I n 1916, William Beebe and a group of scientists from the New York Zoological Society, under the auspices of their patron Teddy Roosevelt, set out to create what was then a radical tropical research station, in British Guyana. The Department of Tropical Research (DTR) was a marked departure from the norms of natural science. Until that time most naturalists would collect specimens in the wild and bring them back for study in the confines of their own laboratories.
Beebe and his team decided to set up camp in British Guyana to study animals and fish in their habitats – as they desired to better understand the holistic environment of the natural world. The research and study drawings from live specimens they produced were much more subjective and alive compared to the more rigid and still works of their predecessors, like Audubon. Beebe also captured the imagination of a great deal of America and the world with his work, as he was a great popularizer of natural science, publishing many articles and books about his adventures.
Among those captivated by Beebe’s expeditions was George Swanson, an artist born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1908. Swanson attended the Newark School of Fine Art and, interested in how to depict the “human condition” in art, was drawn to the Ashcan School and the work of the Mexican muralists. Swanson had exhibitions of his fine art in the early 1930s in New York and New Jersey and supplemented his income as a commercial artist, illustrator and stage manager for the theater.
Swanson knew of Beebe’s expeditions from newspaper and magazine articles and in 1932 he started visiting the New York Aquarium to draw and paint fish and undersea life, building up a portfolio to “audition” for Mr. Beebe. Beebe was impressed and hired Swanson in 1934 as a full-time member of the DTR. Swanson spent the next decade working closely with Beebe at Nonsuch Island in Bermuda and at other DTR expeditions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Swanson’s drawings and field studies of deep-sea creatures, fish, fauna, reptiles and other wildlife during his time at the DTR received a great deal of attention. His work was featured on the cover of several of Beebe’s popular novels and were featured in publications like The New York Times, National Geographic, Zoologica and Popular Science. Swanson also perfected a technique for drawing from life underwater on zinc tablets, onto which he recorded detailed information about color, form and features of that unique environment.
Swanson drawings from the DTR are both historically important documents of early 20th-century science and aesthetically beautiful renderings of the natural world. Very few of these drawings have ever been available to the public, which makes this sale of 40 masterworks a unique opportunity for collectors of Americana, Audubon, scientific renderings, or naturalist drawings to own a work made during Beebe’s DTR expeditions.
Later in the 1940s, Swanson became interested in dance and began to draw ballet dancers from George Balanchine’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet. These drawings highlighted the strength of the male and female dancers and generally captured the vitality of his subjects while eschewing a more romantic view of the medium. Over his career his work was collected by MoMA, The Newark Museum, The Wildlife Conservation Society and Masterworks Foundation in Bermuda.