The Weird Scientific Illustrations That Shaped Pop Culture

A century ago, a small but influential group of artists and researchers teamed up to discover and introduce strange new species to the public.

The watercolor painting Bathysphaera intacta Circling the Bathysphere by Else Bostelmann, created in 1934 in Bermuda (Martin Parsekian / Wildlife Conservation Society / The Drawing Center)

In a time when you can explore all corners of the globe on your laptop, and find much of the information you’ll ever need on your phone, romantic notions of discovery are hurting, to say the least. Not so during the heyday of the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research (DTR). From 1916 to 1964, this quirky, intrepid bunch of men and women, led by the famed American scientist William Beebe, explored the jungles and oceans of the West Indies and Latin America, collecting, identifying, and documenting new species in scattered on-site field stations.

Working alongside these researchers was Beebe’s team of artists, who created incredible pencil, ink, and watercolor renderings of the specimens that were later introduced to a rapt public. In the absence of suitable photographic technologies, painters and illustrators had long accompanied scientific teams on their missions. The difference with the DTR was that its leader, Beebe—a bestselling author and star in his own right who was a good friend of well-known performers, politicians, and tycoons—wanted his work to reach beyond the academy. It helped that his team was unveiling organisms, particularly those in the deep seas, that had never before been seen by man.

The designers’ mesmerizing illustrations, and their impact on popular culture then and now, is the focus of the Drawing Center’s exhibition Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, which ends this month. DTR illustrators—some of whom were also scientists—would perch in tropical forests with drawing papers in their laps or even strap zinc tablets to their swimsuits to sketch sea creatures. Some would make tiny specimens in jars come to outsized life, while others would paint in real time as Beebe and his colleagues recounted what they saw from hundreds of feet under the water.

In the Drawing Center’s galleries, you become an explorer of the DTR’s precise but fantastical depictions of highly expressive land and marine creatures. The anthropomorphism often reaches humorous and occasionally terrifying levels, the kind that’s everywhere in popular culture now, from animated features like Moana to TV shows like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty to toys like the Jurassic World Lego set.

Many of the DTR’s creations would be at home in a sci-fi summer blockbuster, transcending the pompous-seeming gravity of the scientific establishment as Beebe wished. The DTR artist Isabel Cooper’s bright watercolor Green Parrot Fish (Noma Expedition, 1923) wears a vain look, seemingly proud of its psychedelic complexion, which dissolves into gradients of watermelon pink, algae green, sea blue, and neon yellow. To its left in the exhibition, Cooper’s shy, crooked-smiled, and slightly plump Moray Eel (Arcturus Expedition, 1925) sits timidly next to Else Bostelmann’s frighteningly toothy Saber-toothed Viper Fish (Bermuda, 1934), its eyes glowing against a stark black background.

Saber-toothed Viper fish (Chauliodus sloanei) Chasing Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) larva, by
Else Bostelmann (Bermuda, 1934). (Martin Parsekian / Wildlife Conservation Society / The Drawing Center)

The sea monsters continue throughout Exploratory Works, from mammoth-lipped species that resemble dogs to a radiant-orange giant squid, arching forward to find its prey. Bostelmann’s motley array of cuddly and creepy deep-sea creatures in her watercolor, Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors (1934), might make you laugh and cringe at once: They’re all staring straight at the viewer, as if their noses are pressed up against glass.

On the other side of the room, which is dedicated to birds, insects, and land animals, you come face to face with George Swanson’s Big-Eyed Climbing Snake (Venezuela, 1945), a somewhat befuddled-looking entity, and Cooper’s Margay Tigrina Vigens, (British Guiana, 1925), a watercolor tiger of earthy orange tones who appears paused in deep thought.

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Particularly in the underwater work, it’s hard to believe these images—further enlivened by the DTR’s animated black-and-white movies of fanged fish, vapor-shooting shrimp, and transforming tadpoles—were real. Many other scientists of the day were similarly suspicious of the creatures’ authenticity. The DTR artists’ theatrical portrayal of these (very real) exotic animals and their environments rippled through the popular and creative consciousness in the early 20th century. Of course, so too did the unprecedented deep-sea dives themselves, which gripped the country the way the space program would a generation later.

The DTR’s eerie fever dreams channeled America’s sense of exhilaration and wonder about charting the unknown in a time of rapid change. Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was set in the deep sea. The exhibit featured a diving vehicle that was a dead ringer for the DTR’s “Bathysphere,” a heavy metallic contraption devised by the engineer (and fledgling filmmaker) Otis Barton that would usher scientists to new ocean depths. Another booth was shaped like a coral reef, populated by skimpily dressed mermaids, diving past typically surreal landscapes.

