Seashells Through Time

Admired for their varied colors, intricate morphology, and mysterious inhabitants, seashells have long fascinated natural historians, artists, and, more recently, biologists and ecologists. Shells are more durable than other patterned organisms, such as sponges or flowers, and have been appreciated as independent sculptural forms and incorporated into the visual arts. This installation presents works from seventeenth-century Europe alongside a group of twentieth-century photographs to consider the enduring allure of seashells.

Sebastian Stoskopff’s Still Life illustrates the role of shells as exotic collectors’ items, as well as their function as reminders to place spiritual aims above physical goods. The album Hollar’s Shells by Wenceslaus Hollar most likely was based on his observations of seashells from a seventeenth-century Dutch curiosity cabinet—a type of collection in Early Modern Europe that combined natural materials with works of art and was an important predecessor of modern-day museums. Van de Passe’s etchings of Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet and the personification of the element Aqua demonstrate the rich symbolism of shells and their inherent connection with the sea. Shells appear as monumental and mesmerizing shapes in the photographs of Edward Weston, whose dye transfer print of a halved nautilus shell highlights its logarithmic spiral, and Ruth Bernhard, whose black-and-white series presents shells as sensuous forms that recall her evocative portraits of female nudes. By contrast, Ansel Adams’s and Minor White’s works are more mundane and rustic images focusing on shell fragments as well as edible species like clams.

Veronica M. White, Curator of Academic Programs

The installation will coincide with the October 19 faculty panel discussion The Enduring Allure of Seashells: Conchology and Art