A Compilation of Historical Fish Art From the Last Quincentenary

The world is full of old historical artworks of fishes. Many times, these works are extremely detailed, created for identification for future users or for documentation and description of new species. Other times, these works can be very fanciful, renditions of what a particular fish may have looked like while alive, although no person at the time had seen one living. No matter the reason behind these artworks, many of the illustrations are beautifully done in a myriad of artistic mediums. Their imagery should shared, and this post is dedicated to acknowledging some of the beautiful works of fish art that can be found in old books. Continue reading for a compiled overview of just a small smattering of the unique and historical fish art from the last 500 years.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish: 1557 – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artist, Bruegel was known for choosing innovative subject matter to paint. Big Fish Eat Little Fish was painted as an imitations of Bosch’s work (an earlier Dutch painter from the time), and depicts quite the scene.

Visboek: 1570s – Adriaen Coenen

A Dutch fisherman among other things, Coenen saw many interesting fishes and creatures first hand during his life. He collected specimens and created the Visboek to document both the creatures that he found and those he heard tales of from others. Full of both the natural and the mythical, his renderings are a sight to behold. The entire book has been scanned and can be downloaded for free online.

Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes… que l’on trouve autour des Isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des Terres Australes: 1719 – Louis Renard

Renard was a Dutch bookseller and publisher. Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes portrays marine organisms from the East Indes, but the fishes in this book were painted based on notes, drawings, and engravings from other artists. Renard was never known to have actually visited the East Indes. Many of the fishes in Renard’s book are embellished and fanciful, and he even includes some mythical creatures. A digital copy of this book is also free to download from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Histoire Naturelle des Poissons: 1798 – Bernard Germain de Lacépède

Lacépède was a french artist that published the first of a five volume book series in 1798, where he described hundreds of new fish species and genera. This detailed work can be downloaded from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Histoire naturelle des poissons: 1828 – Georges Cuvier

Georges Cuvier is well known as the founding father of paleontology, but is less known for his many great fish illustrations. This 22 volume book series includes 4,514 fishes from across the known world, and can be read and viewed online from archive.org.

Poissons d’eau douce du Canada: 1897 – André-Napoléon Montpetit

A Canadian artist, Montpetit was also a journalist and editor of L’Opinion Publique. This book has many technical and useful drawings for identifying Canadian fishes, and it can be downloaded online from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Campagnes Scientifiques: Poissons, Des Campagnes Du Yacht Princesse-Alice (1901-1910): 1911 – Artist Emma Kissling

Kissling was a German illustrator that worked for the Prince of Monaco. Her illustrations depict some of the unique diversity of fishes that were recovered during the voyage of the Princesse-Alice, including unique deep-sea fishes. This book can be read and viewed online from archive.org.

Arcturus Adventure: 1926 – Artist Else Bostelmann 

Bostelmann was German born, but moved to America in the early 1900s. Her most well-known works bring to life deep-sea fishes seen during William Beebe’s expeditions exploring the deep sea. She has created over 300 plates of deep-sea and shore animals. The arcturus adventure and other works containing Bostelmann’s art can be found online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.


Many of these books have been digitized so that the public has access to them and can view them for free. Open distribution of these historical works makes them readily available to anyone who many be interested and invested in art. Below are some of the websites you can use to access the books I have highlighted today, or search for the multitude of others that weren’t listed.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)

The BHL is an association of libraries focused on natural history and botany. They cooperate to digitize and increase the accessibility of legacy literature. One great resource to use if you’re interested in looking up old fish art is the freely accessible and online flickr account of the BHL. Their flickr account hosts images from hundreds of historical texts related to fishes and other organisms. If you have additional interest in the books that these images come from, they are freely accessible online from the BHL’s main webpage.

Internet Archive

Archive.org is a digital library of Internet sites and other media. Their mission is to provide public access to all types of information. In addition to other types of media, they currently have over 28 million digitized books and texts, all of which can be searched through via their main search engine.

The Public Domain Review

Similar to the other online resources, the Public Domain Review is slightly more focused, and specifies in “curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas.”

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