Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World [NOOK Book]


With 32 pages of full-color inserts and black-and-white illustrations throughout.

From one of our most highly regarded historians, here is an original and engrossing chronicle of nineteenth-century America’s infatuation with butterflies, and the story of the naturalists who unveiled the mysteries of their existence.
A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of ...
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Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

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With 32 pages of full-color inserts and black-and-white illustrations throughout.

From one of our most highly regarded historians, here is an original and engrossing chronicle of nineteenth-century America’s infatuation with butterflies, and the story of the naturalists who unveiled the mysteries of their existence.
A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of butterflies, this engaging and elegantly illustrated history shows how Americans from all walks of life passionately pursued butterflies, and how through their discoveries and observations they transformed the character of natural history. Leach focuses on the correspondence and scientific writings of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists who traveled across the country and throughout the world, collecting and studying unknown and exotic species. In a book as full of life as the subjects themselves and foregrounding a collecting culture now on the brink of vanishing, Leach reveals how the beauty of butterflies led Americans into a deeper understanding of the natural world. He shows, too, that the country’s enthusiasm for butterflies occurred at the very moment that another form of beauty—the technological and industrial objects being displayed at world’s fairs and commercial shows—was emerging, and that Americans’ attraction to this new beauty would eventually, and at great cost, take precedence over nature in general and butterflies in particular.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Just as twentieth century science fiction writer Robert Heinlein conceptualized butterflies as "self-propelled flowers," nineteenth century observers viewed these fleeting creatures through the prisms of their imagination. National Book Award finalist William Leach (Land of Desire) has taken what seems to be a narrowly niched topic (Victorian era butterfly collection in America) and placed it within the tensions and changes of the time. The men who sought and mounted their specimens are today mostly unknown, under Leach's scrutiny, these Butterfly People can be observed grappling with issues about the industrial age, the free market economy, humans' relationship with nature, and evolution.

Publishers Weekly
National Book Award–finalist and Columbia University historian Leach (Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture) offers a mesmerizing and comprehensive history of butterfly collection in America, and this pastime’s relation to the nation’s landscape, ideologies, and industry. The individuals profiled—including William Henry Edwards, Samuel Scudder, Herman Strecker, Augustus Grote—are men grappling with the great ideas of the modern age: evolution, the expansion of the industrial age, and the rise of the market economy, humans’ relationship with nature, and beauty. This is a deep dive into what, at first glance, seems an esoteric subject, but after further perusal reveals itself as an essential component of this nation’s intellectual history. Fully informative on all things lepidoptera, this work embodies that 19th-century synthesis of science and art, while staying firmly grounded as a history of its namesake, as the Butterfly People become as rare as their most highly prized specimens. It is not just Edwards who “carried within him the tension at the heart of the American experience, from the colonial period onward, between extraction and adoration, artifactual beauty and natural beauty, commerce and science,” for Leach asks the reader to consider all these things as well—their loss and triumph—and what might be gained in the reflection. Agent: Georges Borchardt, the Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“A wonderful tale . . . Following the story of natural history, science, philosophy and even religion in America through the enthusiasms and feuds of a few insect collectors.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Compelling. . . . A splendid twinning of natural science and America.” —The Economist

“Illuminating . . . fascinating. . . . Leach is at his best when he describes moments of butterfly discovery, sharing both the insights Americans discovered over the course of a century and the price they paid for that knowledge.” —The Washington Post
“In this sprawling examination, Leach succeeds in weaving his disparate social and historical strands into a thought-provoking tapestry that will appeal to natural history aficionados and students of American culture.” —The Wall Street Journal 
“A spirited history.” —The New Yorker

“This is truly a remarkable piece of work, and I was totally drawn in.  Leach has captured a very important aspect of history as I am sure no one else could have. Along the way it reveals the origins of our obsessions and their trajectory. The breadth and depth of this will stay with me a long time, and I hope the book will be read widely.” —Bernd Heinrich, author of Winter World

“Leach is in pursuit of big ideas about art, science, evolution, collecting, economics, and technology.” —The Boston Globe

“[Leach] uses the rapid expansion of American interest in butterflies after the Civil War as a way into man’s arduous process of understanding his place in the order of things. . . . Leach describes the science of this period as a ‘fascinating mix of scientific confidence and human longing,’ and this book treats both aspects with equal care and well-researched precision.” —The Daily Beast

 “Today’s butterfly people will be enthralled. . . . The wonder Leach evokes will captivate all who appreciate the natural world.” —New Scientist

