Fogelboken: The Long Journey of Olof Rudbeck's Bird Book

The story of Olof Rudbeck the Younger's bird book, Fogelboken, is steeped in the history of science and artistic endeavor. The book itself is a set of extraordinary watercolor birds, created between 1693 and 1710 by Rudbeck, Andreas Holtzbom, and possibly others. Rudbeck used the images he created to deliver lectures on ornithology at the University of Uppsala. Importantly, Carl Linnaeus also used Rudbeck's images and classifications in the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, the basis of zoological nomenclature.

Yet despite its importance for the field of ornithology and its creation hundreds of years ago, the world would have to wait centuries to glimpse its spectacular watercolor birds. For much of its existence, Fogelboken was housed in a private collection. The book was rescued from relative obscurity in 1986 when the Uppsala University Library took over as custodian of the private collection. Finally, Fogelboken was published in facsimile by Rene Coeckelberghs in 1985, and the English version followed a year later, in 1986 (shown below).

 Facsimile Edition of Olof Rudbeck's bird book, Fogelboken

Who Exactly Was Rudbeck?

So who was Rudbeck and how did he come to create such a remarkable collection of bird illustrations? To answer those question, it's necessary to know both his family background and the history of his birthplace - Uppsala, Sweden.

Rudbeck the Younger was the son of Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a pioneering figure in the world of Swedish science. Born in 1630, the elder Rudbeck is renowned for his ground-breaking work in medicine (he discovered the lymphatic system), linguistics, and geography. Naturally, he shared his passion for scientific inquiry with his son.

Both father and son lived in Uppsala, Sweden, a hub of scientific inquiry sparked by the establishment of Uppsala University in the late 15th century. By the time the 1600s came around, the university had become a leading center for scientific studies in Northern Europe. Botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, who formalized the modern system of naming organisms studied under Rudbeck and named a genus of flowers, Rudbeckia, in honor of both Rudbecks.

While the younger Rudbeck had eclectic interests, like his father, he is best known for his work on bird illustration and taxonomy, particularly his watercolor bird prints featured in Fogelboken. His meticulous observations, detailed illustrations, and scientific classifications greatly advanced the study of birds in Sweden and beyond. Rudbeck's watercolor prints not only served as scientific documentation but also showcased his exceptional artistic skills, making his work a remarkable combination of science and art. Carl Linnaeus allegedly said of Fogelboken, "it appears not to be the work of a human hand" (a compliment in days before AI-generated art and its precursors).

Fogelboken's Long Journey to Publication

To say Fogelboken languished in relative obscurity for centuries is a bit of an overstatement. It was, after all, housed in a renowned library owed by Charles De Geer, and frequented by scholars and royalty. Charles De Geer, an industrialist and scientist, moved to Uppsala to run the ironworks in 1738. He'd earlier amassed a large collection of books and continued buying books and subscribing to the latest scientific journals.

Charles De Geer was acquainted with Olof Rudbeck the Younger in Uppsala, from whom he obtained the hand-colored works Fogelboken and Blomboken (on birds and plants respectively) for the library in 1739. De Geer also acquired works by Carl Linnaeus, including Catalogus plantarum rariorum Scaniae from 1728. it was an impressive library!

Fogelboken remained in the library until 1986, when Uppsala University took over maintanence of De Geer's collection following a cultural rescue requiring substantial funding. Happily for the worlds of ornithology and art, publishers lost no time in putting out a facsimile editions of Fogelboken.

Rudbeck's Bird Prints Today

With advancements in technology, we now have access to a wealth of information and resources, making it easier for us to study and understand birds. However, Olof Rudbeck's bird prints remain timeless treasures: they are not just scientific illustrations, but pieces of art that capture the essence of each bird in all its glory.


Olof Rudbeck Duck


The original watercolor paintings by Rudbeck have been reproduced into giclee prints, ensuring that the vibrant colors and intricate details are preserved. These prints are available in different sizes, ranging from 12"x18" to larger framed options. They are also printed on high-quality archival paper, making them a perfect addition to any art collection or an exquisite gift for bird lovers.


Olof Rudbeck Birds


But what makes Rudbeck's bird prints truly special? It is not just their aesthetic appeal, but also the significance they hold in the history of ornithology. 

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