Mineralogical Record Art Museum

The Mineralogical Record Online Museum
of Mineral and Mining Art

Wendell E. Wilson
The Mineralogical Record


Mineral illustrations have always been indispensable to publications dealing with minerals, and in the centuries before photography, the only recourse for the author and publisher was to employ artists. It was understood that not even the proverbial thousand words could satisfactorily replace one of these pictures, because crystallized minerals are themselves among nature’s most intriguing artworks. A mineral specimen has its own unique composition (in the artistic rather than chemical sense), a repetition of stylistic motifs (thanks to the laws of crystallography) and a harmony of colors that is often quite elegant. Since the 16th century, scholars who have loved minerals have recognized this imperative and have struggled to provide the best mineral depictions possible.

Historically, these have usually been fairly rigorous attempts at formal scientific illustration, that is, they attempt the maximum level of accuracy with as little distortion and artistic liberty as possible, and they show the specimens actual size, suspended against a plain white background. Such artworks actually have advantages over photographs: infinite depth of field can be depicted, each area of a complex specimen can be shown at the optimum level of illumination, and important but recessive characteristics can be subtly emphasized. Consequently mineral art is by no means an obsolete genre, and it has been used to advantage in books and publications regularly up to the present day.

Some artists, however, beginning at least as early as Alexander Leroy de Barde (1777-1828), have taken mineral art beyond purely scientific illustration. The most obvious difference is typically a painted background which places the specimen in the context of some specific environment, under more natural (rather than idealized, full-frontal) lighting, perhaps with shadows that may obscure parts. And some artists may take liberties with the specimen itself, shifting or removing a crystal for better composition, and enhancing certain aspects to provide a more refined, idealized representation of those qualities in the mineral that the artist finds most satisfying and attractive. A few artists, such as Frederick Wilda, though inspired by actual specimens, paint more or less invented fantasy specimens to show their impression of the essential, idealized aesthetic quality, charm and characteristics of the species.

The methods used for the production and reproduction of mineral and mining art over the centuries have been drawn from the standard artist’s tool-box. Watercolor paintings and pen and pencil sketches have no doubt been the starting point since the beginning. The earliest published images of minerals in the 16th century (Conrad Gesner was the first, in 1565) are woodcuts. Copper-plate engravings soon followed, then hand-colored copper-plate engravings (Johann Hebenstreit provided the first ones in 1742). Fabien Gautier-d’Agoty created the first mineral illustrations with printed colors in 1781, utilizing a technique almost more labor-intensive than hand-coloring. In the late 19th century the technology of chromolithography came into play (Louis Simonin’s publisher may have been the first to print mineral images by that technique in 1867), followed eventually by modern off-set printing as employed for the works of Claus Caspari in 1967. Today artists still utilize the same classical materials: pen and ink, watercolors, gouache, colored pencil, and oil on canvas, oil on panels or oil on copper plates, plus the addition of the “new” medium of acrylic paint.

Hand-drawn art, much more so than photography, is an intrinsically human product, the result of some reality being filtered through a human mind. By subtle or blatant exaggeration or distortion the artist seeks to share with the viewer something special that he sees in the subject, and so he must bring it out to the point where it is plain and clear while subsuming and obscuring competing but unwanted aspects. In this way we get to see the subjects anew, and realize an angle on their beauty and fascination that we would perhaps not have noticed without the artist’s help. Mineral collectors also do this in their own way, by carefully selecting minerals (from among the millions of specimens available to them today) that most prominently display those particular qualities of the mineral world that they find most appealing. My point is simply that each artwork should be evaluated on its own terms, whether it is rigorous or fanciful, subtle or dramatic, because each has something to tell us.

The main purpose of this exhibition is to facilitate a study of mineral specimen images purely as works of art. Therefore, in the case of depictions taken from antiquarian publications, for example, distracting elements such as coarse paper texture, yellowed paper, foxing, adjacent images, printed frames, cropped edges and signatures have been dropped out, allowing the viewer to focus solely on the rendering itself. In old publications, specimen illustrations were often grouped together on large plates, in random orientations, large ones crowding small ones, each depicted actual size. Obviously this does not provide optimum viewing for every specimen image, any more than does a crammed and jumbled mineral display case. So, to aid in comparisons, each of these specimen images has been isolated and rotated into the orientation that would be used today if the actual specimen were to be put on exhibit, and enlarged for best viewing on the computer screen. Doing so places them all on a comparable footing, and it is remarkable how much this assists in seeing even an old familiar depiction in a fresh light.

