Aloys ZÖTL (Freistadt, 1803 – Eferding, 1887)

A Black Scissor-bill (Rynchops niger)

33.5 x 39.5 cm. (13 316 x 15 916 in.)
1846. Watercolor on paper Signed and dated lower right: 'A. Zötl pinx. am 11. November' Title and caption below image in the artist’s hand

• Cortázar, Julio (1914-1984), Aloys Zötl (1803-1887), Parma Milano: Franco Maria Ricci, 1976
• Mariotti, Giovanni (1936-), Le bestiaire d’Aloys Zötl, 1831-1887, Paris Milan: Chêne : F.M. Ricci, 1979

«Zötl found the perfect organic concordance between the animal and its habitat.» 1
-  André Breton

Although not mentioned very much in works on Natural History, Aloys Zötl’s work nonetheless celebrates Nature’s magnificence. This Austrian master dyer is mainly known for his colored watercolors of all kinds of animals. All of 170 folios which came directly from his studio were scattered in Paris under the hammer of Master Maurice Rheims in 1955 and 1956.

In the 19th century, which was one of industrial progress, modernity also prided itself in research on fauna and flora. Out of this research came museums of Natural History which progressively tallied the discoveries and material evidence produced by the voyages across the world in order to increase general knowledge.

Although Aloys Zoyl never traveled beyond the Austrian border, his watercolors give a terrific sense of the level of 19th century ethnological knowledge. Indeed, without ever leaving the little borough of Eferding in northern Austria, this craftsman who was fascinated with ethnography and natural history gradually constituted a catalogue raisonné of animals presented in their habitat which was inspired by his personal knowledge formed through reading and reports from world travelers. Mixing art and science, his fabulous bestiary is the illustration of a period in full industrial expansion and a valuable source of knowledge. More or less naïve, far from being scientifically exact, most of the drawings were imagined from accounts and fantasized images. Aloys Zôtl worked for his personal pleasure without any outside iconographical constraints. Not seeking any audience and never giving away any of his work, he could thus freely work at his rhythm and give particular attention to rendering details.

“I suppose that he worked his whole life in the same room, because he never changed the format of his drawing paper and never had any desire to show anything other than luxurious beasts in the midst of rich natural settings.2

These were minutely signed and dated works to which Zötl always added a few lines about his discoveries, “generally the size, habits, and country of origin of the beings reproduced.” 3

His work was rigorous and organized: birds don’t seem to appear until 1837, after mammals, fish, shellfish, and reptiles. Our watercolor, dated 1846, presents “one of the most singular and curious [birds] which Nature has produced:”4 the Rhyncops nigra, “the black pirate” or “black scissor bill.” Originally from the United States and recognizable by his distinctive beak, it “gathers in every season along the sandy and marshy shores of the southernmost states.” The most detailed description of its way of life is found in the work of the ornithologist, Jean-Jacques Audubon (1785-1821).

Beyond its historic and scientific use, Aloys Zötl’s work was celebrated by the Surrealist artists a century later when André Breton (1896-1966), the movement’s leader, honored his work:

“[…]Zötl entered into possession of a mental prism which functioned like an instrument of clairvoyance successively revealing the way to the most distant specimens of the animal realm, which is still known to be an enigma to each of us, and the primordial role which the animal realm plays in subconscious symbolism.”5

transl. chr

1 Extract from the preface of André Breton’s sale catalogue (Tinchebray, 1896 – Paris, 1966), Hôtel Drouot, Thursday, May 3rd, 1956.

2Introductory note to the sale catalogue of December 19th, 1955.

3 Introductory note to the sale catalogue of May 3rd, 1956.

4 Eugène Bazin, Scènes de la nature dans les États-Unis et le Nord de l’Amérique, Sauton, 1868, Volume 2, p. 451: Translation of a part of the work of Jean-Jacques Audubon, The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and their Territories, New York : G.R. Lockwood, [1871], c1839.

5Op. cit. p.451

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