The Royal Treatment: ORIGINAL WATERCOLORS FOR SUPPLEMENTAL EDITIONS OF BUFFON’S HISTOIRE NATURELLE

KEEPER OF THE JARDIN DU ROI

George Louis LeClerq, Le Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), was keeper of the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden, now the Jardin des Plantes, and museum of zoology. Buffon’s great work, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1804), drawn from the extensive royal wildlife collections, was the first modern attempt to systematically present all existing knowledge in the fields of natural history, geology, and anthropology in a single publication. His contributions were so vast, that Louis XVI commissioned a statue in his honor at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Buffon’s detailed descriptions of hundreds of animals achieved immediate popularity: over fifty French editions, numerous translations, and hundreds of abridgments of his work appeared and influenced science into the 20th century. In 1739, at the age of 32, Buffon was appointed keeper of the gardens and museum. J.-F.-P. de Maurepas, the minister of marine, realized the importance of recording science and charged Buffon to undertake a catalog of the royal collections in natural history. The ambitious Buffon transformed his undertaking into an account of the whole of nature, which became Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1804). The monumental project began in 1749, and volumes continued to be published well beyond the time of Buffon’s death in 1788.

One French naturalist included in several supplemental editions of Buffon was René-Primevère Lesson (1794-1849). Lesson began his service in the French Navy during the Napoleonic wars. He was the first European naturalist to see birds of paradise in the wilds of the Moluccas and New Guinea while collecting natural history on Duperrey’s round-the-world voyage.

Lesson continued the work begun by Buffon in several supplemental works issued in the mid-nineteenth century including: Histoire naturelle generale et particuliere des mammiferes et des oiseaux decouvert depuis la mort de Bufffon, par Rene-Primevere Lesson (1834-38), Buffon’s Oeuvre completes, suivies de la classification comparee de Cuvier, Lesson... (1837), and Compléments de Buffon (1838). Each subsequent publication focused on animals, especially mammals and birds, discovered since the great naturalist Buffon’s death. Aside from this endeavor, Lesson prepared for an edition of Buffon’s complete works, including new species.

These exquisite watercolors, commissioned by Lesson, served as models for the engravings in his Buffon publications. Lesson selected the most noted French natural history painters of his time, including Edouard Travies, Antoine Chazal, Paul-Louis Oudard, Jean-Gabriel Pretre, Emile-Theophile Blanchard, and Antoine-Charles Vauthier, for these original watercolors of birds and mammals. Each brilliantly delineated in deeply saturated, intense colors, often heightened with gum Arabic and white, and is so finely drafted that the feathers and fur textures appear highly naturalistic. Each is from the Jeanson collection and mounted with gold borders – displayed royally like the work of their predecessors.


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