“A brilliant work of history.” —Bookforum

“Masterful and beguiling. . . . A literary cabinet of wonders packed with scientific discoveries, historic artifacts, and artistic revelations to delight scholarly and casual readers alike. No mere flight of fancy, the book is an original consideration of American science, economics and aesthetics set in a time of profound cultural change.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“A mesmerizing and comprehensive history of butterfly collection in America. . . . This is a deep dive into what, at first glance, seems an esoteric subject, but after further perusal reveals itself as an essential component of this nation’s intellectual history.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)  

“Fascinating. . . . An unusual, pinpointed slice of American life.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Astute and exciting. . . . A unique celebration of nineteenth-century American butterfly fanatics. . . . [Leach] delivers new understanding of our past and present.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Shimmering . . . Entrancing. . . . Mingles the resurrection of mostly forgotten figures with social, economic, and intellectual history. . . . Rivalries and even bitter animosities emerge; reputations are flayed, personal feelings pinned. But behind all this is a genuine longing to see, to know, and to understand.” —New Criterion

Kirkus Reviews
An expansive historical account of the 19th-century figures whose enthusiasm and perseverance shaped natural history studies on butterflies. Leach (History/Columbia Univ.; Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, 1999, etc.) meticulously examines butterfly collecting, once a pastime enjoyed across social strata and once viewed as a means for bridging art and science. He presents an appealing if controversial view of collecting as a direct appreciation of and engagement with nature's beauty, while also acknowledging that it sometimes turned into a competitive expression of man's dominion, resulting in harsh consequences and strife in relationships between collectors. Through portraits of William Henry Edwards (a West Virginian entomologist known for his voyage to the Amazon), Herman Strecker (a collector, author and illustrator), Augustus Grote (director of the Buffalo Museum of Natural Sciences), William Doherty (entomologist and tropical collector), Samuel Scudder (entomologist and paleontologist) and William Holland (director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh), Leach details conflicts in the field during the mid- to late-1800s, including concerns over the destruction of natural resources; the ethics of killing, selling and trading butterflies; debates on systematics, taxonomy, naming and considerations of butterfly habitats; creationist vs. Darwinist views; and the line between advancement of science and selfish amassment. The book's closing chapters on dealings between butterfly men in the Gilded Age is especially fascinating. For general readers, the esoteric minutia may overwhelm. For naturalists and butterfly buffs, however, this is an unusual, pinpointed slice of American life enlivened with fragments of correspondence and reproductions of plates from classic books of the period.
The Barnes & Noble Review

A hundred and fifty years ago, when such things found encouragement, butterflies were referred to as "winged wanderers on clover sweet." More recently, an unsparing essayist called them "the bimbos of the natural world," all vacant splendor — a little harsh, since they didn't have any say in how they looked. That was natural selection's doing and plenty of scientists still wonder, Why? Probably something to do with sex. What a surprise. Even the butterfly's collective name can't control itself: kaleidoscope, as in "a kaleidoscope of butterflies." Perhaps you have seen a kaleidoscope of butterflies gathered around a puddle. It is an impressive sight, a gorgeous, pulsing fairy ring. William Leach tells a story in this gaily painted, comfortably owlish history of American butterfly collection's heyday, Butterfly People, of a kaleidoscope of butterflies congregated around a puddle of spilled schnapps. They were drunk, a kaleidoscope of crapulous bimbos.

Also back 150 years, you couldn't throw a brick — if you happened to be near a pond or woodlot, a meadow or stream or hedgerow or stone wall — and not hit an amateur or professional lepidopterist, giving chase, net in hand. They might have been wearing long dresses, but more likely long beards and the style of spectacles that would command big bucks for today's optometrists. These were the few short decades, from the Civil War to the First World War, when Americans came to know their native butterflies, acquainting themselves with an exemplar of beauty at a time when industrial- artificial beauty was likewise being set loose on the cultural landscape. Leach suggests this weave found its greatest expression at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, with its bright lights and chemical rainbows, its bountiful displays of plants and animals, feats of engineering, railroads, color photography. It was not an altogether happy marriage, for behind the artifice were "the means to despoil, even devastate, nature"; industry brought us color photography and affordable nature guides, but industry brought us Dam #6 on the Kanawha River as well, and so disappeared the Baltimore checkerspot and its riverine habitat.

