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Series of four natural history prints of monkeys from a 44-volume encyclopedia published by Buffon, which were later whimsically embellished by an anonymous artist with collaged costumes and musical instruments. The applied elements are skillfully cut from embossed metallic paper with meticulous details such as little anklet garters and stars on their tails. The original engravings for Buffon's work were made by Jacques E. De Sève, and as one writer observed, "The animals do not seem like wild beasts roaming free in their native woods, deserts and mountains, but like actors performing among stage props and painted scenery..." The prankish artist who transformed these monkeys into circus performers might agree.
Georges-Louis Marie Leclerc, the Count of Buffon, was a French aristocrat of formidable intellect and achievements, including books he wrote on mathematics and natural history. Although his father initially steered him toward law school, Buffon persisted in pursuing his interest in math. At the age of 20, he discovered the binomial theorem and later introduced differential and integral calculus into probability theory. He soon became fascinated with biological science, and his father relented and let him enroll in the faculty of medicine to study botany and zoology. As a young man in Paris, he befriended Voltaire and other intellectuals, and gained admission to the prestigious Academy of Science at age 27.
Buffon’s greatest achievement in the field of natural history was the publication of Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi [Natural History, General and Specific, with the Description of the Office of the King] (Paris: 1749-1804). This ambitious project, characteristic of the 18th-century Enlightenment, would eventually be comprised of 44 encyclopedic volumes (some published posthumously), attempting to include everything known about the natural world and to widely disseminate scientific knowledge. It was the first complete natural history survey presented in a popular form, and also broke ground in attempting to separate science from theological dogma. Indeed, decades before Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, Buffon dared to challenge religious thought with empirical observations, suggesting that the earth was older than 6,000 years and that the physical resemblance between humans and apes might be explained by their having a common ancestry. While the theories he proposed to explain these phenomena were generally incorrect, he correctly grasped that a new paradigm was needed. Buffon’s other major natural history publication was Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux [Natural History of the Birds] (a different work, but also with “Histoire Naturelle” in the title). This work was published in 42 fascicles from 1765 to 1780 by Edme Louis Daubenton, in collaboration with Buffon, and was illustrated with 1008 bird engravings by François-Nicolas Martinet.
Jacques Eustache de Sève was the principal artist commissioned by Buffon for his Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, between 1749 and 1760, and also produced the illustrations for a work called Encyclopedie Methodique (1774-1832). Rather than isolating the animals on the page, his illustrations were complete scenes including classical landscape backgrounds, which influenced later natural history illustrators.
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