Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Finally I have a little time to put up a post about prints... Today I'll look at the “Buffon” prints, which are some of the most ubiquitous and delightful natural history prints there are.

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), was an amazingly talented man, whose studies ranged from natural history through mathematics, astronomy, and all the sciences. His name was legendary in the eighteenth century, a vital period for natural history: he was to France what Linnaeus was to Sweden.

Buffon, as he is commonly called, was the keeper of the Jardin du Roi, the precursor of the Paris Zoo. He decided to undertake a prodigious task, that is to describe the entire animal kingdom. The result was his Histoire Naturelle, which was first issued in 35 quarto volumes between 1749 and 1788. This became the most influential natural history of the 18th century. It contained Buffon's text and illustrations of numerous natural history objects by different artists. The latter are engravings, many hand colored, which have made Buffon famous among print collectors today.

The Histoire Naturelle was issued in many different editions and his words and the illustrations were copied by other publishers over the years. Among the most famous of the “Buffon” prints that appeared are the bird prints engraved by Francois Nicolas Martinent , but there are many other subjects by many other engravers which appeared in the many editions of Buffon. These are delightful graphically, but of particular interest is that they provided the main visual knowledge for most educated Europeans about what the world's animals and birds looked like.

Buffon’s natural history theories were very influential in his own day, though some were controversial. In particular, his argument that New World species were inferior to those of the Old World caused much umbrage among Americans. Buffon argued that because of the marsh odors and dense forests in America, the New World species (including humans) were degenerate forms of Old World species.

Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador to France, was so peeved by Buffon’s stance that he determined to show Buffon the true “stature and majesty of American quadrupeds.” Jefferson therefore had the complete skeleton, skin and horns of a Moose shipped to him in Paris and mounted in his hotel!

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