Behind the Brushstrokes: Exploring Lost Luminaries of Science Illustration
What is science without a means to communicate it? Dating back to prehistoric cave paintings, scientific exploration and artistic interpretation have long been complementary endeavors. The interdisciplinary field of science illustration has served as an outlet for those excluded from science, a way to form personal connections with the natural world, and a means of visualizing innovative ideas. Despite the essential role they play, many scientific artists have been erased from our collective memory. Vertices is determined to change this. Read on to learn more about three of science’s most talented yet least recognized illustrators.
Maria Martin Bachman
You are likely familiar with John James Audubon’s iconic avian paintings from his book The Birds of America. These breathtaking artworks feature 435 birds rendered in scientific yet beautiful detail in their natural habitats and have grown immensely popular since they were first published between 1827 and 1838. Despite the widespread appreciation for Audubon’s art, most of his fans are not aware that another artist contributed to his work: Maria Martin Bachman.
Above: Portrait of Maria Martin Bachman. Courtesy of New York Historical Society Museum & Library.
Martin and Audubon’s collaboration began in 1831 when Audubon first traveled to Charleston, South Carolina. While in the city, he stayed with pastor and naturalist John Bachman, Maria Martin’s brother-in-law. Martin lived in the household to care for her ill sister and their nine children — although Martin and Bachman later married after her sister’s death. Many records of Martin’s life have been destroyed, but her writings indicate that she was well-educated on a variety of subjects, such as French, literature, music, and natural sciences. However, like most women of her era, Martin had few professional or higher education opportunities. Science illustration presented a chance to slip through these closed doors. Observing Martin’s scientific disposition and artistic prowess, Audubon mentored her in watercolor painting. She soon became an unparalleled illustrator of flora and insects, creating intricate scenes that Audubon used as backgrounds to complement the birds he painted.
Above: Swainson’s Warbler (left), Townsend’s Bunting (middle), and Rufous Hummingbird (right) featuring butterflies and flowering plants painted by Maria Martin Bachman. Courtesy of New York Historical Society Museum & Library.
“In honouring this species [Picus martinae, Maria’s Woodpecker] with the name of Miss MARIA MARTIN, I cannot refrain from intimating the respect, admiration, and sincere friendship which I feel towards her, and stating that, independently of her other accomplishments, and our mutual goodwill, I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgment for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers.”
— John James Audubon, in his Ornithological Biography
On his many visits to Charleston, Audubon developed a great appreciation for Martin’s talent and they formed a close partnership — so close that two pairs of their children even married each other. Yet, despite this bond, Audubon credited Martin for only nine of the artworks featured in his book (although it is thought that she contributed to at least thirty). Much of her work is unsigned and in similar style to Audubon, making it difficult to ascertain exactly which elements of the artworks are hers. Martin and her husband worked with Audubon for many years, going on to assist with artwork and text for his other book The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. She later illustrated for John Edwads Holbrook’s North American Herpetology. Many of Martin’s independent works were destroyed during the Civil War — during which, it is important to note, the Bachman family were Confederate supporters — but some of her surviving pieces can be viewed in various museum collections. Somewhat recognized during her lifetime, Martin died in 1863 in Columbia, South Carolina. Her contributions to Audubon's work were largely lost to time, but appreciation for her magnificent artistic talent has recently made a revival among bird enthusiasts.
Above: Papilio philenor swallowtail butterflies painted by Maria Martin. Courtesy of Lydia Cox from the Charleston Museum’s exhibit America’s First Museum: 250 Years of Collecting, Preserving and Educating, Part 1.
Walter Inglis Anderson
Scalloped inky black lines indicate scales, dark slashes make claws, and waving lines combine to form a skeletal-looking head. The image can be starkly black and white but is most often awash in a rainbow of colors in the marshy background surrounding the army green reptile. This alligator is pictured in many prints made from a linoleum block cut by Walter Inglis Anderson, an enigmatic man who blurred the line between artist and naturalist.
Above: Alligator in the Marsh Grass by Walter Inglis Anderson (print painted by Elizabeth Huffmaster). Courtesy of Realizations.
Born in New Orleans in 1903, Anderson was a nature enthusiast known by some in his community as “that crazy artist” due to his struggles with mental illness. He spent time attending Parson’s School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, viewing cave paintings in France, and escaping several mental hospitals before returning to coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi. There, Anderson married Agnes Grinstead, with whom he had four children, and worked as a decorator for his brother’s pottery studio. Although he worked at the studio, a majority of Anderson’s art was in other mediums (including ceramics, ink, linoleum, oil painting, pencil, stained glass, watercolor, woodcarving and more). His art was a means of expressing his admiration for and connection to the natural world around him.
Around 1944, Anderson became reclusive from his immediate and extended family. He regularly rowed his boat to Horn Island, an uninhabited gulf island 12 miles from the Mississippi shore, where he found solace in nature and met his calling as a scientific illustrator. Anderson went to the island frequently and stayed for long periods of time. Despite enduring Horn Island in every condition — including a hurricane — he retained his philocalistic outlook and always found beauty in the natural world around him.
“In order to realize the beauty of humanity we must realize our relation to nature.”
Above: Self-portrait by Walter Inglis Anderson courtesy of the Walter Anderson Museum.
