- Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment by Daniela Bleichmar
Botanical illustrations are largely unknown to art history. While scholars of Hispanic eighteenth-century art examined Francisco de Goya, casta paintings, portraits, academies, majas, biombos, art collections, religious and imperial iconography, and the impact of the Bourbon reforms, 12,000 drawings and paintings of plants waited their turn in the archives of Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden. Gathered principally during four expeditions conducted between 1777 and 1816, the images embodied the Spanish imperial moment but their subject matter and artists left them beyond the scope of art history’s traditional interests.
But their moment has come and Daniela Bleichmar’s well-written and beautiful book, to borrow the author’s language, makes this immense corpus visible. She argues that the expeditions used their illustrations to make the Spanish empire knowable to multiple constituencies, most particularly the court and the global community of naturalists. All shared what the author calls a visual epistemology, in which items observed and represented permitted the former to visualize and know an empire that stretched around the globe, and afforded the latter a lingua franca for pure science and disinterested curiosity.
A short review cannot adequately summarize the book and its strengths, so I will therefore note its immense interdisciplinary value. For historians, Bleichmar provides an exemplary demonstration of visual analysis and of the use of images to write a history. The portraits of José Celestino Mutis and Antonio José Cavanilles, for example, do not appear simply to put faces to names, as portraits do in many texts, but are instead analyzed to craft the argument about the naturalists’ purpose and method. The botanical works are likewise not just evidence of the expeditions, but embodiments and interrogations of ideas of this era. For art historians, the author’s connection of the expedition images to the more familiar casta paintings and her comparison of visual strategies, including the American recasting of botany from a local perspective, are not only well argued and convincing, but also provide a means through which non-specialists may engage these objects. For all scholars interested in the Spanish Enlightenment, Bleichmar [End Page 767] beautifully elucidates the networks linking naturalists, academicians, economic philosophers, arts, sciences, empires, and trade in the eighteenth century. In short, she has amply succeeded in making the works and their makers visible and knowable for a wide readership.
Like any good book, Bleichmar’s provokes questions that she will hopefully address as she continues to employ her impressive ability to speak for and about these images. Her argument that Spain deployed imagery more than other European nations is reasonable, but Spain’s exceptionalism would be bolstered by examples of other nations’ imperial projects that eschewed or minimized the visual. Similarly, the continuity of Spain’s reliance on the visual—“a long-established tradition of using images as documents and of deploying visual evidence for administrative purposes” (p. 9)—begs further exploration. While the sixteenth-century Relaciones geográficas shared with the eighteenth-century expeditions the broad goal of knowing territory and improving administration, the two eras had very different ideas about nature, images, and humankind that impacted how the visual material was created and received. Finally, although José Celestino Mutis turned to Madrid’s royal art academy for his artists, the author notes that the San Fernando painters were dismissed because they “had strong opinions about art and were not as malleable as he had hoped” (p. 40). The disjunction between the naturalist’s needs and the academic understanding of taste, beauty, and nature rested behind the parting of ways. They likewise reflect the separation of art from science that led these images to be relegated to archive drawers until today.
These questions aside, Bleichmar’s book makes an immense contribution to Spanish and Spanish American scholarship and should be on the bookshelves of readers from many disciplines.