New Book | Daniela Bleichmar’s ‘Visible Empire’

Posted in books by Editor on January 19, 2013

From The University of Chicago Press:

Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 288 pages, ISBN: 978-0226058535, $55.

Visible-Empire-Bleichmar-Daniela-9780226058535Between 1777 and 1816, botanical expeditions crisscrossed the vast Spanish empire in an ambitious project to survey the flora of much of the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. While these voyages produced written texts and compiled collections of specimens, they dedicated an overwhelming proportion of their resources and energy to the creation of visual materials. European and American naturalists and artists collaborated to manufacture a staggering total of more than 12,000 botanical illustrations. Yet these images have remained largely overlooked—until now.

In this lavishly illustrated volume, Daniela Bleichmar gives this archive its due, finding in these botanical images a window into the worlds of Enlightenment science, visual culture, and empire. Through innovative interdisciplinary scholarship that bridges the histories of science, visual culture, and the Hispanic world, Bleichmar uses these images to trace two related histories: the little-known history of scientific expeditions in the Hispanic Enlightenment and the history of visual evidence in both science and administration in the early modern Spanish empire. As Bleichmar shows, in the Spanish empire visual epistemology operated not only in scientific contexts but also as part of an imperial apparatus that had a long-established tradition of deploying visual evidence for administrative purposes.

Daniela Bleichmar holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Art History and History. She received her BA from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in History (History of Science) from Princeton University, where she trained as a cultural historian of early modern science, specializing in the history of visual culture and the natural sciences in Europe and the Spanish Americas in the period 1500-1800. Her research and teaching address the history of the Spanish empire, early modern Europe, visual and material culture in science, collecting and display, and the book, print, and prints.

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Introduction: Natural History and Visual Culture in the Spanish Empire

1: A Botanical Reconquista

2: Natural History and Visual Epistemology

3: Painting as Exploration

4: Economic Botany and the Limits of the Visual

5: Visions of Imperial Nature: Global White Space, Local Color

Conclusion: The Empire as an Image Machine


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“The history of late eighteenth-century Latin America is often told simply as the Creoles’ ever-increasing disenchantment with an unenlightened Mother Spain. Daniela Bleichmar’s remarkable book offers us a different history, one in which an Enlightenment study of natural history takes center stage. She casts before the reader passionate and dedicated men of learning and the arts who under Spanish royal sponsorship were entrusted to perform precise observation of the natural fruits of divine creation and render them into splendid and copious scientific illustrations; the results of ‘artful looking . . . a barometer of Enlightenment thought.’ Bleichmar provides more than just an account of these accomplishments; she wields an interdisciplinary brilliance that melds the best of the history of science, art history, and history and serves up a critical and fascinating examination of Linnean classification, scientific illustration, and their complex intersection, scientific and social, in recording the flora of South America.”—Thomas B. F. Cummins, Harvard University

The Wallace Treasure of the Month for January 2013

Posted in lectures (to attend) by Editor on January 19, 2013

January 2013’s Treasure of the Month from The Wallace:

Two Overdoors from Marie-Antoinette’s Bedroom in the Château of Marly
Gallery talks with Christoph Vogtherr, Wallace Collection, London, 11 and 24 January 2013, 1pm

Screen shot 2013-01-17 at 3.05.07 PMThe château of Marly was situated north of Versailles not far from the river Seine. It had been built for Louis XIV between 1679 and 1684. Together with its spectacular park it served as an exclusive retreat for the French King who bestowed invitations as a particular favour to selected courtiers and the Royal family. Marly consisted of a central building for the King and his immediate family (the Royal Pavilion) and twelve pavilions for guests. For a century, the château was repeatedly modernised until it was sold by the Revolutionary government and demolished in 1806.

The two paintings in the Wallace Collection were part of the remodelling of the Queen’s bedroom for Marie-Antoinette in 1781. At that time a mezzanine was added to the room and as a consequence its overall height reduced. The new decoration of the room took these changes into account and new overdoor paintings were required to react to the changed dimensions of the room.

The commission was given by the Direction des Bâtiment (the building administration) to Nicolas-René Jollain (1732-1804) and Hughes Taraval (1729-1785), two members of the Royal Academy. They have since been almost forgotten, and both their works had been acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford as by the much better known Fragonard, an indication that the signatures must have been covered. It is, however, possible to link the two works with the overdoors for the Queen’s bedchamber documented in the sources. Their decorative character is in line with Marie-Antoinette’s preferences whose taste in the Decorative Arts was cutting edge while most of the paintings commissioned for her, except portraits by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, are much more conventional. Equally traditional is the iconography of the two works: Putti are depicted as allegories of Sleep (by Jollain) and Awakening (by Taraval), obvious choices for a bedroom.

The overdoors are beautifully decorative works. The figures are arranged in a triangular composition in both works to visually link the pair. Their pastel-like palette responded to the light colour scheme of the room, the slightly elongated figures to their position high up above the doorways. On closer inspection the works show a smoother and more detailed brushwork typical for the late eighteenth century.

The Queen’s apartment was situated in the North-West corner of the building. The two overdoors were inserted into the South and East walls. The different angles of lighting on the paintings respond to their situation relative to the windows. Taravals painting must have been on the South wall where the light falls in from the right, Jollains on the East side of the room, right next to the Queen’s bed where an allegory of sleep is particularly appropriate.

After the French Revolution, the paintings were sold by the revolutionary government together with the entire contents of Marly. A drop-front desk and a corner cabinet by Jean-Henri Riesener in the Wallace Collection (also in the Study) same room once were part of Marie-Antoinette’s furniture in Marly.

Gallery Talks with Christopher Vogtherr: Friday 11 and Thursday 24 January at 1pm.

Further Reading
John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures III. French before 1815 (London 1989).
Stéphane Castelluccio, Le château de Marly sous le règne de Louis XVI (Paris 1996).

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