Joseph Wolf

Zoological Sketches


Designated the ‘poet-painter’, Joseph Wolf was one of the most accomplished natural history artists working in London during the mid-19th century. Born and educated in Prussia, Wolf began his career as an apprentice to Gebrüder Becker, lithographers at Koblenz, at the age of sixteen. After a few years he returned home to work on a series of small, detailed bird drawings which brought him recognition and a commission to illustrate the naturalist Eduard Ruppell’s book on the birds of Africa. Commissions from the Darmstadt Museum and the prominent ornithologist Hermann Schlegel soon followed.

By the time Wolf migrated to London in 1848, he was an established natural history painter. He began working at the natural history department of the British Museum illustrating George Robert Gray’s Genera of Birds. Having come to the attention of Sir Edward Landseer, Wolf exhibited at the Royal Academy. He provided illustrations for the journals of the Zoological Society of London and the British Ornithologists Union, numerous travel books by David Livingstone, Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, and made significant contributions to John Gould’s The Birds of Asia and The Birds of Great Britain, and Daniel Giraud Elliott’s Phasianeidae (pheasants), Paradiseida (birds of paradise) and Life and Habits of Wild Animals.

Wolf’s Zoological Sketches were commissioned by the Zoological Society of London and published in parts from 1856-61 and a second series 1861-67, with an impressive list of subscribers including Queen Victoria, aristocrats, artists, institutions and businesses. The Society sought to provide a record of the many rare species kept in its Vivarium with both accuracy and artistry. Wolf was particularly noted for his explorations of animals and birds in relation to environment and his treatment of his subject as distinct and individual rather than an exemplar of species or extension of human sentiment.

Wolf’s skill was appreciated as much by scientists as by laymen whilst his long and successful career provided both encouragement and inspiration for other painters entering the natural history field. These lithographs are an enduring testament to a passionate and lyrical talent heralded by critics and colleagues alike as the ‘greatest living animal painter’.

Below are examples from this collection. Please click on an image to see it in high-resolution with details of the work itself. For the full list of original antique Wolf lithographs available,  please do contact us.