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Charles Plumier (1646-1704) and His Drawings of French and Caribbean Fishes

Theodore Wells Pietsch


François J. Meunier

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1At first, the title of the book, Charles Plumier (1646-1704) and his Drawings of French and Caribbean Fishes, may puzzle a distracted reader. The character is practically unknown, both by the lay audience and by many scientists. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake not to stop and flip through the pages of this work, even briefly. Such curiosity should arouse significant interest for its content and lead to further study. The fine accompanying iconographic material will entice the reader to learn about Charles Plumier’s work and to acquaint himself with this Minim monk, who devoted his life to the study of nature.

2Charles Plumier (1646-1704) is a naturalist well-known by botanists and generally unknown by zoologists, apart from a small circle of science historians and a few scientists who worked on species named after him, such as Eugerres plumieri (Cuvier, 1830), Sicydium plumieri (Bloch, 1789), Scorpaena plumieri (Bloch, 1789), Haemulon plumieri (Lacepède, 1801), all fishes. One of the reasons for the relative lack of knowledge of C. Plumier’s role in zoology is the virtual absence of print publications (only two books on botany during his lifetime and one posthumous work), due to his premature death in 1704 in Cádiz, shortly before his departure for a fourth voyage to the New World. However, analysis of his work (Pietsch 2010), particularly of his many manuscripts and drawings, shows that, in many ways, he was a groundbreaker, in the same vein as G. Rondelet (Meunier & d’Hondt 2001, Meunier 2008), J.-G. Du Verney, and P. de La Hire (Meunier & Hamonou 2010), as far as the accuracy of observations and the use of the drawings of the morphology and anatomy of fishes are concerned. Let us look back at the naturalist journey of our friar.

3Originally from Marseilles, Charles Plumier entered the Order of Minims at a relatively young age. He very quickly demonstrated great ability and boundless curiosity. First, he devoted himself to the study of mathematics, but upon being sent to a convent in Rome, took up botany under the monk Paolo Boccone. Back to France, he met Joseph Pitton de Tournefort from the Jardin du Roi. Thanks to their expeditions to collect plants (along with P. J. Garidel, professor at the university of Aix-en-Provence), particularly in Provence and Languedoc, he deepened his knowledge in botany. An inquisitive mind, he also observed the animal kingdom, maybe acquainting himself for the first time with fishes. His naturalist skills were soon recognized, and he was recommended to participate in a voyage to the Antilles in 1689-1690, commissioned by the king. The purpose was to visit the French island possessions and to carry out a survey of their natural riches. He was named assistant to F. J. Surian. After the latter succumbed there to an intoxication, C. Plumier was designated the leader of the next two expeditions (1693 and 1696-1697), with the title of “King’s Botanist”, recognizing his capacities. He had full control to conduct his observations, which was not Surian’s case. Upon his return from the second voyage, C. Plumier published his Description des plantes de l’Amérique, a work acknowledged at the time for its great quality. After his third voyage, he returned to his Minim monastery in Paris and attended to the organization of his observation notes and numerous drawings (several thousands, including 350 drawings of fishes), with the aim of writing a book on ichthyology, similar to the one on plants. In 1704, he was called to lead a fourth voyage but unfortunately died in Cadiz, the port of embarkation.

4C. Plumier’s notes and drawings were mostly kept at the Bibliothèque royale, then nationale, and at the Bibliothèque du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Some documents were found in Berlin by M. E. Bloch, a prominent ichthyologist. These various items attest that he was a tireless and proficient worker. His written observation notes were always accompanied by highly accurate drawings, some in watercolor, some completed with color indications. His drawings of fishes represented whole animals, but most of the time, with morphological and/or anatomical details (for instance, the swim bladder, the digestive tract, the liver, or some pieces of the skeleton, sometimes under different angles), confirming that C. Plumier regularly performed dissections. Thanks to the quality and scientific accuracy of his illustrations, Claude Aubriet (drawing master at the Jardin du Roi) was able to produce excellent velums, and ichthyologists from the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, such as M. E. Bloch (1723-1799), G. Cuvier (1769-1832), B. G. Lacepède (1756-1825), etc. were able to give some first descriptions without the original specimens! C. Plumier’s premature death in Cádiz can only be regretted, as it impeded the publication of his ichthyology work. In a letter he wrote to Bégon, he communicated his project to publish a book on the fishes he observed and studied both in France and in the Caribbean islands. Based on his contribution in botany and the wealth of his observations on fishes, a book on ichthyology would have certainly been significant, as C. Plumier went well beyond the simple systematic description of animals. He would have left an important mark, between Rondelet’s innovative contribution in 1558 (L’histoire entière des poissons; the Latin version being from 1554), and Cuvier and Valenciennes’ Histoire naturelle des Poissons.

