program initiated with generous loans from Graham Arader, a prominent dealer whose specialties include natural history prints.
They are from Descourtilz’s four-part book of 164 species of Brazilian birds titled “Ornithologie brésilienne ou Histoire des Oiseaux du Brésil, Remarquables par leur Plumage, leur Chant ou leurs Habitudes,” published between 1852 and 1856.
Descourtilz produced them through chromolithography, a process by which an image is drawn in reverse onto stone using special markers, ink is applied to the image and then paper is placed firmly against the stone using a press to make a print. The prints were then hand colored.
The Harn’s work with CALS is part of a larger effort to continue to weave the museum into the academic fabric of UF, Segal said.
“The museum is a world-class art museum, but it’s also a resource for the university,” he said. “We have a long history of working with a wide range of disciplines across campus.”
Emilio Bruna, an associate professor in the University of Florida department of wildlife ecology and conservation; Leah Henderson, a graduate student in UF’s department of anthropology; John Blake, a professor in the department of wildlife and ecology and conservation; and Eric Segal, education curator of academic programs for UF’s Harn Museum of Art, are pictured in front of natural history prints by artist Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.