From 1749 to his death in 1788, the Comte de Buffon composed thirty-six volumes of his monumental Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. This vast work covers not only what we would still call “natural history”, such as the study of animals and plants, but also the subjects of physics, chemistry, and mineralogy. Each subject is introduced by a general essay, followed by a series of more specialized articles (all composed by Buffon). For example, in the case of quadrupeds — the main focus of Buffon’s volumes on non-ornithological animal life — we find sections on both domestic animals and wild animals, each vividly, if sometimes reductively, described.
Buffon, intent on drawing “scientific” connections between animals, often obscures their individuality in the process. A donkey appears to him to be “no more than a degenerated horse”, and he asserts with perfect seriousness that “if sheep disappeared from the earth, goats could easily serve the same purpose” — meaning, naturally, that they could just as easily supply humans with meat, milk, wool, and tallow.
Fortunately, Jacques de Sève, the artist Buffon chose to illustrate his descriptions of quadrupeds, took more than enough delight in depicting each animal’s individual qualities to make up for what Buffon’s descriptions at times lack.
Consider de Sève’s rendition of the wildly horned Wallachian sheep (or Racka), looking soulful before a high romantic castle upon a rock.
Or the even more soulful faces of his sloths, monkeys, and apes.
De Sève seems to have been especially fond of painting bats — even if he often posed them, oddly, sitting on a mound of turf among mountains. (Perhaps he was trying to emphasize that, despite their capacity for flight, they were indeed quadrupeds.)
The winningly anthropoid faces of so many of de Sève’s illustrations jump out at us immediately, but the backgrounds, too, are fascinating. In addition to the flora and sweeping landscapes, on the horizon we’ve often architectural clues as to where in the world these animals might reside. In several the animals are placed amid ruins.
All of de Sève’s illustrations are equipped with identifying captions except one, listed simply as l’animal anonyme (the unidentified animal). Most later naturalists agreed it must be meant to represent a fennec fox, though some have also suggested a bat-eared fox. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: de Sève loved drawing large ears.
With their strangely human faces and richness of setting, De Sève’s wonderful illustrations, engraved for publication in the Histoire by Louis Le Grand, are a true treasure of eighteenth-century naturalism. See many more of our highlights from the book below.