Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Picturing Nature in the Age of Enlightenment1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Picturing Nature in the Age of Enlightenment1

Article excerpt

STUFFING BIRDS, Pressing Plants, Shaping Knowledge.2 The title of your Society's fine exhibition compresses into almost textmessage brevity the essence of the natural-history project that flourished in both Old World and New during the Age of Enlightenment: using specimens to construct new knowledge. I think the most useful contribution I can make here is twofold: first, to sketch the European context of what naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson were doing in the New World; and, second, to do so in particular by complementing the "stuffing birds" and "pressing plants" of your exhibition with a few comments on the distinctive input from the third of the three great "kingdoms of nature," the mineral kingdom, where my own research has lain ever since I turned myself in mid-career from geologist into historian.3

"Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" In the traditional guessing game that was still flourishing in my television-free childhood, nothing in nature could be left out, once this first question was answered; and from that starting-point one could home in on the true identity of the unknown object, by asking progressively more detailed questions: in effect, applying a classification. This was the essence of "natural history" in the Age of Enlightenment: nothing to do with "history" in the modern sense of the word, but everything to do with the description and classification of the amazing diversity of the natural world. And this idea of natural history was in no way invalidated by the injection of a dynamic element into nature, most notably in the early geologists' concept of an eventful history of the earth, but also in Charles Darwin's slightly later concept of an evolutionary history for life itself.

Where then was natural history practiced during the Age of Enlightenment? In effect, in two complementary locations: indoors in museums, public or private; and outdoors in the field, close to home or in the most remote and exotic places. The portraits of two leading European savants, both painted in the 1790s, epitomise these two "places of knowledge." The Parisian naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) sits indoors in his study at the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, at this time the greatest museum of its kind in the world (fig. 1). Jars of animal specimens stand ready for his research on comparative anatomy, and he is poised to put pen to paper to add to the scientific literature represented by the books or periodicals in the background. In contrast, the Genevan naturalist Horace-Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) sits outdoors with Mont-Blanc towering in the background; he had been the first savant to climb the highest mountain in Europe (fig. 2). He has a geological hammer in one hand, and in the other a mineral specimen he has collected with its aid; beside him are instruments for recording weather as well as rocks. What unites the two portraits is that Cuvier and Saussure both look conventionally up to heaven for inspiration: for, whether indoors or outdoors, natural history embodied the integration of observing and thinking, empirical material and intellectual effort.4

NATURAL HISTORY INDOORS

First, then, doing natural history indoors, in museums. Museums brought together "specimens" or samples from near and far; some rare, some common. The design for the cabinets in the university museum at Pavia, where Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) was the professor of natural history, shows how museums catered, as they still do, to both casual and serious interests (fig. 3). The more spectacular specimens-corals, starfish, and sea urchins-are displayed on shelves behind glass, the smaller ones nestling in bowls or on pedestals of turned and gilded wood; others could be stored below in drawers, which are subdivided into small compartments. All such specimens had of course been collected outdoors in the field, but most naturalists treated collecting as a mere means to a more important end. It was the concentration of specimens in one place, indoors in a museum, that made them truly scientific, because only in a museum could they be compared with others from elsewhere, and so be identified and classified. …

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