John Gerrard Keulemans was one of the most prolific natural history artists of the late nineteenth century. Born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1842, he spent his early years collecting specimens of wild animals and supplying them to museums.
Keulemans was greatly encouraged by H. Schlegel, the director of the Natural History Museum in Leiden. He sent Keulemans on an official expedition to West Africa in 1864, where Keulemans sketched wildlife and made field notes. On Keulemans' return to Europe in 1866, Schlegel recommended him to the British Museum.
In 1869, Keulemans emigrated to England where he lived for the rest of his life, working as a professional natural history artist painting birds and other animals. He seems to have received no formal art training, but was self-taught, drawing animals in the wild from an early age. His bird illustrations in particular possessed all of the key elements that his patrons required. His drawings were scientifically accurate, often attractive compositions. Keulemans was highly productive and reliable; for 30 years he produced more bird paintings than any contemporary, published in 100 major bird books and journals.
Much of Keulemans' artwork appears similar in composition. This is largely due to the requirements of his employers and the fact that he worked mainly from skins. But left to his own devices, Keulemans produced some outstanding large paintings. These included depictions of immense flocks of birds, which demonstrated that he was capable of much more creative work than his published work might indicate. He died in 1912.
This painting of the head of a cassowary (then named Casuarius papuanus but currently known as Casuarius bennetti) by Keulemans is one of many commissioned by Lord Rothschild in the late nineteenth century. Keulemans was one of several artists employed by Rothschild, who was intensely interested in these large flightless birds from New Guinea and Australia. At the time there was much discussion about speciation, and Rothschild's paintings were probably intended as a record (or paper museum) to assist in identification. Since the bird's characteristic colourful head markings faded in preserved specimens, these paintings of living birds in Rothschild's menagerie and elsewhere were very important.
Keulemans drew this bird, the dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti), from Rothschild's menagerie at Tring in Hertfordshire. In fact, Keulemans lived at Tring for several months while he was working for Rothschild. Rothschild's research on cassowaries was published in the Transactions of the Zoological Society of London (1900) and this painting was reproduced in plate 34.
Cassowaries are large flightless birds found only in Australia and New Guinea. Cassowaries' feathers are coarse and hard, which serve to protect the birds from the sharp undergrowth in the rainforests where they live.
One of their most characteristic features is the protuberance on the top of the head, known as the casque or helmet. In two of the species, folds of skin hanging from the bird's neck (wattles), are another distinctive feature. In the dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti), the wattle is absent.
This drawing is one of a collection of original drawings of cassowaries made by Keulemans and his contemporaries. The large collection, also including works by Frohawk, Genlloud, Goodson, Greonvold and others, was put together by Lord Rothschild and is held at the Natural History Museum.
Rothschild's research on cassowaries was published in 1900 and this painting was reproduced in plate 34 of Rothschild's 'A monograph of the genus Casuarius' (1900).
Folch, A. (1992) 'Casuariidae' in Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (eds), Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 1. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona, pp. 90-97.
Keulemans, A. & Coldewey, J. (1982) Feathers to Brush: the Victorian Bird Artist John Gerrard Keulemans 1842-1912. Privately Published: Deventer. 94 p.
Rothschild, L.W. (1900) A monograph of the genus Casuarius, with a dissertation on the morphology and phylogeny of the Palaeognathae (Ratitae and Crypturi) and Neognathae (Carinatae) by W.P. Pycraft. Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, vol. 15, pt 5, pp.109-290, pls 22-45.
Rothschild, M. (1983) Dear Lord Rothschild. Hutchinson: London. 398 p.