Natural History

In 1666, the Royal Academy of Sciences was established in Paris by the initiative of Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Among the academy’s projects was a “natural history of animals” directed by Claude Perrault (1613–1688), a physician, architect, and older brother of the writer Charles Perrault. He supervised the dissection and description of a wide variety of animals, including many exotic creatures that had lived and died at the Menagerie of Versailles. Some of the dissected animals were then stuffed and returned to decorate the Menagerie.

The five botanical prints on the wall are part of a comparable enterprise conducted by the academy: the scientific description and chemical analysis of plants. In 1676, the physician Denis Dodart (1634–1707) edited a first volume featuring thirty-nine species. The life-size illustrations were mostly the work of Nicolas Robert (1614–1685), renowned for his subtle depictions of flowers and birds. Many more plants were drawn and engraved, but the academic project stalled, and the additional engravings were never published on the open market. Princeton is fortunate to own 250 of these rare prints, in which art and science are conjoined. They were acquired in 1886 from the Bibliothèque nationale through an exchange orchestrated by collector and benefactor John S. Pierson, Class of 1840.