Claudia Swan on Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge

Although organized by the Harvard Art Museums, the upcoming exhibition Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe has many other connections to Chicago besides its exhibiting partner the Block Museum. The exhibition catalogue includes essays by two area scholars—Suzanne Karr Schmidt, the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Claudia Swan, an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University.

Professor Swan, whose essay “Illustrated Natural History” explores the visualization of the natural world as seen in the field of botany, spoke with the Block Museum’s Isaac Alpert about the exhibition.

Q: What most interests you about the depiction of the natural world through printmaking during the 16th- and 17th-century?

A: The fact that images were so crucial to scientific efforts of the time. The depiction of the natural world in prints and in drawings, and even in paintings and in life casts, played such a crucial role in the pursuit of knowledge and the development of scientific disciplines (natural history, medicine, astronomy, to name some examples).

Q: The Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see objects, prints, books, and instruments from sixteenth-century scientific treatises alongside one another. Particularly in a university setting, what do you believe is the didactic impact of viewing such a complete amalgamation of scientific techniques from 16th- and 17th-century Europe?

A: Very broadly, trying to understand artistic and scientific efforts as combined in the pursuit of knowledge is revolutionary. Over the last two decades, a lot of scholarly attention has been devoted to thinking away the distinctions between the art and science of the early modern era, but this is the first exhibition that explores the many connections between these two domains. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge is a wonderful teaching show, in the sense that rather than present didactically a series of “chapters” that recount the history of the relations between art and science, it offers the viewer the opportunity to experience and to map for him or herself points of contact and areas of overlap.

Q: You have stated in your article “Illustrated Natural History” that “the emphasis on verisimilitude sometimes coincided awkwardly with claims for the artistry of images.” How do think artists of the “Botanical Renaissance” attempted to find a happy medium between scientific veracity and aesthetic representations? Are the prints in this exhibit a good portrayal of the artists’ creative abilities or have you found that many of the great printmakers (e.g. Brunfels, Clusius, Dodoens, etc.) had to subordinate their artistic prowess to the pursuit of factual illustrations of flora and fauna?

A: This is a huge question! Very ambitious, and  I’m flattered you’re asking, but providing an answer might require another essay! In general, I would say that if we learn one thing from Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge, it might be to do away with the art/science binary as an absolute measure of things. It didn’t work that way in the early modern era, and we’ll only fully be able to appreciate these rich historical artifacts if we can ask questions of them that are not overshadowed by the divide between art and science. Does veracity have to be opposed to beauty? Or maybe we could explore ways of thinking about how visual means convey knowledge—and the results of efforts to do so may be beautiful, even if not on purpose.


Professor Swan is organizing an international symposium exploring the territory charted in Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge. Called Knowledge | Replication: Early Modern Sciences in Print, it takes place Friday, January 20 from 10:30 am to 5 pm at the Block Museum. Professor Swan will also give a gallery talk—Of Flowers and Autopsies: Making Early Modern Science—on Wednesday, February 8 at noon.

The catalogue Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe will be available at the Block Museum’s book shop during the run of the exhibition.

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