Faithful portraits

Sketcher, painter, and wax modeler Augusto Esteves was the first science illustrator at the Butantan Institute

Drawings of a whole and a dissected jararacuçu pit viper (Bothrops jararacussu): the artist’s intent was to show the relation between the venom gland and the prey (signed and dated by the artist)

BUTANTAN INSTITUTEDrawings of a whole and a dissected jararacuçu pit viper (Bothrops jararacussu): the artist’s intent was to show the relation between the venom gland and the prey (signed and dated by the artist)BUTANTAN INSTITUTE

Before photography became fully developed in the late 19th century, the only way that scientists, and naturalists in particular, could record flora and fauna was through painting or drawing. Many of these individuals, almost all European, became masters of the art, prompting natural history museums and research institutes to recruit draftsmen to their staffs. It was the same in Brazil. The Oswaldo Cruz Institute and National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro; the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará, Belém; and the Biological Institute and Butantan Institute, both in São Paulo, all availed themselves of the work of science illustrators. Augusto Esteves (1891-1966) was one of the artists who placed his talent at the service of science. In 1912, he was the first illustrator hired by Vital Brazil to portray reptiles at the Butantan Institute. Years later, Esteves also became the wax modeler at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine (FMUSP).

At the Butantan Institute, Augusto Esteves rendered snakes using India ink and oil or watercolor. There was something unique about his drawings for that time: “His plates were in color and had shadowing, something nobody else used when they drew animals,” says Osvaldo Augusto Sant’Anna, researcher at the Butantan Institute’s Immunochemistry Laboratory and coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology in Toxicology. “The world’s leading centers that specialized in snake antivenoms were the Pasteur Institute in France and the institute headed by Vital Brazil here in São Paulo. I saw the pen and ink drawings by French artists and I didn’t think they were at all like what Esteves was doing here,” Sant’Anna observes.

Above, close-ups of a rattlesnake (Crotalus terrificus terrificus)

BUTANTAN INSTITUTEAbove, close-ups of a rattlesnake (Crotalus terrificus terrificus)BUTANTAN INSTITUTE

Sant’Anna is the grandson of the illustrator and the oldest great-grandson of Vital Brazil; he is also one of the latter’s few descendents to have become a researcher. He says that Esteves was born in the Paraná city of São José da Boa Vista but that by the age of one, he was living in Avaré, in the state of São Paulo. When Esteves was 13, he and his brother Lindolpho moved to the capital city, where he worked in commerce and took painting classes at night. At the age of 17, he won the silver medal at the fair held in 1908 in Rio de Janeiro in celebration of the centennial of the opening of Brazil’s ports. He then began taking classes with Pedro Strina, a painter known for his landscapes and portraits. Since Esteves could not afford to pay, he cleaned the artist’s studio instead.

When Esteves met the family of Vital Brazil, he was captivated by the scientist’s second daughter, Alvarina. The two were married in 1919 and had six daughters. That same year, the whole Vital Brazil family moved to Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, where the scientist embarked upon a private venture: for the purpose of researching and producing veterinary, biological, and pharmaceutical products, he founded the institute that today bears his name. Esteves was appointed administrative director by his father-in-law.

Coral snake (Micrurus lemniscatus): the shadows in the drawing help show the snake’s movement

BUTANTAN INSTITUTECoral snake (Micrurus lemniscatus): the shadows in the drawing help show the snake’s movementBUTANTAN INSTITUTE

In 1934, the artist returned to São Paulo, where he worked at the Pinheiros Institute, Mercy Hospital, and the FMUSP Department of Dermatology. His mission was to use wax molds to reproduce dermatological lesions, which professors then used as classroom aids. “They were so similar to the originals that his molds were widely used in courses on forensic medicine and in forensic reports,” says Sant’Anna. Many of the hundreds of molds that Esteves fashioned can be seen at the FMUSP Historical Museum. Esteves also held individual shows, where he exhibited paintings of other subjects, like landscapes and portraits. In addition, he nurtured his memories of rural life by composing poems in a rustic country style that reflected regional phonetics.

In 2012, the Butantan Institute published the book Serpentes (Snakes), by Henrique Moisés Canter, in tribute to the nine artists who worked at the institute producing accurate depictions of these reptiles. The volume opens with Augusto Esteves – not only because he was the first of these men but also because of the quality of his art. Today, research institutions have practically abolished the post of science illustrator; the only way to find one is by doing an Internet search. “It’s a shame,” says Nelson Papavero, a retired researcher formerly with the Zoology Museum at USP. “Drawings are irreplaceable when it comes to portraying certain plants and animals, because they are the only way to capture details more sharply than in a photograph.”