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“A Real and Fascinating Job”: The Staff Artists of WCS’s Department of Tropical Research

March 22, 2021

“A Real and Fascinating Job”: The Staff Artists of WCS’s Department of Tropical Research

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Madeleine Thompson Madeleine Thompson

“There’s no such thing as a school of snake artists,” wrote Isabel Cooper in a 1924 Atlantic Monthly article. “So when the problem of making a portrait of a snake presented itself I had to think up the technique for myself.”

Indeed, Isabel Cooper held an unusual job. Beginning in the 1910s, she was one of a handful of Western artists to specialize in illustrations of living tropical wildlife. As staff members of WCS’s Department of Tropical Research, which operated between the 1910s and the early 1960s, Cooper—seen above drawing a frigate bird in the Galápagos in 1925—and other artists worked alongside DTR scientists in tropical regions to document the species living there. At a time when most Western research into animal biology relied on museum specimens, the DTR sought to understand living animals in their natural habitats.

Cooper’s job was all the more notable because she was a woman. Although there were certainly other women scientific artists of the era, very few of them traveled to the field. Just as scientists and artists worked together in the DTR, so too did men and women.

Cooper and her fellow DTR artists—among them Else Bostelmann, Helen Tee-Van, and Harriet Bennett—were central to the DTR’s ecological approach. With photographic technologies limited at the time, the artists’ abilities to capture color and movement resulted in vibrant and dynamic illustrations of species that had never been seen by many Western audiences. Of course, the work of documenting wild animals was not without challenges.  “My models are always escaping,” Cooper admitted in The Atlantic, “making off hot-foot through the second growth to the dense jungle beyond” before she had a chance to draw them.

The WCS Archives is pleased to announce that we have digitized our collection of more than 2,200 illustrations created by DTR artists, and we have made them available online. We are glad to be able to give these illustrations another life digitally and hope that you enjoy exploring the beautiful, funny, and wondrous species documented in this collection.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Women’s History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about women and their contributions to science and conservation throughout March. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also celebrating 125 years of saving wildlife and wild places. WCS was founded as the New York Zoological Society in 1895, and the flagship Bronx Zoo opened in 1899. The DTR illustrations digital collection was made possible by Delaine and Malcom Strandberg, in honor of the memory of artist Harriet E. Bennett Strandberg and naturalist William Beebe.

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Steve Johnson
March 22, 2021 at 7:55 pm

Wow! Congratulations on making that work available in digital format. I hope the project included the many works by DTR artists that were framed and displayed in offices at WCS during my time at the archives. Best wishes for continued success in the library and archives. I’ve also recently enjoyed the virtual walking tours of the Bronx Zoo.

    Madeleine Thompson
    March 23, 2021 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks, Steve! I was just thinking of you today. Hope you’re doing well!