Editor’s Note: This is the tenth post in the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
Botanophilia Correspondences during the Revolutionary Era is inspired by Roger Lawrence Williams’s work Botanophilia in Eighteenth-Century France (2001), where he analyzes the rising interest of botany from both the scientific and aesthetic perspectives during the French Enlightenment.1 Williams’s work does an excellent job analyzing the multidisciplinary approaches to botany, which was still in its infancy as a formal discipline. I take this approach a step further by delving into transnational correspondences throughout Europe during the shift between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. This project is a byproduct of my dissertation, “Les jardins exotiques: Early French Romanticism and Its Impact on Travel Inspired Nineteenth-Century French Gardens”, which is an environmental history of transatlantic botanical exchange in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that integrates scientific and literary historiographies.2
My scholarship uses the French garden as a lens to explore botanical exchange and nationalist discourse throughout western Europe and North America with a focus on French gardens created during the French Romantic period. This project also utilizes Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to help map out the correspondences, botanical specimens, and voyages that will contribute to the ever-growing digital humanities of the Revolutionary Era. Through mapping these relationships and exchange of plants, we will have a better understanding of how botanical savants perceived the natural world and how their perceptions played an important role in national identity.
To establish a network of both well-known and lesser-known intellectuals engaged in botanophilia, the obsession of botany, I selected a small group of well-known figures who are known for their contributions to natural history.
I was surprised to see many figures whom we would not normally associate with having nature writing as one of their fortes. While some of them are known experts, others were amateurs who made the field more appealing to the general public. One such correspondence was between Chateaubriand, a Frenchman known for his prose and politics, and Alexander von Humboldt, the famed Prussian Romantic scientist who was known for his scientific expeditions to Latin America. While the latter presented the natural world in scientific terms, Chateaubriand’s writings about North America give modern-day readers a better understanding of how Europeans perceived North American wilderness and Indigenous cultures during the early American republic. Because his scientific writings were written over thirty years after his voyage, readers can see how his attitude towards colonialism had also changed over that period of time. In Atala and René,3 there is a reverence for the Indigenous ways of life, and Voyage en Amérique4 concludes with a trace of bitterness towards France’s loss of the North American territories.
Other known historical figures who indulged in botanical studies include the following:
In Spring 2019, I had the privilege to interview M. Jérôme Tixier, who is currently the Assistant to the Head of Service Department of Parks, Landscapes, and the Environment at Vallée aux Loups. Chateaubriand’s property was acquired by the Département de la Seine in 1967. Since 1970, it has belonged to the Département des Hauts-de-Seine, which undertook numerous projects from 1972 to 1986. La Maison de Chateaubriand and its park were inaugurated and opened to visitors on 26 May 1987.14 Currently, I am working on a rudimentary map for the botanical specimens in the La Maison de Chateaubriand estate with Google Maps.
The floral specimens available today were planted in 1987, as well as 2000, after the storm of December 1999.15 All specimens that did not survive or have undergone significant climatic events are, as far as possible, resettled, in order again to preserve the soul of the place. The Hauts-de-Seine Department works with many French and European nurseries, and the plants purchased are generally exceptional subjects because of their size and shape. The managers favor quality and prefer to wait for buyers in the Department to identify the most suitable subjects (See Vallée aux Loups Plant Origins).
One of the challenges historians of gardens face is that the garden is ephemeral. They are at the mercy of human activity or climate change. This is where written source materials need to be read in conjunction with the botanical specimens. As I conducted research for my dissertation, I utilized the CTHS (Société savantes de France) database as well as Pierre Reboul’s Chateaubriand et le conservateur (1973) to create a list of Chateaubriand’s correspondences with well-known contemporaries (See Chateaubriand’s Correspondences).16
By starting with well-known historical figures, we will have a better idea of how to approach the discussion of botany and the natural world in intellectual societies from the 18th century forward. While this project is French-centric, I would like to open collaboration opportunities with scholars from all periods and geographic locations. My hope is to create an intellectual network that can be used by scholars and hobbyists alike, and for people to think about the natural world from a multitude of perspectives.
