Histoire naturelle – Textes de Buffon

January 27, 2021
An Eagle
L'Aigle Blanc (The Eagle) (Bloch 340), 1936, sugarlift aquatint, drypoint, and scraper, 14 3/8 x 11 inches

Ah, the eagle. We fly him this week in recognition of a major event for the United States – last week’s inauguration – but no doubt he was a symbol for freedom and courage long before this country chose him as its emblem. People have always looked to the natural world to better understand themselves, their values – us included. We’ve shown images like this before in commemoration of events – beautiful or whimsical or sweet aquatint animal prints, like the eagle’s twice-removed cousin, our Thanksgiving turkey – but we’ve never fully explained the story of Picasso’s creature series, simply called: Buffon.

The “Buffon” series got its name from Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, an 18th Century French aristocrat-intellectual interested in calculus and the then-called “natural sciences,” who post-studies settled into a role as the keeper of the Jardin du Roi (which we now know as the Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. There, he got the idea to write the ambitious, controversial, first-proposed 50 volume text, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. How could a textbook on plants and animals be considered “controversial?” Well, 100 years before Darwin, in a time when the Church’s accepted doctrine was that man reigned biologically supreme and that the Earth could be no more than 6,000 years old, Buffon had a pot-stirring idea: that man and all other creatures were formed through and against some agent he called “organic particles.”


While that concept would take many more years to reshape into an accepted scientific idea, Buffon’s text became a French classic, surely known to all modern publishers – including our old friend Vollard. The original publication of Histoire naturelle was prized for the engravings that accompanied descriptions of different animals (“Buffon believed that one could better learn the characteristics of an animal through visual – rather than purely descriptive – means”) and that gave Vollard an idea: he would ask Picasso to create the visuals for an abridged version of Buffon’s classic.** It’s likely Vollard did little convincing; the project would have appealed to Picasso, who was a known animal lover that owned several dogs in his life, and a goat, and a monkey. Though recruited for the job in the late 1920s, Picasso, in his typical fashion, took his time with the concept, not creating his first plates for the series until inspiration struck in February of 1936. First up: the donkey, monkey, rooster, pigeon, and, naturally, our eagle. These were some of Picasso’s first works done in the sugarlift aquatint technique he had learned from working with the artisan printer, Roger Lacourière (which you can read more about here). He continued to work on the series throughout the latter half of the 1930s – even after Vollard passed in a fatal car accident in 1939. Just as with the Suite Vollard, he would not live to see the series published.


And that, in the particular case of the Buffon, is a tragedy. For when the editions were finally published in May of 1942, most of the portfolios were broken up for the sale of individual prints. But a lucky few were sent to bookbinders. In ancient times, bookbinders were goldsmiths and enamellers who worked together closely with calligraphers and illustrators; it took a group of specialists to create one carefully crafted book.*** Before machines took over the business of trained hands, a book exquisitely bound was a treasured thing, an art object in itself. Of course, by Picasso’s time, the art of bookbinding was already outmoded. The gesture of binding  some of the portfolios by an artisan was a nostalgic one, a motion nevertheless recognized by the collector who values the traditions of times gone, who values the completeness of beauty. For the beauty of a handbound book is an extension of the artwork it contains. Our gallery is proud to enjoy our own handbound Buffon edition, done by the French binder Jacqueline Minstin. Next time you’re in, ask to take a peek.

We wish our readers a safe and restful weekend, and look forward to more stories in art next week.






* Piveteau, Jean. “Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
** Cramer, Patrick. Pablo Picasso The Illustrated Books: Catalogue Raisonné (1983). (pp. 106)
*** Du Bois, H. P. “The Art of Bookbinding,” Bradstreet Press (1883).

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