Drawn to Scale: The Fish in Art

A new book tracks images of cod, salmon, eels and more from ancient Egypt to the present

Édouard Manet’s Still-life with Salmon, Gurnard, Eel, Oysters and Lemon, 1864.


Fish have historically proved slippery subjects for artists—and not just for the obvious reasons. Until recently, fish couldn’t be photographed in their native environments, and artists had to rely on cloudy memories of seeing them underwater. Similarly, a still life with a caught creature had to be completed swiftly, before the specimen rotted. Naturalist Christine Jackson’s Fish in Art, published by Reaktion Books, uses nearly 200 images of fish—ranging from ancient Egyptian wall works to 21st-century photorealist paintings—to illustrate their religious, social, political, and economic significance.

The book, the first survey of fish in two-dimensional art, is divided by habitat, with chapters relating to the sea, the beach, the river, and still waters, as well as to the market, the kitchen, and, lastly, the table. Jackson isolates the aquatic animals’ form as one that has always fascinated artists. Strokes of black ink on silk in a Song Dynasty fan coalesce into a school of fish interweaving on a golden background; hundreds of years later, Paul Klee depicted them as flat, primitive shapes in neon colors.

Included are major artists such as Raphael and J. M. W. Turner, as well as Manet, whose Impressionistic Still-life with Salmon, Gurnard, Eel, Oysters and Lemon (1864) demonstrates a lesson he once gave to a pupil about still-life painting. “You don’t try to count the scales on the salmon,” Manet instructed, “you see them as little silver pearls against gray and pink.” Some famous works featuring fish as only minor characters assume a new depth, as in Tintoretto’s Creation of the Animals (1551) or Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning (1885), in which a dark and lonely fisherman sits in sharp contrast to the huge, shining halibut in the stern of his rowboat.

There aren’t many contemporary interpretations of fish in the book. However, the penultimate image is a 2005 work by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey titled Crystal Fish, a cod skeleton that—having been dipped in an alum solution—sparkles in a studded skin of crystalline formations. It makes for a tangible catch of this elusive subject.

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