Aye-aye by Wolf
Male Aye-aye skeleton by Wolf

Joseph Wolf (1820-1899)
Drawing overview
The Aye-aye
The Richard Owen Drawings Collection
Exhibition and publication details
References and further reading


Joseph Wolf (1820-1899)

Joseph Wolf was the leading animal artist and illustrator of his time and is now regarded as one of the greatest animal painters ever. Born in 1820 in Mörz, near Koblenz, Germany, his parents were farmers and he had been expected to inherit and run the family farm. However, due to his remarkable enthusiasm and interest in the observation, drawing and painting of animals and birds, his parents sent him to work as an apprentice in a lithographic workshop in Koblenz. Wolf studied there between 1836 and 1839, during which time he made the acquaintance of a number of naturalists for whom he undertook commissions, establishing himself as a major talent.

After working and studying drawing in Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Antwerp, Wolf came to London in 1848 following an invitation from David William Mitchell, secretary of the Zoological Society of London, to continue with Mitchell's work illustrating George Robert Gray's The Genera of Birds (1844-1849). Wolf's talent for closely observing animals and depicting them so accurately and beautifully, led him to further commissions by the leading naturalists of the day including John Gould (1804-1881) and Daniel Giraud Elliot (1835-1915).

Wolf was the official artist of the Zoological Society of London and so for many years, London Zoo became his second home where he spent much time drawing the animals. He died in London in 1899.

Drawing overview

Wolf was asked by Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) the first superintendent, (now termed director) of the Natural History Museum, to illustrate his important scientific work on the Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). This nocturnal animal is a relative of the lemurs from Madagascar. A remarkably unusual animal, naturalists had argued whether it was more closely related to squirrels or to primates. Owen, who was a brilliant comparative anatomist, was the first to undertake a thorough examination of an aye-aye, concluding it was more closely related to primates than to squirrels.

For Wolf's illustrations, Owen provided him with a specimen of an aye-aye which he had received in 1859, preserved in alcohol. Wolf was also able to observe the first living Aye-aye in Europe, a young female, which had arrived at London Zoo in 1862. On many occasions Wolf would watch her at night by candlelight.

The finished drawings of a foraging Aye-aye and the Aye-aye skeleton, both shown here, were reproduced as lithographed plates in Owen's 1863 paper on the aye-aye in the Transactions of the Zoological Society and also in his Monograph on the Aye-aye (1863). Owen's milestone publication was greatly enhanced by Wolf's illustrations, which are classed as scientific achievements in their own right.

The Aye-aye

The Aye-aye is an extraordinary looking primate. It has a long, coarse coat of black or brown fur and a long bushy tail with a white tip. It also has large eyes that are surrounded by dark rings, large leathery ears and remarkable hands that have long fingers and nails. The very long middle fingers are used, along with its teeth, to chisel holes in dead wood and to extract insect larvae. Particularly impressive is its method of tapping on wood with these fingers and using echolocation to locate hidden larvae. They are thought to be the only primate to use this technique. It also feeds on nuts, coconuts, mangoes and other fruit.

Today the Aye-aye, found only in Madagascar, is listed as Endangered on the 2000 IUCN Red List. Under threat from habitat loss, the Aye-aye regularly turns to farmers' plantations for food where it poses a threat to the livelihood of the farmers, resulting in them being frequently killed. Stemming from traditional beliefs that the Aye-aye is a bad omen and a bringer of evil and bad luck, they are also killed by locals. Interest in this remarkable animal remains high and and it is the focus of international breeding programmes.

The Richard Owen Drawings Collection

The drawing of the Aye-aye forms part of the extensive palaeontological and zoological drawings collection of Richard Owen, which comprises over 3,500 drawings. The drawings are mostly nineteenth century, and in addition to the work of Richard Owen, the collection includes the work of a number of artists.

The artwork comprises watercolour, pen-and-ink and pencil drawings as well as engravings and photographs. The subjects are all zoological and palaeozoological in nature, and many of them are the original drawings that were used in Richard Owen's published works.

Exhibition and publication details

Ingles, J. M. & Sawyer, F. C. (1979) A catalogue of the Richard Owen collection of palaeontological and zoological drawings in the British Museum (Natural History). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series, vol. 6, no. 5, pp.109-197.

Joseph Wolf - Capturing the Moment. Exhibition held in the Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum, August - September 2001.

Owen, R. (1863) Monograph on the Aye-aye (Chiromys madagascarensis, Cuvier). Taylor and Francis : London. 72pp.

Owen, R. (1863) On the Aye-aye…etc.Transactions of the Zoological Society, vol. 5, no. 1, pp.33-101.

Schulze-Hagen, K. & Geus, A. (2000) Joseph Wolf (1820-1899): Tiermaler = Joseph Wolf (1820-1899): animal painter. Basilisken-Presse: Marburg an der Lahn. 361pp.

References and further reading

Durrell, G. (1992) The Aye-aye and I: a rescue expedition in Madagascar. HarperCollins: London. 175pp.

Feistner, A. T. C. & Sterling, E. J. (eds) (1994) The Aye-aye: Madagascar's most puzzling primate. Folia Primatologica, vol. 62, pp.1-180.

Jackson, C. E. (1999) Dictionary of bird artists of the world. Antique Collectors' Club: Woodbridge, Suffolk. 550pp.

Macdonald, D. and Norris, S. (eds) (2001) The new encyclopedia of mammals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 930pp.

Palmer, A. H. (1895) The Life of Joseph Wolf, Animal Painter. London; New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Rupke, N. A. (1994) Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist. Yale University Press: New Haven,(Conn.] ; London. 462pp.