By Leah Aronowsky, Graduate Student, Harvard History of Science Program
This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the fish illustrations of the US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 (SIA RU007186) as part of my internship with the National Museum of Natural History. As Lesley Parilla explained in an earlier Field Book Project blog post, some of the illustrations in this collection were produced after the voyage, either by artist John Richard, who worked closely with renowned fish expert Louis Agassiz to produce illustrations that would bolster the text of Agassiz’s official report on the fishes, or by W.H. Dougal, a D.C.-based engraver who printed several engraving proofs that would also appear in the final report.1
In this post, I want to focus on the illustrations produced during the voyage, as it is this group that can most accurately be called field notes. These illustrations were produced by one of the US Exploring Expedition’s two official artists: Joseph Drayton or Alfred T. Agate. Though neither artist was officially assigned to work on any one natural history subject during the expedition, this collection of illustrations makes clear that it was Drayton who had a keen interest in ichthyology, as the vast majority of the drawings bear his signature. Agate, having been trained in botanic illustration by preeminent botanist Asa Gray, took responsibility for most of these illustrations. Drayton’s illustrations are incredibly detailed, and include myriad notes about each specimen that offer details such as the texture of the scales, size of the fins, and variations in color.
Moreover, these illustrations offer insights into the strategic artistic choices Drayton made during the expedition. For example, in the illustration below of a fish from the Columbia River, Drayton noted that the red streak, which he chose to accentuate in his illustration, appeared “bright only after death,” and was only “visible slightly” during life. Drayton also noted that the “dark streaks” across the animal’s body were not “bright or bluer during life.”
On another illustration of a fish captured in Willamette Falls, Oregon, Drayton noted that “the colors above are not quite as brilliant as [they were] when in the water alive.”
Notes such as these demonstrate how Drayton was thinking both as an artist and as a scientist during the voyage. Drayton had to keep in mind the needs of scientists who would be using his illustrations in the future. Decisions such as whether to portray a specimen as it appeared living or dead were thus crucial in order for Drayton to produce the most ‘accurate’ illustration of a fish specimen.
Drayton’s illustrations also function as ethnographic accounts of the day-to-day activities of the expedition. For example, alongside an illustration of a fish from Hilo Bay, Hawaii, Drayton included a diagram of the local method of fishing that led to the specimen’s capture. The diagram demonstrates how locals used several canoes and nets ranging from 50 to 120 feet in length to make their catches.
Drayton often included notes about the style of capture such as these with his illustration, and from these notes I learned that the crew often relied on local capture methods to obtain specimens during the voyage, in addition to using hooks or seines. Thus, In addition to offering valuable data on the fish specimens, these illustrations are a testament to the range of techniques explorers used to collect fish and the valuable role which locals played in the collecting process.
1 Ultimately, Agassiz’s fish report was never published. The Smithsonian Institution Archives, however, includes a copy of the report in manuscript form.