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Les dessins de Champignons de Claude Aubriet

Xavier Carteret
Aline Hamonou-Mahieu


Denis Lamy

Texte intégral

Often to despise natural sciences, one throws himself in the admiration of nature, which we regard as completely incomprehensible. Nature though, has never been as admirable or admired as when it isknown.
Preface of Histoire de l’académie royale des sciences, year 1699 [published in 1732] p. xvi.

Practice in botany

  • 1 Central Library of the Museum, Ms 1934.

1In an unpublished text1, Antoine de Jussieu presented the three resources that he deemed necessary for a good knowledge of plants; herborizations to observe plants in situ, botanical gardens to learn about plants that don’t grow in our regions, and books. Books enable the study of plants whenever it is not possible to observe them in the countryside or in gardens.

Since there are some times, seasons, and circumstances, when we cannot browse through the pages of the big book of the countryside or of Botanical gardens, we can then rely on the pages of the books in Cabinets; they are to our memory what copies of paintings are to art lovers who don’t have access to originals; because, even though gardens are sometimes more accessible than the countryside, books, thanks to the representation of plants that we can observe and the accurate descriptions that accompany the figures […], remind us in an instant of all the herborizations done in diverse areas in the fall, spring, or in summer, and they become methodical concise guides, […] they become portable countryside and gardens.

2But the quality of these books depends on the accuracy of their descriptions and, also, on the reputation of their authors.

Their worthiness will always depend on the perfect resemblance of figures with the plants they are supposed to represent, of the accuracy of their descriptions, of the veracity of information (?) about their qualities, their virtues and their use, and finally, of the reputation of those who published these kind of books and who did not overlook any detail to make these books useful.

3This plea which he wrote probably at the end of the 1730s, in addition to reporting on the situation at the Garden including Pierre Chirac disastrous management, summarizes perfectly the botanical practice of that time-which perdures today. A. de Jussieu situates the role and the distribution of the botanical drawing in the countryside, garden, and cabinet triptych. The book, which will replace as best as possible the living plant, offers the reader a perfect resemblance between plant and representation, as well as descriptions of which we will not question the veracity, all the more so if the author is established. We find the same comment in the introduction of Michel Adanson’s Familles des plantes (1763), which mentions Claude Aubriet’s work, whose scientific and aesthetic qualities seem to exceed his contemporaries’. Qualities owed to the fact that Aubriet had made himself “botanist”.

4Claude Aubriet, miniature painter at the Garden of the King, was known in the scientific circles for his collaboration on the book Elemens de botanique (1694) by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. The accuracy of the drawings he executed in this work was acknowledged by Carl Linné who, to understand Tournefort’s groupings, resorted more to their illustrations rather than to their descriptions.

  • 2 We can mention J.J. Dillenius’ observations (1718), and P. A. Micheli’s observations (1729); two b (...)

5At the beginning of the 18th century, when botanical science was mostly interested in plants for their uses, and thus, in flowering plants, Antoine de Jussieu’s commission of drawings of mushrooms to Aubriet was questionable. Indeed, this group of plants was barely studied, in France or in the rest of Europe2. Tournefort became interested only at the end of his short life but his work was mainly on cultivation of edible mushrooms. As for Sebastien Vaillant, he was particularly interested in plants known as non-flowering plants, which Linné would call cryptogams. He proposed a classification of mushrooms in his Botanicon parisiense (1727). Furthermore, the only “mycological” survey that Antoine de Jussieu can claim as his is a description of a mushroom in which he observed an affinity between lichens and mushrooms. Thus he does not appear to be the best reference in terms of observations.

6Beyond the mere fascination for an unearthly world, Jussieu’s order to Aubriet fits perfectly with the preface by the Royal Academy cited in epigraph: to know Nature in order to admire it even more. For A. de Jussieu, illustrations can lead to this knowledge.

Illustration at the turn of the 17th-18th centuries

7The approach that Antoine de Jussieu took “in 1727 for the creation of the vellum collection shows the transition from a “useful” botany to a fundamental botany; the vellum collection went then from having an ornamental use to being useful to the power (…)” [However] “without a description, vellums remained objects for the pleasure of the eyes rather than scientific objects” (Lamy 2008, pp. 142-143). At the turn of the 17th-18th centuries, botany which was still in development split from medicine and took as its unique object of study the plant itself. Drawing became as necessary in a botany book as maps in a geography book. The illustration was to be as realistic as possible, which means the closest to a look-alike representation of a given specimen of a described species.

8The illustration then accompanied not only floras, but also, and more particularly, objects like herbariums. These drawings of observations became full components of the Cabinet as books and herbariums. In the case of mushrooms, whose collection does not always allow for a good preservation of some characteristic elements such as the shape and the color, the illustration was an excellent substitution to the object itself.

9Thus, it is not surprising to find series of paintings on mushrooms which remained unpublished for the most part; this is because either: they were mostly drawings of observations that were not meant for publication such as the ones done by Frederico Cesi in the 17th century or the mushrooms observed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the region of Paris; or their reproductions were too expensive such as the surveys by Charles de l’Ecluse or the paintings on canvas by Thomas Hormann for a new edition of Giovanni Antonio Scopoli’s Flora carniolica; or they were designed in the 19th century as painted herbariums, like the one directed in Montpellier (by F. Dunal) or in Clermont Ferrand (by M. Lamotte), or the large series by Narcisse Patouillard or Lucien Quélet, identified and referenced as an herbarium.

Knowledge by the drawings

10When compared to far better documented and referenced series, the question arises: why choose to publish, three hundred years after its creation, a series of 98 plates of mushrooms? Especially considering the awkwardness in observations, which is probably due to the fact that Jussieu did not know well what he asked Aubriet to draw, and because the specimens were not gathered according to the “principles of mycological art”? Why be interested by a series that could well be considered a “painted herbarium” except that the determination of species was left undone by the authors, and later had to be completed by other specialists?

11Fulfilling Antoine de Jussieu’s idea concerning the worthiness of an original iconography in botany, these plates fill a missing link in the history of botany at the Royal Garden and in the plant representation of that time. It was thus relevant to position the study of this association between painter and botanist at the crossroad between two points of view – art history and the history of sciences. Aline Hamonou and Xavier Carteret both offer the reader insight which allows for a better understanding of where this series stands in regards to Claude Aubriet’s work and the history of botany. X. Carteret insists, with reason, that this representation of mushrooms is outstanding for its “negative” aspect of highlighting the gaps in Jussieu and Aubriet’s mycological knowledge.

12Thus the identification work by mycologists of the 21st century of mushrooms drawn at the beginning of the 18th century (Pierre-Arthur Moreau brings here more than a scientific guarantee) appears to be a challenge because of the huge gap in mycological knowledge between both periods. This work of identification was made both easier and, simultaneously, more challenging by determinations that were annotated around 1800. The result is positive and shows how much the Aubriet-Jussieu observation, while awkward, was still quite accurate.


1 Central Library of the Museum, Ms 1934.

2 We can mention J.J. Dillenius’ observations (1718), and P. A. Micheli’s observations (1729); two books that can be considered as supplements to Tournefort’s Elémens de botanique.

© Publications scientifiques du Muséum, 2010

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