«From the natural», «contrafactum», «ad vivum»: whenever I have trouble with these or similar expressions I think of Rene Magritte’s painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) and its famous statement: «Ceci n’est pas une pipe» («This is not a pipe»). Sophisticated interpretations aside, the painting plays with the notion that a representation cannot be equal to the thing that is being represented: this is not a pipe, this is a representation of a pipe.
In this regard, Magritte’s composition appears to be the exact opposite of any early modern illustration with the «from the natural» motto attached to it. There is something about these images –because they have been produced «from the natural»– that blurs the distinction between object and representation. The image is no longer the image of a representation, but of the thing itself: this is not a representation of a cassowary, this is a cassowary.
With all its irony, Magritte’s painting serves as an excellent reminder of the non-obvious association between an object and its image, and in particular is very effective in unveiling the negotiated character of such expressions as «from the life». And just as the «this is not» part of Magritte’s statement continues puzzling the observer, it seems like a good sign that the «from the natural/ad vivum/contrafactum» elements in early modern imagery remain a source of puzzlement for us historians.
Indeed, the problematic nature of the «from the natural» mode of representation was one among the many questions that were raised during and after Nathan Flis’ paper, entitled Barlow’s Pursuits: pictures of birds and beasts before the era of modern scientific illustration, presented at the Curiously Drawn conference last week. Centred around the work of Francis Barlow (c.1626-1704) as a designer of pictures of animals and birds, this rich paper offered a compelling account on the interconnections between Barlow’s interests as an illustrator and the contemporary preoccupation, shared by many early members of the Royal Society, concerning the quality of images intended to portray the natural world.
Quality, in which sense? On the one hand, as Nathan made clear in his talk, the demand for a higher standard in natural illustrations could be linked to such practices as the production of emblematic treatises and fable compilations –a genre at which Barlow excelled- or, more generally, the use of illustrated books as educational tools, as in the case of copybooks. On the other hand –and this was a key theme throughout the talk–, the interest in good natural illustrations should be seen as part of the wider program of natural investigation advocated by the Royal Society, a program based on direct access and first-hand observation but also highly dependent on the ability to convey information by visual means as a critical tool for the generation and exchange of natural knowledge.
In this regard, by exploring an ample selection of printed works and paintings, Nathan was able to connect several features in Barlow’s style with this desire for a knowledge-making visual culture: the ability to depict his subjects (birds, animals) in different poses, and its associations with the artist’s inventio and the «ad vivum» type of representation; the interest in illustrating not just the external features of a creature, but also its behaviour -the idea of the natural world being «caught in action»; the depiction of exotic subjects as a form of experimentation, and its associations, again, with the artist’s inventio and curiosity. Ultimately, the aim was to examine the emergence of natural history both as a visual pursuit and a science, and to study the role of Barlow’s illustrations within that narrative.
During the discussion Paula Findlen commented on the importance of considering Barlow’s work in connection to earlier or contemporary image-making, image-collecting projects such as the ones associated with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and Cassiano dal Pozzo in Italy, France and Spain. I would add that even if there were some references made to the early seventeenth-century Flemish tradition of animal painting –Jan Brueghel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders– a brief comparison (in another paper) of Barlow’s work with the Netherlandish emblematic tradition could be highly illuminating. Isabelle Charmantier wondered about Barlow’s interests in hunting and Nick Jardine asked about the contrast between the portrayal of individual subjects in natural settings and the portrayal of ideal types in profile.
One particular image attracted a lot of attention both during the talk and the discussion: an engraved plate depicting an ostrich and a cassowary, taken from Francis Willughby and John Ray’s Ornithology –on display in the book exhibition at the hall. In connection to this plate, Sachiko Kusukawa asked whether it is possible to discern when an image was produced «from the life» or from a model. Which brings us back to our original question: what does «from the life» mean? What was at stake behind this claim? How did artists and naturalists respond to it? Paraphrasing Diderot, «this is not a (trivial) story».
José Ramón Marcaida