De Gheyn’s turtles and the passion for recording natural phenomena at the turn of the 17th century

This week’s guest blogger is Jane Turner, Head of the Rijkmuseum Printroom. Jane discusses two remarkable 17th-century drawings by Jacques de Gheyn III, of large green sea turle carapaces.

The last years of the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth was an extraordinary moment in the fields of natural history and science. One has only to think of such natural philosophers as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and René Descartes (1596-1650). Contemporary improvements by artists in modes of naturalistic representation developed alongside philosophers’ growing insistence on empirical observation of the natural world. Indeed, the ability of illustrators to convey information played a crucial role in expanding knowledge. The confluence of these developments prompted ambitious encyclopaedic projects in the arts. One example was the six-volume city atlas with 546 topographical views published by Georg Braun (1541-1622) and Franz Hogenburg (1535-1590) as the Civitates orbis terrarum (Cologne, 1572-1617), with topographical views of cities as far afield as Mexico City. As exotic new worlds were explored and exploited, there was a need – a fervent desire, in fact – to document everything the world had to offer.

Another example is the Historia naturalis, a group of some 750 watercolours of animals, birds and plants compiled between c. 1596 and 1610 by Anselmus de Boodt (1550-1632) for Emperor Rudolf II of Prague (1552-1612). Gathered together in twelve albums, these drawings are now on long-term loan to the Rijksmuseum from a private collection, and at any given time a selection of illustrations from six of the volumes is on display in the Tapestry Gallery.

Even artists not involved in such ambitious undertakings harboured a sense of curiosity and interest in recording natural phenomena. One such artist was Jacques de Gheyn II (c. 1565-1629), who counted several natural philosophers, botanists and physicians among his circle of friends. His social contacts and his incredible powers of observation enabled him to record things with remarkable accuracy. This can be seen in several drawings in the Rijksmuseum.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Four Studies of a Frog, watercolour, 142 x 196 mm, Rijksmuseum, RP-T-1898-A-4036

So true-to-life are his renderings that precise species can often be identified. Although De Gheyn entitled his extensively inscribed drawing as a Zee Eeghel (‘Sea Urchin’), we recognise it today as a kind of blowfish or pufferfish.

This is likewise the case with a drawing in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, traditionally known by its generic title Studies of a Fantastic Bird, Toad, Frog and Dragonfly. While that drawing may well represent the head of the same frog as in the Rijksmuseum sheet, what is interesting for the purposes of the present discussion is the motif of the dragonfly.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Studies of a Fantastic Bird, Toad, Frog and Dragonfly, pen and brown ink, watercolour and bodycolour, over traces of metalpoint, 115 x 140 mm, New York, Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection, inv. no. 2004.40

This was recently identified for the first time as a Green darner dragonfly, a species native to parts of Asia and North America, but not Europe.

On stylistic grounds, scholars have dated the Morgan drawing to c. 1596-1601/2. In this instance, scientific evidence bolsters the art-historical conclusion, for it means that the actual specimen that De Gheyn so lovingly recorded must have hopped aboard a ship between 1595, when the Dutch first visited the Spice Islands northeast of Indonesia, and 1602, the date of the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

More relevant for a blog devoted to research on the Rijksmuseum’s painting on a green sea turtle shell of an Equestrian Portrait of Prince Frederick Henry on Horseback (inv. no. NG-NM-2970) are two further drawings in the Rijksmuseum. Although also often ascribed to Jacques de Gheyn II, according to De Gheyn expert (and former head of the Rijksprentenkabinet), I.Q. van Regteren Altena, they are more likely to be by his son, Jacques de Gheyn III (1596-1641). This seems confirmed by the unusual combination of dots and dashes, traits that characterize the younger artist’s work.

Attributed to Jacques de Gheyn III, Two Studies of a Sea Turtle Shell, both pen and brown ink, with opaque white, on light brown cartridge paper, 381 x 227 mm and 381 x 236 mm, Rijksmuseum, RP-T-1935-51 and RP-T-1935-52

The apple evidently did not fall far from the tree! In separate studies, the younger De Gheyn drew the turtle shell from different viewpoints, just as his father did the frog and just as contemporary researchers were beginning to look at their subjects from different angles. Jacques III clearly learnt from his father to be faithful to his model (unlike the artists in the Anselmus de Boodt albums, who often redrew their subjects from earlier published sources). Even if the De Gheyn drawings are monochromatic (not to mention, lacking heads or fins of the turtle), we can conclude – based on the round shape of the shell and the precise number and disposition of the scutes on the carapace – that this, too, is almost certainly the shell of a green sea turtle, the unusual support chosen by the anonymous artist for his portrait of Prince Frederick Henry.

According to characteristics defined for sea turtle identification, with only three vertebral scutes – and these being of roughly rectangular shape rather than overlapped diamonds – the original specimen can only have been a Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), a Black sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) or a Flatback sea turtle (Natator Depressus). We can, however, rule out both the Black and the Flatback, since these species are native to the East Pacific Ocean and Australia – regions unexplored by Dutch sailors at that date (see previous blogs on Trade and the Turtle’s Anatomy).

Van Regteren Altena suggested that the actual prototype recorded by De Gheyn the younger was then in the collection of Leiden University, where it was called Testa immanis testitudinis when represented (alongside a pufferfish!) in the margins of a print by Willem Isaacsz van Swanenburg (1580-1612).

Willem Isaacsz van Swanenburg (after Jan Cornelisz van ‘t Woudt), Hortus botanicus of Leiden University (1610), etching and engraving, 328 x 404 mm, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1893-A-18089

This depicts the university’s Hortus botanicus, the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands. Founded in 1590, this is yet another monument to the same inquisitive spirit that inspired natural philosophers, merchants, sailors and artists around the turn of the seventeenth century. As we ourselves come out of a period of lockdown due to Covid-19, we can but envy the excitement they must have experienced as the horizons of their world expanded!

Jane Turner

Thank you Jane, you are now part of the Turtle Team.


  • K.G. Boon, Netherlandish Drawings of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, 2 vols., The Hague, 1978, nos. 243-44 (as Jacques de Gheyn II or III)
  • I.Q. van Regteren Altena, Jacques de Gheyn: Three Generations, 3 vols., The Hague and elsewhere, 1983, vol. II, nos. 80-81 (as attributed to De Gheyn III)
  • Jane Shoaf Turner, “Looking at the World in the Seventeenth Century”, in John Marciari and Jennifer Tonkovich, eds., Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, exh. cat., New York, Morgan Library & Museum, and Williamstown, MA, The Clark, 2017-18, pp. 46-63

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