Mostly, this is a story about collectors, and like all serious collectors, they are a company of oddballs, moonstruck by hairstreaks and question marks, skippers and fritillaries, elfins, satyrs, and the blues, liable to break out into some Shakespeare — "How would, I say, mine eyes been blessed made / By looking on thee in the living day" — after having netted a wood nymph?. There is much gratifying beard pulling and name calling: Theodore Mead wrote to a friend that William Henry Edwards was "a charlatan" and a "Coalburgh Ass," while Augustus Grote noted that Herman Strecker was "that entomological spider!" Fighting words. These vest-pocket biographies have concision yet shoulder room enough to get to know the characters. They are a cast of tough Romantics: "He stared collecting when he was five. His father tried to beat it out of him with a strap, but he stood his ground"; then he (that is Strecker, one of the great lepidopterists) went on to suffer all the mortifications of fieldwork and professional innuendo. Leach profiles a dozen more — including Will Doherty, Henry Edwards, William Henry Edwards, Grote, Samuel Scudder, and the peerless illustrator Mary Peart — giving the evolution of American lepidopterology full exposure.

But Leach has a rangy curiosity. He pokes with a progressive's bend into the role of class in collecting, how the age of imperialism influenced the age of collecting, and how a sixty-four-mile road from Irrawaddy to the Burmese ruby mines made for the pillage of two quite different bijouterie. Leach also has a way with the butterfly's beauty. Its flashing iridescence is no simple matter, but a work of smoke and mirrors; not pigment, but prisms. It is a trick of light — here now, but not if you change your angle of approach - - capturing beauty's heavenly complexity, and the way it touches on human longing, on — as Aristotle thought when he called butterflies psyche — our soul.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307907875
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/9/2013
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,101,163
  • File size: 64 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

William Leach is a professor of history at Columbia University. His previous books include Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which was a National Book Award finalist, and Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life.

