Saturday, August 13, 2016

Elizabeth Buchsbaum Newhall (1909-1942)-Part Two

Elizabeth Buchsbaum provided the illustrations for the biology textbook Animals Without Backbones: An Introduction to the Invertebrata, published in 1938. The authors were her older brother, Ralph Morris Buchsbaum (1907-2002), and Ralph's wife, Mildred Shaffer Buchsbaum (1912-1996). Elizabeth's drawings are in black and white and are characterized by great clarity and simplicity. Generations of biology students have studied and learned from her work. Apparently, one of the great graphic artists of the twentieth century was also a student of Elizabeth Buchsbaum. I'll let the artists themselves tell the story . . .

Here is the cover for the second edition of Animals Without Backbones, written by Ralph M. Buchsbaum and Mildred Shaffer Buchsbaum and illustrated by Ralph's sister Elizabeth M. Buchsbaum. The crosseyed planarian has become a standard image in biological illustration. It's one I remember from my own childhood reading.

Here is an interior illustration from the book, showing a colonial animal called an Obelia. Note the great clarity and simplicity of the drawing. (I have slightly altered the image by recoloring the background to an even tan color.)

Elizabeth Buchsbaum's depiction of planarian anatomy is also clear and readable. (Again I have recolored the background.)

According to undocumented sources on the Internet, Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) is supposed to have been inspired by the drawings of Elizabeth Buchsbaum. Is there truth in that claim? I don't know. There isn't any doubt that Escher's flatworms look a lot like Elizabeth Buchsbaums' flatworms, but then both are based on real animals. Update (Dec. 5, 2018): According to Sherry Buchsbaum, granddaughter-in-law of Maurice and Mabel Buchsbaum, M.C. Escher was indeed influenced by Elizabeth Buchsbaum's depiction of planaria. See her comment below.

Here is Elizabeth's grasshopper from Animals Without Backbones . . .

And here is Escher's. I think a stronger case can be made that Escher was inspired by Elizabeth's grasshopper, depicted in both drawings in an almost orthographic projection. (Oddly, grasshoppers are in the order Orthoptera.) But if Escher was influenced by one drawing, why not by the other? And if that's the case, then an Indiana illustrator has her place in the study of one of the most renowned artists of the twentieth century. Either way, the art of Elizabeth Buchsbaum Newhall lives on, even now, seventy-four years after her death. Update (Dec. 5, 2018): In her comment below, Sherry Buchsbaum has pointed out that M.C. Escher's grasshopper came before Elizabeth Buchsbaum's. With that being the case, I wonder whether she was instead influenced by him.

To close out this article about Elizabeth Buchsbaum, I would like to mention her younger brother, Robert E. Buchsbaum. He was born on December 25, 1912, in Chicago and received his bachelor's (1936) and master's (1937) degrees from the University of Chicago. Buchsbaum was a conductor (of the Gary symphony and others), an oboist, an instructor of music, and an executive at Coronet Recording Company. After a very long and productive life, he died on January 31, 2001, in Columbus, Ohio.

Text copyright 2016, 2018 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Escher was definitely influenced by Elizabeth Buchsbaum's drawing of planaria. This can be seen in the chapter heading drawing for Chapter 10 and 12 and following drawings in Animals Without Backbones. The Buchsbaum originals were published in 1939. My father, Ralph Buchsbaum, visited Escher in the Netherlands and Escher showed him his edition of Animals Without Backbones. The Escher Flatworms (Catalogue 431) is dated 1959. The Grasshopper by Elizabeth Buchsbaum was also published in 1939 but the Escher print Grasshopper (Catalogue 271) is dated 1935.

    1. Dear Sherry,

      Thanks for the information. I especially like that it's firsthand. I have made changes to my original posting.

      Terence Hanley