During his lifetime, Anderson was passionate about equal opportunity to art. He sold his linoleum prints for only $1 per foot. He was also paid $1 for the 3,000-square-foot mural he spent 16 months painting for the Ocean Springs Community Center. Anderson stated that he aimed to create art for “people who [could] not afford to pay a great deal for works of art, but still have an appetite for beauty.” This compulsion for accessibility endures through the very nature of his artwork: rather than existing as excessively expensive one-of-a-kind works, Anderson’s linoleum etchings are printed and hand-painted with watercolors by local artists. This allows for numerous artistic interpretations of his original work and wide-scale reproducibility that still manages to retain uniqueness between each piece.
Above: Life in a Ditch I (top) and Possum Family (bottom) linoleum cuts by Walter Inglis Anderson. Courtesy of Realizations.
Anderson died in 1965 from lung surgery complications. By his own design, his artwork was mostly unknown. After his death, his family opened his cottage bedroom, known as the Little Room, which had been locked for most of his life. They found the walls and ceiling of the room covered in an intricate mural depicting the Mississippi wildlife and habitats in which he felt at home. They also discovered thousands of never-before-seen pieces of artwork filling trunks and littering the floor. Today, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art — situated adjacent to Anderson’s community center mural and the Little Room — carries on his legacy, both by displaying his art and by carrying on his commitment to art accessibility and reverence for nature.
Above: Anderson’s hidden Little Room covered in murals. Courtesy of Walter Anderson Museum of Art.
Whether you’ve taken high school biology or advanced biochemistry, you’ve undoubtedly seen the creations of Jane Richardson. During her time at Duke, Richardson invented ribbon diagrams, an innovative method for visualizing protein structures. While now relatively commonplace in the field of biochemistry, these diagrams have their roots in her creative interpretation of the foundations of life.
Richardson’s illustrious career began at Swarthmore College, where she obtained her undergraduate degree before pursuing her postgraduate studies at Harvard University. She received degrees in philosophy at both institutions. Jane first began to work with proteins alongside her husband Dave Richardson while working in a biochemistry lab at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. In 1969, both scientists relocated to Duke University to study enzymes, a type of protein that catalyzes chemical reactions.
Above: Jane Richardson. Courtesy of Duke University School of Medicine.
When Richardson entered the field of biochemistry in the 1960s, visualizing the structure of proteins was extremely difficult. It took her lab at MIT seven years to decode the structure of the protein staphylococcal nuclease, and it was only the tenth protein structure to be definitively solved. Yet Richardson did not let snail-like rates of progress deter her. She excelled at identifying patterns in protein structures, and she and her colleagues began classifying varieties of organizational sub-structures that we now know are present in nearly all proteins.
Although not a trained artist, Richardson drew inspiration from her mother-in-law (an artist), illustrators for Scientific American, and psychology illustration theories to begin creating images of protein structures based on these patterns. She developed a standardized system of drawing structural elements using ink, colored pencils, pastels, or watercolors to illustrate proteins. These ribbon diagrams present an elegant solution to visualizing the ridiculously complicated molecular reality of protein structures. In these drawings, common protein structures such as the alpha helix or beta sheet are visualized as coils or flat directional arrows, respectively. By simplifying and normalizing these common elements of protein structures, Richardson opened the floodgates for proteins to be more accurately visualized and understood.
Above: Ribbon diagram standards for alpha helix, beta strand, and loop protein sub-structures. Courtesy of Jane Richardson’s Wikimedia Commons.
Nowadays, protein structures are elucidated much more easily. Techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy and free-electron lasers make proteins easier to isolate, and the processing power of modern computers makes it easy to create diagrams following Richardson’s ribbon model. AI systems have even successfully predicted novel protein structures.
Above: Richardson’s 1981 ribbon model drawing of triose phosphate isomerase. Courtesy of the Biophysical Society.
Above: Computer-generated illustrations of triose phosphate isomerase. From left to right: wire model, ribbon model, space-filling model (note: these illustrations are rotated approximately 90° from Richardson’s drawing above). Courtesy of Computational Biology & Bioinformatics: A Gentle Overview by Achuthsankar S. Nair.
Richardson’s career success didn’t end after this monumental innovation. She currently leads a biochemistry lab at the Duke University School of Medicine as co-principal investigator with her husband, and she was president of the Biophysical Society, a leading authority and educational body in the field, from 2012 to 2013. Richardson has continued making important strides in biochemical research, investigating topics such as RNA and improving protein crystallography.
However, Richardson also enjoys the more relaxing parts of life. She enjoys hiking with her husband at their California mountain home, stating that many of their groundbreaking ideas occurred “while [they] were in the middle of a backpacking trip” including “developing kinemage graphics, going into early protein de novo design, and having our first child.” Richardson carries this easygoing mentality into her approach to science as well. She shares her professional protein artwork as well as her hobby nature photography on Wikimedia Commons for free public access and at conferences advises other scientists on how to make their work more accessible. Though infrequently recognized for her enormous contributions to biochemistry and its many adjacent fields, Richardson’s revolutionary ideas and impact have been celebrated with honors such as Wikipedia image of the day in November 2009 and an extensive profile article by DukeStories in 2018 to celebrate her 50 years working at Duke University.
Above: Richardson’s drawing of Cu, Zn superoxide dismutase. Courtesy of DukeStories.
Although these scientific illustrators worked in disparate times, media, and subjects, they share an unwavering commitment to rendering the natural world with both accuracy and beauty, to making science and artwork accessible, and to making an impact despite the obstacles they faced. While often overlooked in the narratives of either art or science, Martin, Anderson, and Richardson showcase both remarkable values and artwork that is beginning to regain rightful recognition in the public eye.