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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Offering of the Day: An Extraordinary Watercolor by Dutch Zoological Illustrator Joseph Smit (1836-1929)

Joseph Smit (1836-1929)
Pair of Ostriches (Struthio camelus), 1888
28  x 19 1/4 inches
Framed: 38  x 29 inches
Watercolor over pencil
$55,000

This charming watercolor of a pair of ostriches was executed by famed naturalist painter and illustrator, Joseph Smit. Smit painted these exotic and beautiful creatures with extreme scientific accuracy. Indeed, not only do the birds appear incredibly life-like, but they are also depicted situated in their natural environment. Behind the pair of ostriches located in the watercolor's background are additional images of ostriches, antelopes and zebras. Every one of Smit's compositional elements, from the individual animals to the stones on the ground to the birds' plumage, has been painstakingly and expertly delineated. Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are flightless birds, inhabiting parts of Africa and southwest Asia. They are the largest of the living birds, some standing as tall as eight feet high and weighing as much as 300 pounds.

Smit was a Dutch zoological illustrator who was born in Lisse. He received his first commission from Hermann Schlegel at the Leiden Museum. Schlegel asked Smit to produce lithographs of birds residing in the Dutch East Indies. After completing the commission, Smit enjoyed a long and prolific career, provided breathtaking illustrations for Philip Lutley Scatler's Exotic Ornithology (1869), Joseph Wolf's Zoological Sketches (1861-1867) the Catalogue for the Birds in the British Museum (1874-1898), Lord Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands (1885-1898), and Daniel Giraud Elliot's Birds of Paradise (1873). Of the work Smit produced for Elliot's home, the author raved: "Mr. J. Smit has lithographed the drawings with his usual conscientious fidelity, and in his share of the work has left me nothing to desire." Smit's son, Pierre Jacques Smit (1863-1960) was also a zoological illustrator of great talent.

During his career, Smit worked closely with Joseph Wolf, Daniel Giraud Elliot, Joseph Keulemans, and Archibald Thorburn. This highly skilled group of artists produced some of the most aesthetically pleasing and scientifically accurate natural historical illustrations ever produced. These artists often worked at the behest of the esteemed Zoological Society of London. The nineteenth century had witnessed a burgeoning of interest in the natural world as European ambitions surpassed the expansion of their nations to include the discovery of the natural wonders their foreign territories held. In Britain, scientific investigation into animal life was supported by the Zoological Society which was founded in 1826. The Zoological Society received its Royal Charter from George IV in 1828. Charles Darwin became a member in 1831. The Zoological Society played a major role in championing the ideas Darwin put forth in his groundbreaking Origin of Species (1859).

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