Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2017
Sue Ann Prince, ed. Of Elephants & Roses: French Natural History, 1790–1830 Exh. cat. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Museum, 2013. 267 pp. Paper (9780871692672)
American Philosophical Society Museum, Philadelphia, March 25–December 31, 2011.
Installation view of Of Elephants & Roses: French Natural History 1790–1830, March 25–December 31, 2011 (photograph © Brent Wahl; provided by the American Philosophical Society Museum, Philadelphia)

Of Elephants and Roses: French Natural History, 1790–1830 offers an ambitious model for fostering interdisciplinary scholarly conversations between the history of science, the history of art, and cultural and literary history. An edited collection of papers that were delivered at a symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition at the American Philosophical Society in 2011 entitled Encounters with French Natural History, 1790–1830, the lavishly illustrated volume contains twenty essays and a checklist of all the objects on display at the exhibition. The result is an innovative kind of exhibition catalogue of the highest scholarly caliber: in the place of more traditional catalogue entries on exhibited objects, there are instead extended texts that deal with the main themes from the exhibition. While such an editorial strategy may not satisfy readers who are looking for specific information on individual works of art, specimens, books, or manuscripts in the exhibition, the scholarly essays offer a broad, interdisciplinary grounding in the study of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French natural history. As curator Sue Anne Prince points out in the introduction, French natural history from this period has received considerably less scholarly attention than British material; the aim of the exhibition and symposium was therefore to investigate the French context as well as the transatlantic scientific community that straddled Paris and Philadelphia (home of the American Philosophical Society) during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This period was widely understood as a “golden age” of French natural history, when the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris was the epicenter of the study of the natural world. The political and social tribulations of revolution and war, which often destabilized French state institutions, had the surprising effect of strengthening the natural history museum by transforming the former Jardin du Roi into a publicly oriented scientific establishment whose mission was at once educational, moralizing, and nationalistic.

The volume is divided into five sections, including an introductory section with an essay by Prince that offers an overview of the goals of the exhibition and symposium. The four other sections are organized thematically and are each followed by commentary on papers that offer succinct critical perspectives, and finally a digest of questions and answers from the symposium. The commentary and the question-and-answer sections allow readers to access some of the dynamic intellectual spirit of debate that was clearly present at the symposium. The introductory section features the keynote address by the historian of science Richard Burkhardt, who offers a grounding historical framework for understanding the role of the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in the years just after its creation during the French Revolution. Natural history was viewed particularly favorably by the revolutionaries, since it was understood to combine “the virtues of economic utility” with the “perceived moral power of nature’s images” (14). This stood in stark contrast to the fate of the main arts institution of France, the Académie royale de peinture et sculpture, which was abolished the same year that the museum was created.

In the second section of the volume, “About Gardens and Gardening,” several essays are devoted to Josephine Bonaparte’s estate at Malmaison. Bernard Chevalier’s illuminating essay addresses Josephine’s efforts to acclimatize plants and animals at Malmaison, where over two hundred species of new plants flowered for the first time in France. Susan Taylor Leduc discusses Josephine’s efforts to establish herself as a shepherdess through a profitable sheep farm at Malmaison, an entrepreneurial effort that was never fully realized but one that stemmed from her experiences in Martinique. Paula Young Lee addresses the practices of urban vegetable gardening during the French Revolution and discusses a little-known and unrealized design by the architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux for a circular four-level “Musaéum [sic]” on the grounds of the existing natural history museum. The last essay in this section, by Antoine Jacobsohn, examines the practices of seed collecting with a focus on the career of Antoine Poiteau, an illiterate agricultural laborer who taught himself to read using Linnaeus and enjoyed a career as a seed collector for the museum. The next section, “Cultivating Useful Knowledge,” focuses on the political uses of natural history and its entanglements with both diplomacy and Napoleon’s wars of conquest. Elise Lipkowitz examines the seizure by Napoleon’s invading army of the Stadtholder collection, the most distinguished collection of natural history objects in Europe at the time.

