Roesel Von Rosenhof, August Johann

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(b. Arnstadt, Germany, 30 March 1705; d. Nuremberg, Germany, 27 March 1759)

painting, engraving, natural science.

Roesel von Rosenhof came from an Austrian noble family. His grandfather Franz Roesel and his brother Wolf were granted a patent of nobility by Emperor Ferdinand II. In 1753 August Johann had the patent officially validated and from that date added “von Rosenhof” to his name. Following the death of his father, his godmother, the reigning princess of Arnstadt-Schwarzburg, Auguste Dorothea, assumed responsibility for his education.

In 1720 he was apprenticed to his uncle, the painter Wilhelm Roesel. Four years later he was recalled to the court at Arnstadt by his godmother. A planned trip to Italy to further his artistic development failed to materialize; and he obtained permission to travel to Nuremberg with his brother and sister to continue his training at the city’s academy under the supervision of Johann Daniel Preisler.

Through an aunt who lived in Copenhagen and was lady-in-waiting to the crown prince (later King Christian VI), Roesel went to the Danish court in mid-1726. His portraits and miniatures were so well received that he was asked to settle in Denmark. Unwilling to take this step, he left after only two years, taking with him presents and a letter of introduction from the crown prince. A high fever forced him to interrupt his return journey with a four-week stay in Hamburg. While he was there, an acquaintance brought him a copy of an illustrated book entitled Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) by Maria Sybilla Merian. After leafing through this splendid volume Roesel decided to devote special attention to insects and their metamorphoses, and to publish illustrated books.

After his recovery Roesel returned to Nuremberg, became a citizen, and married Elisabeth Maria Rosa, the daughter of a surgeon, on 3 June 1737. He began to study insects and, despite frequent admonitions that he should not waste “precious time on the depiction of such harmful and revolting creatures,” he tirelessly gathered living caterpillars and butterflies in the course of excursions in the Nuremberg region.

After years of preparation the first installment of Der monatlich-herausgegebenen Insecten-Belustigung finally appeared in 1740. The work was praised by Johann Philipp Breyne and Réaumur, in large part for its outstanding illustrations. When the first volume was completed in 1746, Roesel wrote a preface in which he attempted to define the insects as a systematic unity and to divide this unity into classes, orders, and families. In the entire work he devoted the most space to the butterflies; beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, gnats, flies, and dragonflies were not considered until the second volume. The third volume contains (along with descriptions of butterflies) essays on crayfish and the natural history of the polyps, which Roesel studied for more than a year, until he succeeded in finding them for the first time. Roesel’s son-in-law and closest collaborator, Christian Friedrich Carl Kleemann, took charge of the publication of the last installments of the third volume and of all of the fourth volume.

During his research on insects, Roesel studied amphibians and reptiles. This work culminated in the publication of Historia naturalis ranarum in several installments between 1753 and 1758. When all of them had appeared, Albrecht von Haller offered to contrib. ute a preface to the work. The text of the Historia, printed in both Latin and German, contains descriptions of all the German frogs and toads. The twenty-four plates in large folio format are presented in pairs: those on the left-hand page show simple outlines of their subjects; those on the right-hand page are produced in unusually sumptuous and graphic colors. Along with illustrations of animal habitats and of copulating animals, the book contains drawings of anatomical preparations, individual organs, skeletons, and various stages of larval development. There are also extant six preliminary watercolors from a further work in which Roesel planned to treat tailed amphibians and lizards in a similar fashion.

In the biography of his father-in-law, Kleemann wrote: “The consequence of this ardent research and exploration was a painful joint ailment and finally, indeed, a serious apoplectic fit.” Further strokes led to the paralysis of Roesel’s left side. Several weeks before his death Roesel was admitted to the Altdorfer Deutsche Gesellschaft (16 February 1759).


I. Original Works. Roesel’s main work, Monatlich-herausgegebenen Insecten-Belustiging, appeared in 4 vols.: I,…in welchem die in 6 Classen eingetheilte Papilionen mit ihrem Ursprung, Verwandlung and allen wunderbaren Eingeschaften… (Nuremberg, 1746); II,welcher 8 Classen verschiedener, sowohl inländischer, als auch ausländischer Insecten … (Nuremberg, 1749); III,… worinnen ausser verschiedenen, zu denen in den beeden ersten Theilen enthaltenen Classen, gehörigen Insecten, auch mancherely Arten von 8 neuen Classen…, with new observations and comments by C. F. C. Kleemann (Nuremberg, 1755); IV,… in welchem ausser verschidenen inund ausländischen Insecten, auch die hiesige grosse Krcetz-Spinne nach ihrem Ursprung…, C. F. C. Kleemann, ed. (Nuremberg, 1761). His other noteworthy book is Historia naturalis ranarumDie natürliche Historie der Frösche hiesigen Landes… (Nuremberg, 1758), with pref. by Albrecht von Haller.

II. Secondary Literature. See L. Baege, “Unbekannte Vogelbilder Rösels von Rosenhof aus der Frühzeit ornithologischer Prachtillustrationen,” in Journal für Ornithologie, 105 (1964), 464–467; W. Hess, “August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof,” in Allgemeine deutsche Biographic, XXIX (1889), 188–189; C. F. C. Kleemann, “Ausführliche and zuverlässige Nachricht von dem Leben, Schriften and Werken des verstorbenen Miniaturmahlers und scharfsichtigen Naturforschers August Johann Roesels von Rosenhof,” in Monatlich-herarrsgegebenen Insecten-Belrtstigung, IV (Nuremberg, 1761), with a copper-plate portrait; F. Leydig, “Herpetologische Zeichnungen aus dem Nachlass Rösels von Rosenhof,” in Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins des Preussischen Rheinlandes, Westfalens and des Regierungsbezirks Osnabrück, 35 (1878), 1–41; and A. J. Ziegeler, “Rösel von Rosenhof,” in Natur tatd Haus, 12 (1904), 220–234, 245–251.

A. Geus