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Le Cachalot Macrocephale

Date: c 1804
Dimensions:
Overall: 339 x 407 mm, 240 g
Medium: Ink on paper, mylar, card
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Art
Object Name: Print
Object No: 00019662
Place Manufactured:Paris

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    Description
    This coloured print depicts a whale stranded on rocks at the base of a cliff. The whale is bloated with its mouth ajar, and its tail is propped up on a high rock. A small open boat with crew appears to approach cautiously. It was a common convention to depict whales stranded.
    SignificanceThis print displays the public fascination with whales in the 1800s. Once considered a mythical creature, whales became an integral part of everyday life in the ports of colonial Australia, where whale products were a valuable export.
    HistoryEuropean scientific knowledge of whales was a slowly evolving process. Whales were commonly sighted along the European coasts and occasionally seen stranded, however early published illustrations of the animal show a mythical monster-like creature - sometimes depicted with horns spouting water. Many artists did not draw from life, using descriptions given by explorers, scientists and publishers. Many of their works were copied from earlier drawings and offered only slightly different interpretations of the previous studies. The rise of the natural sciences in the 18th century saw a shift from mythical to scientific depictions of whales.

    The late 18th century European voyages of discovery pushed beyond the existing fringes of European settlement, and explored unknown lands beyond established sea routes. These voyages excited the scientific community with the documentation of exotic or previously unknown species. Naturalists, landscape artists, natural history artists and field assistants accompanied explorers on these voyages. The artists produced thousands of sketches and paintings of both plants and animals, from sea and land.

    As a result of these explorations, there was an enormous increase in the publication of scientific writings describing the animals and plants encountered on the voyages. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries numerous comprehensive and beautifully illustrated natural history compilations were published in Europe.

    This print featured in 'Histoire Naturelle de la Cépéd', a natural history of whales, quadrupeds, oviparous animals, snakes and fish, written by naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756 - 1825) and published in Paris. The chapter 'Histoire Naturelle des Cétacées' covers 34 species of whales with numerous coloured engravings.

    The Sperm whale is often recognised by its large squared-off head and it is the largest of all the toothed whales. It frequents all the worlds’ oceans and can dive to depths of 1000 metres in search of squid and fish. Sperm Whales become synonymous with Herman Melville's book Moby Dick which perpetuated the image of the whale as a fearsome and aggressive creature. The sperm whale was the most preferred type of whale hunted in the 19th century and its large head could supply up to 1,890 gallons of oil, used in lamps, candles and mechanical lubricants, while the waxy substance of ambergris was used in perfumes.

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