Aloys ZÖTL (Freistadt, Austria, 1803 - Eferding, Austria, 1887)

The Holy Font or Giant Tridachne

41.5 x 47.7 cm. (16 5/16 x 18 3/4 in.)
Watercolor over black chalk lines. Inscribed by the artist , lower left: “Würmer Taf. 45;” lower center: “Die Riesenmuschel. Chama gigas.” Signed and dated lower right: Aloys Zötl. fecit. am 22. Decem. 1872.

Sale of 170 watercolors from the Studio of Aloys Zötl, Second and Last Sale (Preface by André Breton), Hôtel Drouot, May 3rd, 1956, lot 4 (as “The Giant Tellina”), sold for 3 800 Fr.
• France, Private Collection

Aloys Zötl was born on April 12th, 1803 in Freistadt, Austria, to a relatively well off family of craftsmen. His father, Franz-Xavier Zötl, master dyer, encouraged his sons’ interest in drawing without, however, seeking to offer them any real training. For them, he assembled two albums mainly of animal engravings. Thus, as an autodidact, Aloys attempted his first sketches and watercolors which he signed “Louis Zotl” and were of real and imaginary animals drawn with the fascination of an amateur naturalist deprived of direct observation.
After his marriage, Aloys Zötl settled as a leather dyer forty kilometers from Freistadt upriver from Linz, in Eferding, which he never left. Henceforth, he seems to have devoted all his free time to studying the natural world in order to compose a sort of magnificent Bestiary with 320 large watercolors, each of which depicted a single species or family. This activity lasted from 1831 until just two weeks before his death in 1887 at the rate of a few drawings per year, carefully entitled in German and in Latin, signed, dated with the day the work was finished, inscribed, and arranged in groups (“Insects,” “Mammals,” “Amphibians,” etc.) and then numbered.
All the evidence indicates that the artist seems to have had no glorious ambitions for his life’s work. Thus it wasn’t until his heirs dispersed several dozen sheets of drawings in the course of two sales at Drouot in 1955 and 1956, that astonished specialists and amateurs discovered “the most sumptuous bestiary,” to use the words of his most fervent admirer, André Breton.
Without being able to see the animals that he wished to depict, Zötl drew his inspiration from the Jean-Baptiste Audebert, and Linné. The latter also was the source of the Latin names. In addition, he relied on the descriptions of curiosity cabinets visited by his brother Joseph who had lived in England and Germany. Joseph also gave him one of the first watercolor tablet painting sets produced by the Ackermann Company.
Each of Zötl’s watercolors is thus the product of patient documented research, completed by the painter’s fertile imagination in terms of colors, poses, proportions, and even anatomical details for which he lacked information. Through his encyclopedic approach, Zötl sought to achieve the most complete and flattering presentation of each living being. For his mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, he invented landscaped environments, whereas birds, insects, and sea life often appeared grouped against the neutral ground of bare paper with a naturalist’s genuine rigor.
In this autodidact painter’s drawings, each detail is meticulous, each brush stroke prepared by a fine black chalk line, each color placed with a jeweler’s minutia. Our Chama gigas – a name proposed by Linné, but confused and replaced subsequently since Lamarck by that of Tridachna – is even more surprising in that the watercolor seems to be unfinished despite application of an inscription and date, not to mention the fact that, contrary to the artist’s usual practice, a small shadow gives the impression that the shell is posed on the paper. In order to make the size even more impressive, Zötl takes up the entire space by showing both the interior and exterior simultaneously. The artist could have been inspired by the illustrations of the famous conchologist treatise by Chemnitz which in 1784 employed the same procedure to depict a Chama . Nonetheless, as always with Zötl, an eery abstract quality, emanates from the drawing, which in this case is accentuated by the shell’s emptiness, although the plate itself is classed among the Würmer (Worms).

André BRETON, Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Paris: Gallimard, 1965, pp. 354-355.
Julio CORTAZAR et Giovanni MARIOTTI, Le Bestiaire d’Aloys Zötl (1803-1887), Milan: Franco Maria Ricci, 1976.
Vincent BOUNOURE, Le Bestiaire d’Aloys Zötl, “L’Événement surréaliste” Collection, Paris, 2004.
Frantz REITINGER, Aloys Zötl oder Die Animalisierung der Kunst, Vienna: Christian Brandstätter Verlag, 2004.
Victor FRANCES, Contrées d’Aloys Zötl, Paris: Langlaude, 2011.

See more