Conrad Gessner: Drawing for the Eye and the Mind


Saw-Wort and Black Pea. Gessner Notebook 2, page 341r: University Library Erlangen.

As I noted in the last post, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) kept voluminous notes on plants in anticipation of publishing a major work on as many species as possible. Usually, he devoted one page to each species. These notes were both textual and visual. He cited ancient writers as well as his contemporaries. The drawings were almost all in pen-and-ink with watercolor washes over some portion of them to indicate what the plants looked like in life. He had in fact seen many of them growing either during his field trips or in his garden, where he planted as many species as he could acquire from colleagues. He also had an herbarium, which is how I have justified to myself devoting posts to Gessner on a blog called HerbariumWorld. None of it has survived, but there are references to it in his correspondence, and it had a communal aspect, with lending and trading going on among his peers (Kusukawa, 2012). Thomas Penny, who worked on Gessner’s notebooks, had an herbarium, as did Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, and Leonhart Fuchs, all of whom were in contact with Gessner.

There was also trafficking in images. He pleaded with correspondents to send drawings if they couldn’t send the plants themselves. He would even pay for having the image drawn, but was careful to mention that he only wanted rare plants, ones he hadn’t already recorded (Egmond, 2016). Yet he did often need more than one drawing of a plant since he wanted to record the different stages of its life cycle, as well as close-ups of significant structures such as buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds. It is these drawings that I want to focus upon here, and in particular, I will argue that they were at the heart of his research. This is hardly a new idea; several authors mentioned in this and the following posts have made it. However, I want to slightly broaden the context by citing both early 20th-century work on the relationship between art and science, as well as recent research on drawing-as-discovery.

Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a British plant morphologist, was trained as an artist by her father, a professional landscape painter. She created all the illustrations for her dozens of articles and three monographs on monocot morphology. Toward the end of her life she produced a work on the philosophy of biology called The Mind and the Eye (1954). She argues that for plant morphologists, there is no divide between art and science. Art is key to this work because there is much about the visible characteristics of a plant that cannot be put into words: “Artistic expression offers a mode of translation of sense data into thought, without subjecting them to the narrowing influence of an inadequate verbal framework; the verb, to illustrate, retains, in this sense, something of its ancient meaning—to illuminate.” (Arber, 1954, pp. 121). In Gessner’s time students of botany were relying on ancient texts for information on plants, and this was proving inadequate for two reasons. First, the plants described were Mediterranean species that didn’t necessarily grow in northern Europe. Also, the information focused on medicinal uses, while Gessner and his colleagues wanted broader data; they were becoming interested more generally in plant characteristics—in plants for their own sake (Ogilve, 2006). They learned by really looking at plants, recording their observations, and also studying plants in the field. Drawing was integral to this process. They did not yet have the words to describe all they saw, and as Arber wrote, words could “narrow” or distort the observations.

The work of another scientist/philosopher from a different time and discipline can also illuminate Gessner’s work. Investigating the astronomical research of John Herschel and William Parsons on nebulae during the first half of the 19th century, Omar Nasim (2013) argues that drawing was essential to the discovery process, that in a very real sense nebulae as scientific objects were created by sketches because “drawings are productive epistemic explorations and avenues into the nature of something” (p. 35). Nasim contends that nebulae were so gossamer and difficult to observe, let alone describe, that they only became real to those, like Herschel, who observed them, by being pinned down in drawings. He writes that drawing was crucial to the development of the concept of the nebula because this practice involves “exploratory, attention-directing, discriminating, and stabilizing activities” (p. 37), all necessary for discovery.

Like Gessner and Arber, Herschel’s art was his research. It wasn’t just how he communicated his ideas, it was how he created them. His observations became real and more understandable through drawings: “The process begins at the intimate level of an individual observer as he begins to mark down, usually in a manner peculiar to him, a variety of inscriptions in his observing notebook. Familiarization at this personal, visceral, and haptic level therefore acquaints one with what is being seen, with how to draw what is seen, and with the object’s known, unknown, and challenging features” (Nasim 2013, p. 16). Gessner’s notebooks indicate such a process. It’s obvious that drawings were central to his work, that they made looking concrete. Sachiko Kusukawa (2012) notes, the drawing then became an object of further study. In the next post, I want to examine why I consider these ideas so important.


Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

3 thoughts on “Conrad Gessner: Drawing for the Eye and the Mind

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #45 | Whewell's Ghost

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