Durin (1940-88) became smitten with beetles in the summer of 1972 as he tramped the countryside in Provence. His artist’s eye aroused by the galaxies of insect life, he eventually found his necessary models at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, which gave him access to its trove of preserved insects.
Connoisseurs of art and bugs are the richer for that good deed. Durin published “Beetles and Other Insects” in 1980; this expanded edition for the first time gathers 60 color plates of all his known watercolor portraits of insects.
A few were rendered on vellum, but he painted most of them on cardboard. And each full-page, larger-than-life painting is chaperoned by a worker-antlike entomological biography.
Of the 1.2 million to 1.5 million species of insects that have been described, about 400,000 are beetles. As the British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, it would appear that God has a special fondness for stars and beetles.”
And the order Coleoptera couldn’t ask for a better Boswell than Durin. These pages creep and crawl with weevils and chafers, ladybugs and locusts, scarabs and scorpions, and a cavalcade of beetles: dung, stag, longhorn, Hercules (and little Hercules), jewel and harlequin.
Painted with passion and precision, each insect here is a marvel of evolutionary architecture and engineering, but also a wonder of color, texture and detail. I’d forgotten how hairy so many insects are, and the hues and patterns on many of these exoskeletons suggest ancient mosaics or fine Italian tile. These are mere vermin?
There’s the South American dung beetle, an exquisite peacock of a bug, with its bold, black horn and its iridescent blues, greens and oranges. And though it isn’t a beetle, the elegant pipe cleaner, an ichneumon wasp, looks as if it’s preening for its first portrait as a principal ballet dancer. Truly, one man’s pest is another man’s crush.
But there’s plenty of pinch and prick, too. Durin’s watercolors bristle with a hard-shelled arsenal of horns, thorns and spikes, of teeth, claws and pincers, all complemented by a writhing picket fence of antennas, from humble nubs to ostentatious lariats.
According to the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, Earth is home to about 10 quintillion insects — that’s 19 zeros after the numeral one — meaning that there are more than 200 million for each human on the planet. Makes you feel kind of itchy — and insignificant. But if they were all as striking as Bernard Durin’s paintings of them, that might not be so bad.