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Read an Excerpt

"The beauty of the world,” wrote America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1725, “consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself or with the Supreme Being. . . . This beauty is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.” In the nineteenth century, many Americans, including Edwards’s great-grandson William Henry Edwards, encountered the butterflies, among the most evolved in terms of beauty, by some accounts, of all creatures. By beauty here is meant not merely the wings, however beautiful they may be, but the metamorphosis (from the Greek for “changing form”) and life history of the insect, from the egg and caterpillar to the pupa and adult, as well as the butterfly in relation to a world full of other life. The encounter took place first with native American species, then with foreign or exotic ones, moths as well as butterflies, the “night” and “day butterflies,” as they were called—or, collectively, the Lepidoptera, the order’s name referring, in Greek, to the scales covering the wings. By the 1880s, it seemed as if everyone in America was chasing “flying flowers,” to quote Augustus Radcliffe Grote, an American expert on moths. People from all walks of life—sheep farmers, shopkeepers, barbers, lawyers, actors, drugstore clerks, housekeepers, wallpaper hangers, priests, Wall Street brokers, glassblowers, miners, and mine managers—had taken up the butterfly net. At the end of the century a new kind of beauty would assume prominence, human-made and artificial; seen especially at the spectacular world’s fairs of the age, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, it would expand the world’s aesthetic palette, while at the same time challenging the “beauty peculiar to natural things.” For a fleeting moment, however, the reign of the butterflies, and of all similar natural life, held sway in the imaginations of many American men and women.
Two phenomena were responsible, in particular, for this history, each ushering people into the natural world with unsurpassed effect. The first was economic and technological and was connected to the rise of capitalism; the second was cultural and institutional and was exemplified by the tradition of Enlightenment natural history, having at its heart a passion for the diversity and beauty of natural forms. One was extractive, the other adoring, and both derived from the thousands of years of experience the Europeans and English imported with them to America. Both existed in the same country and the same people, from Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. America was founded as a kind of European achievement, the beneficiary, as it were, of centuries of struggle, at once armed with the brilliance to build a new economic empire and endowed with the heritage to understand and protect the natural world.
The American economy had many aspects dependent on nature as landed wealth or property, and that brought Americans close to nature. No economic system had ever done this more thoroughly or swiftly. In what seems a twinkling of historical time, it carried people across the continent in search of land, minerals, virgin forests, and fossil fuels, a situation speeded up by a remarkable series of land surveys and revolutionized by the railroads, which by the 1880s had bound the country into a single market, condensing into only a few decades the expropriation of nature it had taken the Europeans and English many hundreds of years to carry out. As a fortuitous blessing, Americans experienced the country’s flora and fauna, its native species of butterflies and moths. Later in the century, the United States joined other Western countries, England and Germany especially, in worldwide commercial trade and butterfly collecting, driven by imperialism and the spread of railroad lines from Canada and Argentina to East Africa and the Asian subcontinent, thereby putting Americans in touch with the foreign parts of the globe. Many individuals made a living finding and selling butterflies on the world market. Most tragic and complex of them all was Will Doherty of Mount Auburn, Ohio, who spent most of his brief life in pursuit of the rarest of species. Extraordinary collections of butterflies in America issued from this descent below the equator. The biggest private one was cobbled together by Herman Strecker of Reading, Pennsylvania, a poor stonecutter with a wild yearning for the “things of endless joy,” as he called his insects.
Family farming, America’s most widespread economic activity, also exposed Americans to butterflies, even while the majority of farmers had little interest in insects other than to eradicate them. As all the butterfly people came to realize, America had various natural landscapes, from the remote alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains and the vast blooming prairies of the Midwest to the deserts of the Far West, the freshwater marshes of Connecticut, and the semitropical forests of Florida, alive with “flying jewels,” to cite Augustus Grote again. But family farms, much nearer at hand and not fundamentally dependent on the railroad, did perhaps more than any other landscape to convert Americans into butterfly lovers. Farms were distributed throughout the country, and while they sacrificed virgin forests and ecosystems in the short term, they contributed over the long term to nature’s vitality. Their distinguishing features were not just plowed fields or barns or silos but also ponds, woodlots, hedgerows, stone walls, open fields along roadsides, and meadows by streams or riverbeds for grazing cattle, all created for human purposes but also serving as likely habitats and hideouts for animals. Renewed by repeated mowing, the meadows, especially, teamed with many kinds of birds; sweet-smelling flowering plants, intoxicating in the summertime, such as milkweed, joe-pye weed, thistle, and clover; and butterflies. Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) and monarchs (Danaus plexippus), among the most common and handsome of American butterflies, actually rose in number in direct relation to the spread of small farms. So did the pretty inch-wide meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona), first named by the pioneering butterfly man Samuel Scudder, in the 1870s, because it so often flew in the meadows of New England, and nowhere else. Authorities on butterflies today call these insects “pasture species.”
