Collaborative Vision: Depicting Microscopic Observations

Jan Verkolje, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1680–1686. Oil on canvas. 56x47.5 cm.

With the discovery of the microscope in the early seventeenth century, an entirely new world became visible to the human eye. Images of these previously unseen objects were made in the form of drawings and prints and quickly started to circulate amongst European scientific practitioners. However, not everyone had access to a microscope, nor were there standardized lenses to enable a replication of the observations. So how did microscopists communicate about a common but invisible reality? What were the means and methods they deployed to give their descriptions authority and credibility (especially for those who did not own or have access to microscopes)? What role did images play in this context? How did the microscopists translate their observations into images, and how were these images understood by others?

This project investigates image-making and image-makers in the first 100 years of microscopic observations. From the first printed publication based on microscopic observations by the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, to the drawings with which Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in Delft enriched his correspondence with the Fellows of the Royal Society in London: both the production and reception of microscopic observations was based on collaborative efforts. Microscopists relied upon draughtsmen, and copperplate cutters to convey information about what they observed. How did these people interact and collaborate? What skills did they draw upon in making these observations and translating them into images? And, more generally, how does a new field of science create its visual rules of communication?

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