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Invasive Species Inhabit Painting

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Looking at Symbolist Master Gustave Moreau’s Orphée I am struck by something. No, not the exquisitely beautiful severed head. The two box turtles hanging out in the corner, trying to be under the radar.

I may not be a cheloniologist, but l think those are North American Box Turtles. Or possibly Indian Star Tortoises. Indian Star Tortoises may be more likely since Symbolists like Moreau were obsessed with a kind of romanticized “Oriental” aesthetic when they threw jewellery and patterned drapery around in their paintings. In any case, what are they doing in a painting by a French Symbolist set in Greek legend?

Invasive species? A piece of exotic ephemera?

How many other paintings in fine art history feature species out of their proper geological place?

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. waltermatera 4:07 pm 08/31/2013

    “Proper geological place”? That strikes me as just a bit anthropocentric. Animals do move around. At least two species, the cattle egret and an ibis, have migrated from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western with no help from mankind. Does that make them invasive? How about the horse and the camel that evolved in N. America and then wondered over the Bering Strait land bridge to Eurasia? Are they invasive? Some invasive species are a serious problem but to include all migrants in that category says that all change is bad, a patently silly idea.

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  2. 2. yalmac 7:09 pm 08/31/2013

    There is an important distinction between all introduced/naturalized species and those that are specifically classified as “invasive,” so I do think the use of “invasive” is incorrect here. But I doubt we need to worry about this, because Moreau probably copied the turtles from an illustration, or maybe even sketched them from life at the Jardin des Plantes.

    Waltermatera, if you haven’t already read it you might find Alfred Crosby’s “The Columbian Exchange” interesting.

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  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 3:54 am 09/1/2013

    Well I was trying to play with language a bit. I find turtles of any kind a little unusual in a painting about the Orpheus myth: there are a lot of river animals that could have been chosen instead.

    So in that sense, they are invading the painting, as well as being possibly displaced if we place the location of the painting in Greece.

    Waltermatera, I don’t think the notion of invasive species is anthropocentric. And sure, eventually they become new natives to the area when ecological equilibrium is reached.

    Yalmac, I think it being the mid-1800′s, it’s much more likely Moreau saw these in a zoological garden, as a pet of a well-travelled friend, or even just the shells brought back to Europe. Turtle and tortoise shell inlay were all the rage for framing paintings. And searching for a kind of “exoticness” is a hallmark of Moreau’s work.

    Even so, I put this question out there in case someone has more information. These didn’t just wander into view. They were very deliberately painted with detail into the corner of the composition. So I find it interesting to speculate why.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:54 am 09/2/2013

    17. century and later artists had access to wildlife models from all over the world. Exotic wildlife is commonplace in 19. century art.

    These tortoises, however, look like Greek tortoises Testudo hermannii/graeca native to Greece/Asia Minor. They are well known in Europe, also as pets.

    For a biologist, identifying plants and animals in objects of art is a common distraction. Famous artists were very variable in their biological knowledge. There are master artworks where plants and animals are all wrong. Artistic licence, of course.

    Asking why these tortoises? Orpheus is believed to charm wild animals by his music, but I think tortoises are a symbol of something else.

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  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 9:57 am 09/2/2013

    Thank you Jerzy! After reading your comment, I found this link and it could indeed be Testudo (graeca) ibera . The patterning still looks closer to the Indian Star Tortoises to my eye, but the similarity to the Greek turtle is quite strong.

    Why an artist places plants and animals that are all wrong is where my fascination lies. Here, I thought Moreau’s excessive “Oriental” Eastern decorative elements were the cause. Seeing the Testudo graeca ibera, that may not be so.

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