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Joris Hoefnagel: The Nature of Nature Studies

With strong spiritual beliefs at a time of Christian division caused by the Protestant Reformation, Joris Hoefnagel’s illustrations of flora and fauna – especially within his Four Elements – bring nature to the forefront, creating equations between nature and naturalistic study, as well as asking the viewer to question the difference between the human and the natural world (note 1). Every watercolor attempts to close the gap between human and wildlife, and makes each specimen appear spectacular and marvelous; true wonders formed by the tip of Hoefnagel’s brush.

Four Elements was created towards the end of the 16th century; a time where to be considered ‘educated’, one had to be well versed in nature, philosophy, literature, and antiquity. There was no gap between a humanistic and an artistic education. The time also saw the exploration of new lands, which created a constant stream of new information, goods, and services between the new world and Europe. And finally the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, heightened religious tension and strengthened many individual’s spiritual views.

Joris Hoefnagel himself was born in 1542 to a father who was a wealthy merchant in Antwerp. Projected to follow in his father’s career footsteps, Joris was schooled in ‘studio humaniora’, which included poetry, drawing, music, and languages. After receiving education from both the Universities of Bourges and Orleans, he traveled a good deal. Most notably, he was in Antwerp for the 1576 sack of the city by Spanish soldiers, which prompted him to move to Venice. In 1577 he took a trip with cosmographer and friend Abraham Ortelius, which ended with Hoefnagel taking a court position with Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria. Hoefnagel worked here until it was required that every court employee sign a Counter-Reformation Credo, to which he didn’t agree and therefore was dismissed in 1591. Following, he worked under Emperor Rudolf II, during which time he illuminated a manuscript by Bocskay, before moving to Frankfurt and then Vienna, where he drew for his Four Elements. His religious experiences, travels, and court circles enabled him to become a highly skilled and well-known artist, specializing in manuscript illuminations and small-form cabinet miniatures, at the head of the still-life tradition (note 2).

Confined to a gold-lined oval on parchment, each specimen within Four Elements is illustrated in a meticulously precise manner as Hoefnagel takes his time to understand the form and occasionally the environment within which the insect or animal lives. Dragonflies perch on a bare page, casting shadows that create a trompe l’eoil effect, while turtles bask in the sun as they rest on sandy shores. The weaving of both an artistic and naturalist approach argues towards Hoefnagel’s expansive knowledge, gained both by directly observing these species as well as exposure via descriptive texts and prints that were being circulated throughout Europe at that time.

This exhibition will explore Hoefnagel’s images as objects of visual pleasure, specificity, accuracy, and as a way to organize information. It will explain how Hoefnagel combines these ideas and creates an ambitious catalogue of animal and insect studies, embodied by Four Elements, as well as how he intermingled art, science, nature, and humanity within each of his watercolors. Hoefnagel blurred the line between the different purposes of images, leaving the reader questioning the difference between themself and the environment. He intertwines the human story with the natural world, and collapses each by constructing parallels within his works.




note 1. Note that the words “naturalistic study” are used rather than what would traditionally be stated as “science”. This is because what we perceive to be science is so advanced compared to that time – keep in mind that the microscope was invented and used beginning at the end of the 16th century; around the same time that Four Elements was created. From here on, this online exhibit may use “science” and “naturalistic study” interchangeably with the aforementioned understanding. To learn more about how the microscope impacted naturalistic understanding and classification of the time, please reference James Elkins “On Visual Desperation and the Bodies of Protozoa," Representations, No. 40, Special Issue: Seeing Science (Autumn, 1992), pp. 33-56.

note 2 For more complete information about Hoefnagel’s travels, please reference Thea Vignau-Wilberg, “Joris and Jacob Hoefnagel," Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgi I Hoefnagel II (1592), pp 17-28 or Hendrix, Lee and Thea Vignau-Wilberg “Joris Hoefnagel, the Illuminator," Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta (1992), pp 15-28.



Jocelyn Runice