Side Image: 

Thomas Cornell, Snapping Turtle, 1969, 22 x 31 inches, etching and aquatint. Purchase, through funds from the Brittingham Foundation. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
Thomas Cornell

Thomas Cornell grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and entered Amherst College intending to major in physics. However, during the summer after his second year he took a figure-drawing course at the Cleveland Institute of Art and changed his major to art, focusing on drawing and printmaking. He attended the Yale School of Art and Architecture and then taught for two years at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1962, Cornell joined the visual art faculty at Bowdoin College, where he taught until his death. He was a master of printmaking techniques, including etching, drypoint, lithography, and engraving, and achieved rich tonal range and variation of texture while usually working in the traditional black and white tones of the print medium. He founded his own publishing house, called Tragos Press, and printed editions of books and broadsides. Later in life he turned to oil painting and created large narrative compositions and landscapes. In 1985, Cornell was commissioned by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company to create a four seasons set of paintings to hang in their corporate headquarters in Boston.

Cornell believed in the importance of art for influencing human interactions with nature, and his work reflects themes of social justice, human beings’ relationships with their environment, and resistance against war. He believed that all creatures are joined to each other and to the natural world on which they depend, and he advocated for greater awareness of how people can live in harmony with and conservation of nature. “My art depicts loving community, signifying an ethos of equality and ecology. We must see our dependency on nature and the necessity of designing a just and beautiful world to achieve moral beauty…We need ritual awareness and celebration of personal responsibility. We need an earth-wide civic culture that recognizes difference but also global requirements of justice.” Cornell became involved in Occupy Brunswick, a grassroots movement fighting for local change and justice. He was working on an activist art work for the movement at the time of his death in 2012 at 75 years old. 

Key Ideas
  • Art as a means for encouraging humans to recognize and respect nature
  • Art as a vehicle for challenging human tendencies to vilify an animal species
  • Portraiture using an unusual subject
  • Common snapping turtles as non-threatening neighbors living in lakes, ponds, and streams
  • Etching and aquatint as techniques for depicting texture 
Discussion Questions
  • What are your thoughts about the vantage point from which you are viewing this turtle?
  • Imagine standing on a dock when, suddenly, the head of this turtle appears. What emotions might you feel as you see this creature display its presence in the lake in front of you? What more would you like to know about it?
  • How has the artist used color and value to give the impression of light in the depths of the water?  What details can you see?
  • On what part of the turtle has the artist focused your attention? How does this create a sense of space within the image? How is movement suggested?
  • Consider how an artist’s close study of an animal like this turtle might give you an appreciation for parts of nature you might not normally see. What are some other ways that humans observe and acquire knowledge about animals? What are the benefits of gaining a fuller understanding of animal behaviors?

On the Artist:

Art Methods:
(Crown Point Press description of etching and aquatint)

(information about snapping turtles and other species) 
(description of snapping turtles)


aquatint  application of powdered rosin to a metal plate for creating a tonal effect in printing. The rosin is acid resistant and protects parts of the plate from acid used to etch an image onto the plate.
artistic method  the form, such as painting, drawing, video, installation, as well as techniques through which artistic ideas, perceptions, or feelings may be communicated
carapace  the hard upper shell of a turtle
etching  a picture made by putting ink on an etched piece of metal and then pressing paper against the metal 
plastron  the bony plate forming the underside of a turtle shell
tubercle  a small, rounded, wart-like bump on the skin or on a bone
vantage point  a position from which something is viewed or seen
vilify to say or write very harsh and critical things about someone or something

What Do I See? Exploring Contemporary Art

A striking portrait of a common snapping turtle depicts a moment when this normally elusive animal appears to be swimming close enough for a personal encounter. It is approaching underwater and may be just now veering away, adding to the sense that this is a lucky and fleeting moment for studying an interesting creature in its habitat. The turtle’s head is highlighted by light from the water’s surface. It’s possible to discern the large bony carapace, or top shell, and the smaller plastron, or lower shell, as well as the spiny tail and scaly legs with webbed feet and long claws. Normally, a snapping turtle in water is timid and would flee from an encounter with people, swimming away to hide under sediment until it seems safe to emerge again. More often, just its head may be seen from a distance, as when a turtle basks lazily near the surface of a freshwater lake or stream and occasionally lifts its head above the surface for a breath, which can then be held for up to forty-five minutes. The artist, Thomas Cornell, has situated the viewer in an unexpected vantage point in front of and slightly under the swimming turtle, depicting the subject slightly to the right of center to convey movement and emphasizing the lighted head with distinctive nostrils, slightly open mouth and eyes, and bumpy tubercle-covered skin. Rich black ink tones with bubbly white accents illustrate the watery environment.

Thomas Cornell has given us a unique opportunity to admire the surprising beauty of this natural being, which is often unfairly vilified by people who fear its defensive actions when they encounter it on land or who exaggerate the frequency with which it attacks small waterfowl. Psychologists who conduct research on human-animal relationships and investigate why certain animals evoke fear or dislike instead of curiosity or empathy conclude that part of the human brain automatically invokes a fear response based on evolutionary threats to survival. However, while snapping turtles are not good choices for pets due to their needed watery habitat, they are an ancient species that has coexisted with other animals and people without threat to their numbers or extent. “The turtle is intriguing," says Cornell. "In its strangeness you find a kind of compassion. It is a primitive beast, it's what our inner nature is. Like anger, you face the turtle. But you also find beauty there.”

Common snapping turtles live throughout North America and are active hunters, feeding on aquatic plants and animals including fish, frogs, reptiles (including snakes and smaller turtles), and, occasionally, small mammals or birds. Their name refers to their aggressive behaviors including snapping repeatedly, if they are pulled from their watery environment, or if female turtles are lifted for their safety from roads while migrating in search of nesting sites. Their necks and heads are highly mobile, and they can easily use their powerful jaws and beaks to defend themselves from being lifted or attacked. If picked up by their tails, their vertebral column and tail may easily be damaged. Snapping turtles are usually not visible as they walk along the bottom or swim below the surface of a lake or stream, but Thomas Cornell’s portrait is an invitation to consider the dignity and beauty of this animal from a singular perspective.

Cornell has employed artistic method to convey the textures of skin, shell, and claws, as well as water. Etching and aquatint are processes in which the artist uses acid to eat away the shape of an image drawn on the surface of a metal plate and then applies ink into the recessed areas before pressing a sheet of paper into the inked design. Cornell has masterfully conveyed impressions of bumpiness and scaliness and wateriness by progressively immersing the metal plate in an acid bath and stopping out, or protecting from acid, areas that had achieved his desired tones, before putting the paper through the printing press to transfer the image from the plate to the paper.