Deciphering the Line between Science and Fiction in Art

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
Dec. 7, 2022

Featured on Princeton’s homepage, Professor Rachael DeLue’s course “Science and its Fictions in the Long 19th Century” trains students across disciplines to see images with a critical eye.  Students hone their visual literacy by looking at early images purporting to represent science, including John James Audubon's “The Birds of America” in Princeton’s Special Collections, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, and Princeton University Art Museum’s 19th-century dinosaur paintings by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

“Students often come to an art history class without a sense of how capacious art history as a discipline can be—how it explores all kinds of visual expression, from fine art painting to scientific illustration or data visualization to cinema. They never expect to look at Darwin’s diagram in an art history course, and when they do, it is a revelatory experience. The fundamental and essential interdisciplinarity of art history also takes them by surprise—studying an image or a visual object is a matter of studying all of the social, cultural, political, economic, religious, and scientific forces that shaped its formation and reception, because images and visual objects are crossroads of sorts, gatherings or condensations of human history, ideology, and desire.” —Rachael Z. DeLue, Christopher Binyon Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art and Chair of the Department of Art & Archaeology 

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