THE DIVISION OF FISHES sounds like something from the New Testament, but the division's files in the Natural History Museum only go back to 1838. Many of the 10,000 original fish drawings it owns have never been published, and now a minnow-size sampling of them is being showcased in "Drawn From the Sea: Art in the Service of Ichthyology."

In the 200-fish selection on display in the museum's second-floor rotunda gallery, the work of one Japanese artist is absolutely swimming. Kumataro Ito was a water- colorist who joined the U.S. steamer Albatross in 1907 during its three- year research tour in the Philippines. Ito's fine colors, on butterfly fish, spiny lionfish, spotted sturgeonfish and anemone fish, are a delight -- even though they may be brighter than the real thing.

At about the same time, landscape artist Charles Bradford Hudson took up fishing, painting many of them in Florida, Massachusetts and Virginia. And, when ichthyologists published these illustrations in 1900 in a work on the fishes of Puerto Rico, it would be years before anyone learned the difference.

Nowadays, it would appear, fish illustration is more scientific, with twiddly little fish parts magnified and labeled. They're not as much fun to look at, but then, there's nothing fishy about them, either.

DRAWN FROM THE SEA: ART IN THE SERVICE OF ICHTHYOLOGY -- At the Museum of Natural History through November 1.