Eighty-nine years ago, Else Bostelmann descended 36 feet below the turquoise waters off a Bermudan shore with a makeshift easel and a set of oil paints. She was wearing an “unusual bathing outfit” — a metal helmet, for seeing and breathing underwater, and a red bathing suit. Bostelmann tethered her paintbrushes to her palette to ensure they wouldn’t float away, the playful currents frustrating the artist’s work. She had entered a bustling new world of moods and shadows, of gilled, unfamiliar faces and neon corals, and now she would paint them. Later, she would note a contradiction she observed while underwater: “everywhere absolute stillness — yet ceaseless activity.”
Bostelmann, born in 1882 in Germany, and later classically trained as an artist, had joined the Department of Tropical Research (DTR) by way of New York, where she was recovering from her husband’s mysterious roadside death in Arizona. Looking for work, she contacted Dr. William Beebe, founder of the DTR and leader of its missions to Central America and other tropical locations, like the Galápagos Islands and Bermuda. Beebe, impressed by Bostelmann’s artwork, took her on; soon, she was on a research vessel off the waters of Bermuda. It was 1929, and Bostelmann was 47 years old.
Aboard the Arcturus, Beebe facilitated a spirited environment. He threw costume parties on the boat for scientists and artists alike, but Beebe’s expeditions were notorious for another reason — they often consisted of women in positions of scientific and, in the case of Bostelmann, artistic authority. Beebe was running one of the most influential research departments in the United States, and women were at the forefront, contributing research-based results and illustrations to the DTR’s massive output. Some of the other women aboard included Jocelyn Crane, whose work defined a generation of information on the fiddler crab, as well as scientist and naturalist Gloria Hollister. Several talented artists were also paramount to the operation’s successes — Anna Taylor, Isabelle Cooper, Helen Tee-Van, and, of course, Bostelmann. Without underwater cameras, these women were crucial to the DTR’s cataloguing of specimens.
Popularizing science and bringing it into the mainstream made Beebe a target of skepticism at the time. (His longtime rival, for example, ran a dry operation and banned women from spending the night at his camps as a way to legitimize his research over Beebe’s.) And because Beebe also employed women, critics diminished his work’s seriousness. He was additionally faulted for his playfulness and whimsy. But the DTR’s unique fusion of art and science, and resulting works like Bostelmann’s, had a far reach. For many Americans suffering through the Great Depression, a first look into the deep sea was refreshing, especially as it was through the eyes of the women onboard: though it was a man who created the technology to reach the ocean floor, it was the women of the DTR who brought its life to shore.
And the rigors of their work were not to be discredited. The team worked diligently, gathering samples and taking trips to the bottom of the ocean in Beebe’s bathysphere, a steel ball sized for two humans and designed to explore the ocean floor. From there, Beebe would speak into a small telephone, calling up to an artist on the surface, oftentimes Bostelmann, describing his observations. Following Beebe’s studies, Bostelmann would set to work, rendering animals she had never seen: fish with menacing jaws and odd lamps dangling before their faces — the subjects of nightmares and dreams.
Katherine McLeod is a doctoral candidate in the history department at NYU and was one of the curators of a 2017 exhibit about the DTR that ran at the Drawing Center in New York. McLeod specializes in the legacy of the DTR, and as we sat outside a West Village coffee shop discussing the history of exploitative politics of the ecological sciences (and Beebe’s murky politics in general), she helped make some sense of Beebe and the DTR.