A fringe benefit of this exhibition is that we get to see some really fine and interesting specimens, many of them from centuries ago, which have generally not survived to the present day. These are the specimens our forebears collected and cherished, and the quality stands up surprisingly well.

Some selectivity has been necessary in assembling these artworks for exhibit. For example, it would be neither useful nor practical to post all of the 717 plates from Sowerby’s Exotic Mineralogy and British Mineralogy, because many show poor specimens, or excessively small specimens, or renderings which, for one reason or another, do not show Sowerby’s artistic skills to best advantage. The 94 Sowerby images selected for exhibit here amount to a “best of Sowerby” collection, and likewise many other artists, living and dead, have been juried so as to show only their best, most interesting, or most representative work.

The selection criterion for artists in general requires a certain degree of professionalism; the artworks should be of “museum quality,” comparable to the quality of other kinds of artworks typically shown by art museums. Although we wish to strongly encourage young and beginning artists, the standard we have set will generally rule out most amateurs and the merely hobbyist artists, as is the case with any major museum of art.

The online Museum of Art is organized into two major categories: mineral art and mining art. We chose to include both categories because, though very different indeed, they are related to each other, and are both of interest to the mineral connoisseur and the art aficionado. The danger and romance of mining forms the background of most mineral specimens and gives them much of their historical cachet. The mineral art focuses, naturally, on the depiction of mineral specimens (real or imaginary), whereas the mining art focuses on scenes having something to do with mining and prospecting, generally involving metalliferous mines but including a few coal mining-related images as well. Thus far the mineral images far outnumber the mining-related artworks, mainly because mineral art has been required in quantity by authors and publishers much more often over the years than mining art. Nevertheless, we will be adding more mining artworks as time goes by.

Under each of these two headings the artworks are organization according to the artist or, for convenience, the author or publisher who utilized the work of artists. In many cases the names of the original artists have not been recorded, or are given only as a last name for which no further data are known. In other cases quite a number of artists may have been involved in the illustration of a particular work and it would be impractical to try to list all of the plates separately by the individual artists, even presuming that they could all be identified and correlated with specific images. The biographical notes for each artist or author make this distinction clear.

Each artist or author has his or her own gallery. Within each gallery are pages showing eight small thumbnail images per page, accompanied by information on the title or subject of the artwork, the media used, the date executed, the owner of the specimen illustrated, the owner of the original artwork, the size of the artwork (or size of the specimen, if depicted natural size), and, if it has been published, the publication in which the artwork appeared. These galleries taken together constitute the online Museum.

This project has been particularly enjoyable for me, as a long-time publisher, because there is no limit to the number of images that can be used, and no cost at all (except for my time) associated with adding even more images. Can you imagine the cost of publishing a book with over 1,000 full-page full-color photos? It simply would be unsustainable in economic terms (not to mention difficult to lift), and yet the online Museum can not only present all of those images but can do so as a public service absolutely free of cost to any user. Furthermore, contrary to the situation with the publication of books and magazines, if someone later discovers an error in the online Museum text it can be fixed!

It should be noted, with regard to the online Museum, that the right of reproduction for many of the images shown remains with the original artists or their heirs and representatives, and the rights for the others remain the property of the respective owners of the works pictured. We ask people to please not copy and use any of these images without appropriate permission. Publication-quality digital images of all of the artworks pictured from works in the Mineralogical Record Library are available from the Mineralogical Record editorial office for a modest fee.

The Mineralogical Record Art Museum is essentially a non-commercial site provided solely as a public service. Therefore no mention is made as to whether a specific artwork by a living artist is currently for sale, what the price might be, or whether that artist is willing to accept commissions for new artworks. For those questions the artist should be contact directly. Contact information is provided at the end of their biographical notes.

The programming time required by our webmaster, Ditte Lokon, for creating the Art Museum according to the graphic design specifications we supplied, and adding it as a bonus feature to our recently remodeled Mineralogical Record website, was paid for entirely by donations from Bryan and Kathryn Lees, Rob Lavinsky, Susan Robinson and myself. Thus it is a win-win situation for both the Mineralogical Record and for those interested in mineral and mining art.

We plan to be adding more artworks and more artists periodically in the future, so be sure to check the list of artists in the website’s two drop-down menus for new additions as time goes by. I sincerely hope you enjoy this visual exploration of our favorite topic, and if you have any corrections to point out or additions to suggest I would be delighted to hear from you.

The Mineralogical Record Museum of Art is supported entirely by donations from Kathryn and Bryan Lees,
Rob Lavinsky, Wendell Wilson, and Susan Robinson.