Bringing together artist and naturalist to illuminate nature.
This exhibit is part of a series that offers a glimpse of the work of four scientific illustrators who worked in the Smithsonian Institution Building between 1852 and 1898: William Stimpson, John H. Richard, Robert Ridgway, and his brother John L. Ridgway.
Scientific illustration is one part of what makes a museum collection important. Its purpose is to enhance and support scientific research by showing minute details and distinguishing characteristics of the specimens being studied.
Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, established a program to publish scientific research in 1848, a mere two years after the founding of the Smithsonian. Henry recognized the great importance of publishing research with detailed illustrations, stating that it was key to "diffusing a kind of knowledge now only accessible to the few."
John H. Richard’s skill as a lithographer and engraver was honed while he was employed by the Philadelphia printing firm of Peter S. Duval between 1841 and 1843. During that time, Richard experimented with a new process of lithography called “lithotinting.” The process was technically demanding, involving the printing of several graded washes that produced an effect similar to watercolor or aquatint. In collaboration with Duval, John Richard produced what was said to be one of the first true lithotints in America, entitled “Grandpapa’s Pet.”
- “Grandpapa’s Pet,” Lithotint, by John H. Richard, from:
“Miss Leslie’s Magazine,” April, 1843.
In 1875, Richard returned to Washington to prepare the Smithsonian’s natural history exhibits for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition to be held in Philadelphia. His painted plaster casts of fishes and several of his tinted drawings of fish were included in the exhibition. John Richard’s final project before his death in 1881 was the preparation of the Smithsonian’s fish casts for the 1880 Fishery Exhibition in Berlin for which the Smithsonian was awarded grand prize.
- Government Building at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia
The Smithsonian played a major role at the Centennial Exposition in assembling and mounting the exhibits in the Government Building. Spencer F. Baird, the Assistant Secretary of the Institution proposed a two-part display. One dealt with the Institution itself and its research role, while the other part was a comprehensive display of the natural history, animal, and mineral resources of the United States combined with displays of their economic utility.
One such exhibit was the commercial fisheries display which in addition to showing commercially valuable fishes from American waters, also featured an extensive collection of boats and tackle as well as whaling apparatus. Many fish specimens were exhibited: fresh fish were laid out in open ice boxes, others were preserved in alcohol. Also on exhibit were photographs, watercolor drawings, and the life-size plaster casts that had been painted by ]ohn H. Richard. They were arranged row upon row on two long free-standing panels.
Text adapted from: the exhibition catalogue for "1876, A Centennial Exhibition," 1976, essay on the Smithsonian Institution exhibits, Claudine Klose.
- View of the Smithsonian’s exhibit at the “United States International Exhibition,” Philadelphia, 1876 showing the fish casts molded by Joseph Palmer and painted by John H. Richard.From: "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition, 1876."
These six plaster fish casts are all that remain of the 383 painted by John H. Richard in 1875 for display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Serving the same purpose as two-dimensional scientific illustrations, they preserve a record of the specimens’ anatomical details and coloration as well as exhibiting the fish full size and in three dimensions.
Courtesy of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Fishes, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
Late in his career, John H. Richard posed in this skylit artist’s studio with examples of his life’s work spread around him. Plaster casts of fish, modeled by the Smithsonian’s taxidermist, Joseph Palmer and hand-painted by Richard, were stacked around the perimeter of the room while his earlier paintings of reptiles, amphibians, and fish were also displayed.
- Photograph of John H. Richard in his studio in the Smithsonian Building,
Curator of the Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection
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