The fourth section, “Making Art, Communicating Science,” is the most relevant part of the book for art history, and the five essays demonstrate that art-historical approaches to the study of the history of science are essential for uncovering how the “objectivity of images is a communal social construction” (160). Here, as throughout the book, scholars take up and elaborate on the pioneering scholarship of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007) to examine the figured nature of images that proclaim themselves to be neutral. Pierre-Yves Lacour examines the museum’s practices of documenting its collection in visual form; this entailed the production of vellum paintings (a practice that dated back to the seventeenth century), which were then used as the basis for the production of engravings that were published in the Annales du Muséum d’histoire naturelle. Anne Lafont’s scintillating and highly discursive essay deals with the visual language of scientific illustration by analyzing a collection of drawings and related engravings made by Nicolas-Martin Petit, a former student of the artist Jacques-Louis David, who participated in Captain Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australia between 1800 and 1804. She places Petit’s images of Australian aboriginals in the context of the period’s nascent science of anthropology and exposes the representational and epistemological stakes of global exploration, as well as the visual politics of “encounter.” Daniel Harkett’s engaging essay examines the arrival of a much-celebrated creature in Paris in 1827: the giraffe Zafara, who was a diplomatic gift from Egypt to the French Restoration government. Harkett’s concern is not so much the giraffe, but rather the shifting racialized identities of those charged with her care: the keepers who accompanied the animal on her journey to Paris. The discourse surrounding the visual representation of the giraffe and her keepers produced “encounters with difference [experienced] as moments of play” (157). Dorothy Johnson’s essay examines the importance of botanical illustration as it relates to the seemingly more prestigious practices of some of the period’s most important painters, including Anne-Louis Girodet and François Gérard. Johnson explores the fascinating professional trajectory of the artist known as the “Raphael of flowers,” Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who lived and worked in the Louvre (and sat on the Salon award jury!), along with the history painters who so admired his meticulous botanical illustrations that, according to Johnson, they emulated the techniques of exacting botanical description in their paintings. Johnson places the categories of “illustration” and “painting” in a productive conversation that should serve as a model for thinking about the ways in which history painters depended on artists who worked outside of, yet always in relationship to, their rarefied domain. An essay by Madeline Pinault Sorensen argues that the establishment of the menagerie was key to artists rejecting the Cartesian idea of the “animal as machine” by the end of the eighteenth century, and to their invention of new ways of depicting these subjects with a greater degree of empathy.

The last thematic section is devoted to cultural studies, especially literary history. Claudine Cohen addresses the nascent sciences of paleontology and geology, through which the concept of “deep time” was elaborated. Cohen’s essay reproduces one of the most fascinating images of the volume, the paleontologist Henry Thomas de la Beche’s Duria Antiquior—A More Ancient Dorset. The watercolor from 1803 represents prehistoric sea creatures whose remains had recently been discovered by the collector Mary Anning in the cliffs of Dorset. Two of the essays in this section return to the subject of the giraffe. Alain Lescart discusses the ways that representations of Zafara allowed cultural commentators to discuss the politically volatile subject of Egypt without expressly referring to it. Denise Davidson examines the incredible proliferation of consumer objects occasioned by the arrival of the giraffe in France, owing largely to the fact that she was an example of a docile, nonthreatening, exotic figure.

The book concludes with a short, summary section that features essays by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Anne Lafont. Both address the overall aims of the symposium and consider some of the big-picture ideas discussed in the book, most notably the popularization of natural history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Lafont has the last word in the volume and uses her essay as an opportunity to point to future directions in art-historical research on natural history, a field of knowledge that was specifically beholden to the visual. She concludes that “images are not transparent and unambiguous documents,” and that the job of art history and other disciplines that interrogate imagery is to aim for “deep interpretation, not merely a simple surface reading” (239). This volume goes a long way in pointing to future directions for art history’s inherent interdisciplinarity to be put into productive dialogue with images that have for too long fallen outside of its purview. 

Katie Hornstein
Assistant Professor, Dartmouth College