Strange but familiar obsession kept this unluckiest of lepidopterists resolute in the face of terrible setbacks
Carefully painted images capture Nature’s tiny canvases, matched by live hothouse observatory now open for year
Few men seem to have been as harmlessly productive as Titian Peale, yet few as violently abused by Destiny with uncalled for personal disasters.
The pioneering American lepidopterist (butterfly scholar) field researcher and artist was born in 1799 into a distinguished family in Philadelphia, where his father was a natural historian and painter who founded the nation’s first public museum, the Philadelphia Museum.
By the time Peale took over the Museum from his father in 1827, he had firmly established a lifetime of pioneering fieldwork and butterfly chasing which would ultimately result in his seminal work, The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do. But publication eluded him during his lifetime.
Complete with 100 hand colored lithographs of butterfly and moth species in his own, very personal artistic hand, its pages languished more than 100 years in the drawers of the American Museum of Natural History.
Only today, Sept 1 Tues 2015, are they finally published by New York’s art book publisher Abrams. The attractively complete and unglossed book has proud commentary from the Museum’s president Ellen V. Futter, David A. Grimaldi, curator of the butterfly conservatory and of invertebrate zoology, and Kenneth Haltman, professor of the history of art at the University of Oklahoma, who called Teale an “artist-scientist”.
The artistic quality of Peale’s work provokes a lyrical effusion from art historian Haltman to end his essay in the book: “His painted butterflies, scrupulous mimetic, meticulous detailed, place compositional inventiveness in the service of thematic ambition at nearly every turn… a sympathetic imaginative mapping of both his own psyche and one of the great wonders of the natural world.”
David Grimaldi, who with Haltman introduced the volume to the press on Tuesday, acknowledged that Teale’s was a “sad story,” and said he took especial pride in finally releasing his masterpiece to the world after so many years.
Having drawn many illustrations for his own scientific publications – he brought some examples of his drawings of insects caught in ancient amber, one of his specialties – he said “I know personally the kind of solace and therapy that you derive from losing yourself entirely in doing these detailed renderings.”
Destiny’s hard blows
Unable to raise enough pledges from subscribers to get his beautiful handiwork into print during his lifetime, Teale’s career was marked by other huge setbacks. Yet nothing stopped him in his pursuit of a passion which when it grips is one of the strongest in science, offering both preoccupation and solace amid life’s vicissitudes.
In the four years that he joined the first US South Seas surveying expedition he collected as many as 400 specimens, kept behind when sending the rest of his collection to dry land, for fear of losing them. But all were lost when his ship The Peacock was wrecked off Oregon in 1841, a grievous destruction which included his private library and many of his notes.
To compound this disaster, when he returned to Philadelphia he found that all the butterfly specimens he had entrusted to the Academy of Natural Sciences had been lost in a storage fire, the family museum was also lost, and his wife, a son and a daughter had all died.
The result of all this misfortune was only to drive Peale deeper into his preoccupation with butterflies, however, and he never let up. He took a job as a patent examiner in Washington to get by, and remarried, buying a house which he filled with painting tools and butterfly specimens. He ended his life in Philadelphia after retiring, as fascinated as ever with Nature’s tiny mobile canvases.
Yet during his lifetime of devotion his proposed masterwork The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do failed to attract enough subscriptions to finance publication, and both his illustrations and his manuscript were eventually presented to the American Natural History Museum nearly one hundred years ago (1916).
The pleasingly unglossy volume is a fine memorial to America’s First Lepidopterist, and the many thousands of others who share his preoccupation with Nature’s harmless and pretty “flowers that fly”, as Robert Frost put it.
His lovingly painted illustrations of flying flowers are bolstered by adding his companion text on caterpillars with more than a hundred of his detailed paintings of these creatures or larva, pupa and a few adults in watercolor from Peale’s album with its marble paper-covered boards which also, until today, was available for viewing only in the AMNH Rare Book Collection.
Beauties briefly alive
Meanwhile live versions of many of Peale’s favorites will soon be fluttering around in the warm, moist air of the museum’s Butterfly Conservatory, whose Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter. The show will be open from Sat September 5 to Sun May 29 2016, featuring about 500 tropical specimens from around the world feeding on orange slices and settling on flowers, plant leaves or visitors hands or shoulders.The one that you make friends with will not be around in three weeks, however, since the insect’s life span is limited. The Museum imports more from its Florida farm to keep the stock up throughout the winter.
Press sees hidden trays
After the introduction of the Peale book curator David Grimaldi took a select group of the press to the museum’s upper floors where corridors of white painted metal file cabinets and their trays bring order to the two and a half million lepidoptra specimens the museum has so far accumulated.