Portunus pelagicus. Graphite pencil drawing. Ferdinand Lukas Bauer. Circa 1802.
This graphite pencil sketch is the best illustration of the color code developed by Ferdinand Bauer that ensured true-to-life colors in scientific watercolor paintings.
PAINTING BY NUMBERS
Ferdinand Lukas Bauer was born in 1760 in Feldsberg, now Valtice, in Moravia. He received drawing lessons, studied in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts and was soon in demand as a scientific illustrator.
At the age of 41, he took part in Flinders’ expedition to Australia as a “natural history painter”. When the expedition ship was judged to be unseaworthy in 1803, for two years Bauer explored Norfolk Island on his own account. He did not restrict himself to drawing, but also started an extensive collection of animals and plants.
Completing the illustrations, however, proved difficult. “Since leaving Port Jackson” he wrote in 1803 to his brother, “I have already made 500 sketches of plants and 90 of animal species. But I have not completed any of them and will not be able to do so. Due to the heat and humidity, the paper that I brought with me has become mouldy, foxy and unusable.” Bauer, therefore, perfected a sophisticated color code with numbers from one to a thousand; with the help of this system, after returning home he could copy even the finest color nuances realistically from his sketches to his paintings. He himself later completed only about 300 drawings in color. His code has proved invaluable to this day and is used by scientists and artists to illustrate extinct plants in color.
In 1826, Emperor Franz II/I acquired 2,000 drawings from the estate of Ferdinand Bauer for the imperial and royal natural history cabinet. The three watercolors that were painted based on these sketches of the blue swimming crab are stored at the Natural History Museum in London.