Pioneering women: scientific illustrators rescued from oblivion

In the first half of the 20th century, photography had not become popular and there were no 3D recreations. Illustrating newly discovered plants, fish, and other extraordinary animals to accompany scientific studies and display in museums then became a necessity. Many of these first scientific works, of extraordinary precision and beauty, were made by women.

Josefa Sanz Echeverría (1889-1952) prepared naturalized fish at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them are part of a fascinating collection at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain. Ella Josefa Ella was the first laboratory technical assistant at the Santander Marine Biology Station, created in 1886 and attached to the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN) in 1901. That was the first laboratory dedicated to Marine Biology in Spain.

Side view of young female sevengill shark Heptranchias cinereus drawn by Josefa Sanz.
Archive of the National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC), CC BY-SA

The position of artistic assistant has been carried out, in many cases, by women who have fallen into oblivion. Is it coincidence? The names of Josefa Sanz, Paula Millán and Luisa de la Vega are an example of excellent scientific illustrators that we intend to rescue.

The flowers of Paula Millán

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Paula Millan. Self-portrait, 1933.

Paula Millán was born and died on Calle de Atocha, in Madrid. She was completely deaf. She studied at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts and arrived at the Botanical Garden as an artistic assistant on May 30, 1933. She combined her work as an illustrator with that of a teacher at the School of Research Assistant Studies, belonging to the CSIC. Her work is made up of abundant drawings of Spanish flora and was characterized by its enormous detail, by the clarity and beauty of its strokes.

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Centaurea lagascana Graells by Paula Millán Alosete.
Royal Botanical Garden Archive, CSICCC BY SA

She was one of the –still rare at the time– women who participated in group shows since the twenties, such as the Salón de Otoño, and who starred in individual exhibitions at the Círculo de Bellas Artes (1925) and the Museum of Modern Art (1930). Botanical illustrator Juan Luis Castillo dedicated the only article by her published to date that includes her contributions, despite the fact that Millán’s qualities “place her at one of the highest points of botanical illustration”. She still continues to suffer unjustified forgetfulness that is worth making up for.

Most of his drawings are deposited in the Archive of the Royal Botanical Garden.

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Paula Millán Alosete Botanical illustration from the collection of the Royal Botanical Garden CSIC.

sea ​​lilies

The National Museum of Natural Sciences previously had two great scientific illustrators: Luisa de la Vega and, as previously seen, Josefa Sanz, who shared the same space around the 1920s and 1930s.

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Luisa de la Vega.

These two very singular personalities were in charge of illustrating the field of zoology, specializing in the marine world (starfish, sea lilies, polychaetes and a long etcetera).

Luisa de la Vega, a specialist in marine fauna, began her career at the Santander Marine Biology Station with her husband, Augusto González de Linares, a professor of Natural History at the University of Santiago de Compostela. González de Linares led the defense for the freedom of education in 1875 and scandalized society for his defense of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

In most cases, Luisa de la Vega made drawings with a pen, generally in black ink, highlighting every morphological detail of plants, fish, polychaetes and other marine invertebrates. Ella Luisa She used different types of paper, some hard and smooth in texture (perhaps cut-out copies of printed publications). Others are made of thin paper, cracked at the edges and in darker colors that reflect the materials of the time.

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Starfish drawn by Luisa de la Vega.

Luisa de la Vega and Josefa Sanz Echevarría met at the National Museum of Natural Sciences and established a fully female collaboration that was new at the time.

Scientific illustration has been characterized by constantly seeking visual support for the studies carried out by researchers or the creation of didactic illustrations. Undoubtedly, teaching through these illustrations was fundamental in the laboratories and in the courses taught in these institutions. The role of women scientific illustrators cannot be forgotten.

On the trail of your images

In the course of my research on the illustrator Serapio Martínez, considered the institutional illustrator of the MNCN, I came across the watercolors and drawings of all these authors. They are a true treasure that is kept by the Archive of the National Museum of Natural Sciences and the Botanical Garden. His personal photographs, in addition to being extremely beautiful, describe very well his work and its historical context (either by the instruments used, their clothing, their hairstyles…), as well as the exhibition rooms of the time! A picture is worth thousand words!

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Josefa Sanz, seated on the left, poses with several men at the Santander Marine Biology Station Exhibition.

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