5In his time, Rondelet abandoned the compilation work of his predecessors in favor of his personal observations and an effort to organize (classify) fishes in an innovative approach. C. Plumier was the first zoologist to focus on the global morphology of fishes, in three dimensions. Reproductions of his predecessors’ drawings (Rondelet, Belon, Gessner, Salviani) clearly highlight the progress made by C. Plumier in the art of anatomical drawing. Each species comes with a drawing of the fish’s cross section, showing the muscular bundles around the vertebral axis, which define the volume of the fish. Similarly, in many drawings, he illustrates the scales with amazing realism and attention. The scales’ superficial features (radii and reliefs) are very well represented. C. Plumier’s drawings are simple plates drawn in black stone, the contours outlined in pen and black ink. Some are enriched with washes of color. The progress of the printing techniques at the end of the 17th century enhances the iconography proposed by authors such as C. Plumier, when their own drawings are particularly accurate: see for instance the perch and the weever plates. Each fish drawn by C. Plumier is literally captured, with specific attention to the proportions of the various parts of the body and organs. A careful examination of the plates reproduced in this work shows that C. Plumier’s drawings are well proportioned, which was not really the case of Rondelet’s for example.

6Theodore W. Pietsch (“Ted” for his close friends and relatives) is an American ichthyologist, a specialist of curious fishes, including frogfishes, which are close relatives of the monkfish. These fishes, belonging to the group of Ceratioidei, are small-sized species living in rather deep sea. T. Pietsch (Pietsch et al. 2008) described many species and (Pietsch & Orr 2007) studied their phylogeny. He also highlighted that in some species, the dwarfed males are parasitic on the females (Pietsch 2005), facilitating reproductive success.

7Along with these works on fundamental ichthyology, T. Pietsch is passionate about the history of ichthyology and is a prominent specialist of many French ichthyologists who lived and worked in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including Charles Plumier (1646-1704) and Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). He published several works on the history of sciences, some illustrated with original plates by ancient authors. His historical research on several French scientists led him to regularly visit the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle to work on the numerous manuscripts and drawings kept at the Bibliothèque centrale du Muséum. One of his most important contributions in ichthyology history is probably his first writings on Father Charles Plumier (Thireau et al. 2009), which modern ichthyologists might have certainly overlooked! Armed with excellent knowledge of C. Plumier’s work, acquired through the attentive study of available archives, T. Pietsch offers us a work on ichthyology, or I might even say the Work on ichthyology that our friar meant to publish after his first three voyages in the Caribbean.

8Charles Plumier (1646-1704) and his drawings of French and Caribbean fishes is both an historical and “artistic” publication, as it highlights the quality of observations, illustrations, and texts produced by the naturalist. It is divided in three sections. The first part forms a rich biography of C. Plumier. The second section puts his work into context, showing on one hand what he owes to his predecessors (Rondelet, Belon, Salviani, Gessner, Marcgrave, etc.) and on the other hand, what he left to famous successors such as Bloch, Cuvier, Lacepède, etc. The latter were able to propose accurate descriptions of new species based on the documentation left by C. Plumier. The third part reproduces 121 plates from C. Plumier’s Ms 24. Each reproduction comes with the correct Latin name, as well as the nomenclature adopted by C. Plumier: a short phrase in Latin (the binomial nomenclature will only start in 1758 with C. Linnaeus), followed by nomenclature used by more recent ichthyologists who worked on these species after C. Linnaeus. These plates, in watercolor or in black and white, provide a broad overview of C. Plumier’s rich knowledge in ichthyology and should enchant the reader.

9Considering that only fifteen years went by between his first departure to the Caribbean islands and his death, one cannot but admire Charles Plumier’s scientific production in ichthyology. The present work is obviously a great tribute to Charles Plumier, after four centuries! Anyone interested in the history of ichthyology will gain knowledge of the innovative work performed by an exceptional naturalist, who left too soon. Heartfelt thanks to the team who made the production and the publication of this work possible, and particularly to Ted Pietsch, its “kingpin”.

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