Defining the Dolphin

Document Type

Conference Material

Publication Date


Department 1



In Pierre Belon’s 1551 treatise on the dolphin he described their depiction by “modern painters” as representing nothing from nature, but instead as portraying sea monsters. He traced the history of the dolphin’s name, nature and images from antiquity, crediting Roman coins with a more accurate portrait of the animal than those by his contemporaries. Belon speculated on the possible confusion of the dolphin with other “fish” such as the sturgeon and provided drawings for comparison. He also rendered an embryonic dolphin in utero and described how dolphins breathe air. Although Belon’s work was cited and copied by others, the process of defining the dolphin continued to be both confused and enriched by its ambiguous classification, unusual behaviors and seemingly special relationship with humans. Myth, symbolism and possibly willful misrepresentation appear to have impeded the evolution of dolphin images even while depictions of other creatures evolved toward increasingly lifelike appearances.


Original version is available from the publisher at: http://www.rsa.org/

This item is not available in The Cupola.