Long-spined Giant Squid, by
Helen Damrosch Tee Van (Bermuda, 1929). (Martin Parsekian / Wildlife Conservation Society / The Drawing Center)

Another legendary inventor of alternative realities, Walt Disney, was friends with Beebe and visited one of the DTR’s field stations, known as Simla, in Trinidad. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between the work DTR was doing and Disney’s animated visions, which were still in their infancy at the time. One of Disney’s first features, Fantasia (1940), latched onto the magical sense of unexplored realms coming alive, with its anthropomorphic mushrooms, broomsticks, undersea creatures. In the film’s “Nutcracker Suite” sequence, colorful marine life with huge eyes and pronounced lips swirl through the water balletically. Their exaggerated human-like traits and the dreamlike whimsy of deep-sea terrains all echo the DTR’s artistic output.

Three-Toed Sloth, by Isabel Cooper (British Guiana, 1922). (The Drawing Center)

A symbol of his era’s appetite for adventure and discovery, Beebe became an Indiana Jones-type celebrity, rivaling revered explorers like Charles Lindbergh and Auguste Piccard. Barton’s Titans of the Deep (1938), an over-the-top semi-documentary, semi-feature about Beebe’s dives off the coast of Bermuda, stars Beebe himself. Beebe’s dozen-plus books about his trips were also wildly popular, with many reaching the New York Times Bestseller list. Beebe’s public profile got a boost from his regular bylines in outlets such as National Geographic, Harper’s, McCall’s, The New York Times, Scribner’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal.

On the flip side, Beebe’s discoveries also paralleled his contemporaries’ fears about the rapidly modernizing and globalizing world of the 20th century, namely threats of economic implosion, nuclear annihilation, and societal upheaval. The former DTR members Ernest B. Schoedsack (nicknamed “Shorty,” he documented many of the group’s outings on film) and Ruth Rose (a historian) went on to make 1933’s King Kong. The film captured the horrors of the unfamiliar, and the futility of trying to control the natural domain. Kong—with his human eyes, portraying all manner of emotion—is pulled from his home and eventually terrorizes that most modern of cities, New York. It’s clear that the time Schoedsack and Rose spent with Beebe influenced their work, from the depiction of a doomed, DTR-esque expedition that unleashes Kong to the simultaneously playful and frightening view of nature that painters like Bostelmann tapped into.

Submerged Beach, 1400 Fathoms by Else Bostelmann (Bermuda, 1931). (The Drawing Center)

According to one of Exploratory Works’ curators, Katherine McLeod, the characters in the sci-fi movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) were based on Beebe and his assistant, Gloria Hollister. That movie’s trailer flashes sensational questions: “Are We Delving Into Mysteries We Weren’t Meant to Know?” and “Will Science Unleash The Fearsome Forces of Lost Worlds?” Just a year later came Disney’s Jules Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a live-action foray in which the crew comes into close contact with elephant-sized monsters of the deep, like (once again) that camera-ready giant squid. The DTR’s kaleidoscope of humanized sea and land animals could easily be inserted into more contemporary films like Disney’s Zootopia (2016), Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), and Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016). (With his hapless expression and fiery red coloring, Finding Dory’s octopus Hank seems like a cousin to at least one DTR squid.) Indeed, the DTR artists’ visual language of naturalistic strangeness will forever be a gift to creators of weird realms.

In a darker sense, Exploratory Works’ exquisite visual portrayals and the DTR’s pop-cultural legacy obscure the at-times violent nature of specimen collection, and the unintended access that scientific explorers often gave to multinational corporations and others in virgin territory. The exhibition also offers a bittersweet reminder that the kind of “sustained and close relationship between artists and scientists” exemplified by the DTR barely exists today, says another exhibition curator, Madeleine Thompson.

Yes, artists still work with researchers on their own projects, and award-winning television series like Nova and Planet Earth suggest pop culture and natural science continue to be an easy match. But the DTR stands apart: The team’s illustrators, along with the innovative culture of collaboration that Beebe fostered, keenly shaped the group’s researchers, generating a fluid, complementary creativity. The DTR’s definition of “valid” scientific pursuits was inevitably widened through the perspective of its artists, whose work remains as fresh, enigmatic, and quietly influential today as it did 100 years ago.