A hallmark of this hybrid rural landscape (hybrid because it intermingled human nature with wild nature), was its “walking through” character, existing before property lines rigidly divided farms from one another, and making nature readily traversable by anyone interested in knowing it. Alpine or mountain meadows of the country’s wilderness areas, carpeted by flowers and sometimes staggering in their array of butterflies, were often too far away or frightening for most Americans to visit, but this agrarian tapestry, resplendent with “winged wanderers on clover sweet,” was everywhere and usually inviting. Just as the railroad drew people over the horizon to unusual insects, family farming performed a captivating magic of its own. The farm landscape was easily navigated. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a French immigrant and farmer, took delight in it in the 1790s, as, decades later, did the English explorer and collector Edward Doubleday, who witnessed “in Ohio literally tens of thousands” of painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), a lovely, wide-ranging species with an intricate lacework of color and design on the underwing, fluttering “on the thistles by the road sides.” The writer and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson remembered “vividly” as a boy in Massachusetts in the 1830s, “walking along [a] breezy, upland road, lined with a continuous row of milk weed blossoms and white flowering alder, all ablaze with butterflies. I might have picked off hundreds, so absorbed were they in their pretty pursuits.” Forty years later, Walt Whitman walked his farm lanes in Camden, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn, New York. “As every man has his hobby-liking,” he noted, “mine is for a real farm-lane fenced by old chestnut-rails,” along which he saw “butterflies and butterflies, all sorts, white, yellow, brown, purple—now and then some gorgeous fellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists’ palettes dabb’d with every color.” “In the lane as I came along just now I noticed one spot, ten feet square or so, where more than a hundred had collected, holding a revel, a gyration-dance, a butterfly good-time, winding and circling, down and across, but always keeping within the limits.”
Most of America’s principal butterfly people would find many new species of butterflies in ecologically wild, relatively pristine places, but they also encountered butterflies living near or in nature that had been modified in some way by farming. Herman Strecker wrote wittily about this environment in his 1878 catalog, Butterflies and Moths of North America: “The best time to give [butterflies] chase and try to run them down is under a July sun, with the occasional slight obstacles of fences, creeks, rocks, logs, farmers’ dogs and farmers’ boys (just as bad)” blocking entry to “a grain or clover field” or to “gardens, marshes and meadows along edges of woods, and above all where plenty of thistles and sumac are growing.”
Just as family farms helped Americans see and come to know butterflies, so the natural history tradition created the cultural context for butterfly collecting and study. It gave Americans the means—the language, the interpretative methods and skills—to recognize and understand the living things around them, and, by validating collecting as the cardinal activity, it led curious individuals into a realm of unforgettable sensuous experience. In countries without such a tradition, little existed—save folk taxonomies—to explain what lay within nature’s kingdom or to promote collecting or to make of it anything more than a practical activity. In the West, however, natural history had a long lineage, dating from at least Aristotle, who inquired into all nature, from rocks and animals to plants and fossils. Between the late Renaissance and the mid-1700s, it entered a new phase, fresh with purpose and mission, and by 1800 had claimed many thousands of followers, reflecting the Western intrusion into the rest of the world. Natural history institutionalized collecting as a transcendent goal and invented the apparatus of collecting, from killing jars and nets to poisons, baits, and cabinets. It embraced, as well, a systematic approach to the study of nature, with two related aspects, each reliant on collecting. The first was devoted to taxonomy and nomenclature, or to the grouping and naming of organisms; the second, to the study of life histories and the interrelations of all organisms to one another and to the wider environment; this aspect came to be called ecology by the 1880s.
Carl Linnaeus of Sweden, Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon of France, Alexander Humboldt of Germany, and, later, Charles Darwin of England, major architects of modern natural history and all scientific autodidacts, commanded, in their books, healthy swaths of nature. Together they helped forge nature as a magnetic fulcrum of transatlantic Western culture, thrilling enough to keep people in its thrall for another 150 years.
Linnaeus was the great exponent of systematic order, establishing a binomial nomenclature, still standard today, that bestowed on all organisms two Latin words, one for the genus, or group, to which the individual organism belonged, the other for the species itself; the two words together represented the complete individual (thus, Homo sapiens for “wise man”). Early in his career, Linnaeus seemed to believe that every species was unchanging and God-created, although later he adopted “limited transmutation,” and he never failed to root his understanding of species in concrete natural evidence. He looked foremost at plants and flowers, identifying them partly by sexual characteristics, but he also named and described animals, including numerous lepidoptera caught by a brave cohort of young field collectors he sent around the world.
Born around the same time as Linnaeus (1707), the Comte de Buffon, famous for his spellbinding, multivolume Histoire naturelle, was determined to cover all animal and plant life, to a degree far beyond Linnaeus. He was critical of Linnaean systematics and of the early Enlightenment, which he thought viewed nature as too fixed in its forms and development. To Buffon, natural organisms or species flowed in “a progression” that changed constantly through almost imperceptible “gradations,” self-creating and self-propelled. He considered “Nature” an immense living empire, enfolding everything, animating everything, and urged naturalists to deal always with living organisms and to write their “life histories,” describing fully and exactly every feature of their existence: their distribution, their outside and inside anatomies, their peculiar habits and everyday activities, their relationships with the life histories of other beings and to the surrounding environment. Species could not be recognized, Buffon argued, only on the basis of single visible sexual features, as was Linnaeus’s practice.
Although historians have often seen these two sides of natural history as separate and even at odds, the two so often crossed as to form a whole perspective that grew ever more complex over time. Buffon and Linnaeus shared a belief that humans had a primary right to use nature, first and foremost, for their material benefit; each insisted upon the necessity of describing as well as naming and classifying; both saw the natural world as an interdependent whole; and each was awed by its profusion. “The starting point,” Linnaeus wrote, “must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.” Still, rightly or wrongly, Linnaeus’s fame rested on his binomial nomenclature and Buffon’s on his descriptive talents, on the abundance of his engrossing life histories, and on his dramatic ecological vision, which addressed “the great operations of nature” and demanded a “quality of mind that permits us to grasp distant relationships, fit them together, and form a body of rational ideas.”