1 Williams, Roger Lawrence. Botanophilia in eighteenth-century France: the spirit of the enlightenment. Vol. 179. Springer Science & Business Media, 2001.
2 Sanchez Clapper, Kyra Kalina. “Les jardins exotiques: Early French Romanticism and Its Impact on Travel Inspired Nineteenth-Century French Gardens.” (2021).
3 Chateaubriand, François René, and Louis Desgraves. Atala: René. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
4 de Chateaubriand, François-René. Voyages en Amérique. Société reproductive des bons livres, 1838.
5 Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste. His works influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Georges Cuvier. Buffon published thirty-six quarto volumes of his Histoire Naturelle during his lifetime. Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau was a French physician, naval engineer and botanist. André Michaux was a French botanist and explorer. He is most noted for his study of North American flora. François-Hubert Drouais, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, 1754, oil on canvas, Musée Buffon, Montbard, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges-Louis_Leclerc_de_Buffon.jpg/).
6 Pierre-Etienne Moitte, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau, 1768, engraving, The British Museum, London, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moitte_Pierre_Etienne_-_Henry_Louis_Duhamel.jpg).
7 Unknown, André Michaux, unknown, charcoal on paper, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andre_Michaux02.jpg?uselang=pt.
8 J.D. Heidenreich, Portrait of Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld, 1792, engraving, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian_Cay_Lorenz_Hirschfeld_by_Heidenreich.jpg. C.C.L. Hirschfeld was a German Enlightenment gardening theorist (never practiced), academic in philosophy and art history. Advocated for Romantic gardens in the English landscape style.
9 Prince Charles, 7th Prince of Ligne was a field marshal, inhaber of an infantry regiment, prolific writer, intellectual, member of the princely family of Ligne. Alexander von Humboldt was a German polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. Josef Grassi, Portrait of Charles-Joseph de Ligne, 1789, oil on canvas, The Wallace Collection, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grassi_-_Charles-Joseph_de_Ligne_-_Wallace_Collection_.jpg.
10 Karl Joseph Stieler, Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1843, oil on canvas, Charlottenhof Palace, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stieler,_Joseph_Karl_-_Alexander_von_Humboldt_-_1843.jpg.
11 William Bartram was an American botanist, ornithologist, natural historian and explorer. Most of his work took place in the southern British colonies. American statesmenThomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were also active in botanical studies. Jefferson’s Monticello housed numerous vineyards, and during his presidency, he funded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Franklin brought oat and barley seeds from London to the colonies, providing new comestibles to the population. Charles Willson Peale, William Bartram, botanist. Bust portrait with sprig of fragrant jasmine tucked into his jacket below his cravat, 1808, oil on canvas, Library of Congress, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Bartram,_botanist._Bust_portrait_with_sprig_of_fragrant_jasmine_tucked_into_his_jacket_below_his_cravat_LCCN2005685670.jpg).
12 Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1801, oil on canvas, White House, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)(cropped).jpg).
13 Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, Benjamin Franklin, 1785, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Siffrein_Duplessis_-_Benjamin_Franklin_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg).
14 Jerome Tixier (Assistant to the Head of Service Department of Parks, Landscapes and the Environment, Vallée aux Loups), interviewed by Kyra Sanchez Clapper at Memphis, TN, 2019.
15 According to the text’s introduction, Malmaison culminated in all of the things that Josephine thought were worthy for her guests to see when she entertained them. She spent exorbitant amounts of money on importing exotic flora and fauna, but there was no concise list of what was brought from where and when they were purchased. She also seemed to care more about the architecture and entertainment for the guests. However, that is not to downplay her interest in botany. Contemporaries state that her knowledge of the flora is equal to that of an educated botanist.
16 Reboul, Pierre. Chateaubriand et le conservateur. Presses Univ. Septentrion, 1973.
Feature Image: L’Arboretum de la Vallée-aux-Loups. Courtesy of Chatenay-Malabry; Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, 2018. (CC)
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- Botanophilia Correspondences During the Revolutionary Era - May 29, 2023