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Painting Life, Describing Death: Problems of Representation and Style in the Histoire naturelle JOANNA STALNAKER In 1739, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon was named Intendant to the King's Garden and Natural History Cabinet in Paris. Around the same time, he conceived a project of monumental proportions that would become the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy: thirty-six volumes published over a period of forty years, including theories of the earth, reproduction and man, twelve volumes devoted to quadrupeds, nine to birds and five to minerals.1 The challenge represented by the quadrupeds alone was immense, for Buffon intended to provide a comprehensive treatment of the nearly two hundred species known at that time, based as much as possible on first-hand observation. When he invited Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton to Paris from their native Montbard several years later, Buffon was seeking help for this highly ambitious enterprise. As keeper and demonstrator of the King's Cabinet, a position to which he was appointed in 1745, Daubenton would be responsible for the "Description du Cabinet du Roy," a section of the Histoire naturelle describing the various stuffed specimens, skeletons, anatomical parts and monstrosities held in the royal collection. Equipped with a background in medicine, he would also be responsible for precise anatomical descriptions of 182 species of quadrupeds, fifty-two of which had not previously been described. 193 194 / STALNAKER In preparing their quadruped articles, Buffon and Daubenton observed live animals in cages in Montbard and on fairgrounds, and studied stuffed exotics in natural history cabinets, and Daubenton dissected as many specimens as possible. Buffon also engaged the services of a reputed painter and illustrator, Jacques de Sève, whose engravings of live and dissected quadrupeds would do much to attract a wide audience of cultivated nonexperts , (fig. 1 and fig. 2) Between Daubenton's descriptions and de Sève's engravings of quadrupeds, readers oÃ- the Histoire naturelle would thus have various levels of visual representation at their disposal, in keeping with Buffon's founding principle for the study of natural history, "On doit done commencer par voir beaucoup & revoir souvent" (1:6).2 I will be specifically interested here in one of these levels of representation: the literary practice of description in the Histoire naturelle, and the philosophical and aesthetic concepts that guided that practice. By literary practice, I am referring to one of the aspects of natural history as a cultural phenomenon, as defined by Emma Spary and Nicholas Jardine in Cultures of Natural History: "Literary practices are conventions of genre, representation and persuasion; in natural history and other disciplines these include, along with rational argumentation, the gamut of rhetorical and aesthetic forms of persuasion—appeal to the historical precedent, to the interest, self-esteem and taste of the reader, for example."3 My own approach to literary practice in the Histoire naturelle, however, involves not so much rhetorical aspects—if these are to be understood as techniques used to convince and persuade—but rather aesthetic questions concerning the relationship between verbal and visual forms of representation. The question of what literary style would be most effective in accurately conveying absent objects to the reader was in fact a preoccupation widely shared by Enlightenment writers, not only in natural history, but also in the description of artisanal crafts and techniques in Diderot and d' Alembert's Encyclopédie, in the nascent practice of art criticism, and in the blossoming field of natural and urban landscape description. Although Buffon and Daubenton's descriptive practice should not be interpreted without regard for the specific context of natural history, I would argue that it should also be situated within this broader literary context. For Daubenton and Buffon were not simply involved with the problem of description on the nitty-gritty level of anatomy, dissection and the cataloging of traits. On the contrary, both writers offered broad theoretical approaches to description that engaged with Enlightenment debates concerning the relationship between text and image, poetry and painting. These contributions to the poetics of description are unique, because they are rooted in Buffon and Daubenton's practice of natural history, and Painting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 193-227
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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