Buffon’s version of natural history reached a zenith of influence during the Romantic Enlightenment of the early nineteenth century, most memorably in the mind of Alexander Humboldt, a Prussian aristocrat and the premier explorer of the time, whose multivolume masterpiece, The Cosmos, written in his old age and probing nearly every aspect of the universe, had a more profound impact on American views of nature than any other book in the nineteenth century. Humboldt journeyed down the mostly unexamined (for Europeans) Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela between 1799 and 1804, launching the “cartographic penetration of the continental interiors of the Americas.” The trip culminated in Ecuador with Humboldt’s sensational ascent with his companions—the botanist Aimé Bonpland, his Ecuadorian friend Carlos Montúfar, and an Indian guide—nearly to the top of Mount Chimborazo, an Andean peak then thought the highest in the world. Besides harvesting a huge number of plants, Bonpland and Humboldt collected butterflies, including one delicate but hardy creature above the snow zone—a yellow or sulphur species one inch in diameter (Colias alticola)—and two new species later named and described in 1805 by the French butterfly man Pierre Latreille as Heliconius humboldt and Cethosia bonpland. Despite these discoveries, Humboldt, like Buffon, had no desire, as he put it, to unearth “new, isolated facts” but “preferred linking always known ones together.” Also, as with Buffon, he was convinced that “nature, despite her seeming diversity, is always a unity, a whole,” and that a “holy, creative, primary force” suffused all. Nature was no “inert mass” but “an inextricable network of organisms,” so gloriously fertile in places around the globe that it promised to endure forever.
A half century later, Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution (along with those of his countryman, Alfred Russel Wallace) would add a radically dynamic element to natural history thinking, conceiving of nature as an always evolving and unstable realm, working from within to create a new abundance of variable shapes, patterns, colors, and sizes: geographic, polymorphic (meaning many forms), and dimorphic (meaning double forms), and encompassing varieties, species, and subspecies—altogether a morphological spectrum never before revealed to naturalists in the same way or to the same degree.
The natural history of these men erected a route to scientific understanding and knowledge. At the same time, it occasionally mixed culture, fantasy, and myth with science; it sometimes treated nature anthropomorphically, told stories, and had literary as well as scientific content; and, most of all, it placed people in touch with the multifarious beauty of the world.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, naturalists typically learned to draw or paint and, therefore, possibly to see and appreciate better the living beauty around them. We can trace this fruitful relationship to an abiding alliance between art and science, with roots in the late medieval period (if not earlier), when it was commonly held that the ability to pursue art or science depended on the same observational skills and perceptions, the same pair of eyes. This view can be seen in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Hooker, and William Harvey, among others, and found exponents in the late-eighteenth-century philosophy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schelling, and many of their contemporaries. It was an outlook, moreover, characteristic of a venerable tradition of artisan craftsmanship practiced by a large community of people outside the elite bastions of science who conjured up images with their own hands, a practice that helped increase the observer’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the aesthetic character of nature.
In its heyday, natural history unleashed a stream of pictorial books of insects and other species, with handcrafted plates notable for their costliness as well as for their lively colors, although these sometimes bore little relation to the actual colors of the butterflies and moths depicted. In the early eighteenth century, the German-born apothecary Albertus Seba, then living in Amsterdam, published the four-volume Cabinet of Curiosities, a great prototypic catalog, with hundreds of exotic butterflies never before seen. Almost all of the copies were printed in black-and-white; those few that used color were set aside for the tiny royalty of northern Europe who were Seba’s benefactors. Other contemporary works with plates, by such people as the Germans Maria Sibylla Merian and August Rösel von Rosenhof and the Dutchman Pieter Cramer, also served a small elite. By the early nineteenth century, both craftsmanship and natural science had overcome the obstacles of poorly executed shades and tints and of an exclusive market. Starting with the rise of lithography in the 1820s, artists and artisans began to depict the real thing in realistic color, and the audience was no longer elite.
Buffon, Darwin, and Humboldt themselves seemed indifferent to drawing lines between art and science. Their prose was often excellent and readable, so much so as to later seem unscientific. They often wrote on behalf of the artistic attractions of nature. “It is certain that natural history is the mother of all arts,” Buffon affirmed. “All ideas of the arts have their models in the productions of nature. God created and man imitates.” Although no naturalist had more faith in empirical science than Humboldt, he embraced “the ancient bond which unites natural science and artistic feeling.” He also rejoiced in the beauty of nature as perceived through the medium of human subjectivity: “For it is the inward mirror of the sensitive mind which reflects the true and living image of the natural world. All that determines the character of a landscape are in antecedent mysterious communion with the inner feelings and life of man.” Humboldt believed that anyone without the ability to see beauty would probably also be unable to see the chain of connections underlying nature.
Such a perspective on the natural world, lasting well into the nineteenth century, would be weakened by many changes, ranging from the professionalization of science and the attendant insistence on a rigid separation of art from science, to the invention of photography, which struck a blow at the human hand as the maker and shaper of images. Still, it held up (however hobbled) and finds advocates from all walks of life in the present day.

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