Jean-Baptiste Audebert (French, 1759-1800) “Le maki gris”
Jean-Baptiste Audebert (French, 1759-1800)
“Le maki gris”
Original watercolor study for Histoire Naturelle de Singes et des Makis
[The Natural History of Apes and Monkeys]
Watercolor and gouache on paper
Annotated in pencil
Paper size: 16 ½ x 12 in
Frame size: 27 ¾ x 23 ¼ in
By the end of the eighteenth century, scientific investigation was beginning to come of age and Church dogma regarding creation and the hierarchy of beings was being questioned. It was still going to take a further sixty years for Charles Darwin to establish his theory of evolution, at the core of which was man’s relation to primates. But the foundation of this Englishman’s ideas were already being formulated, most particularly by scientists in France.
Various revolutionary French thinkers were to materialize during the last years of the Ancien Regime and after its demise. Their talents were fostered at the Jardin des Plantes, which under the Revolutionary government soon was reformed and renamed the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle. Thus, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was among the first to openly suggest organic change and comment upon the similarities between humans and apes, even going so far as to talk about a common ancestry of Man and primates in his monumental Histoire Naturelle, begun in 1749. His efforts were followed by those of Etienne Geoffrey St. Hilaire, a professor of vertebrate zoology at the Jardin, his assistant Georges Cuvier, and the remarkable scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
It was into this atmosphere of intense scientific discovery that many artists were thrust, finding employment in zoological and ornithological illustration. Among the greatest of these illustrators can be found the names of Nicholas Robert, Pierre Joseph Redouté and Gerard van Spaendonck. However, Jean-Baptiste Audebert excelled in the painting of primates and his highly respected Histoire Naturelle de Singes et des Makis [Natural History of Apes and Monkeys] is regarded as one of the pioneering works of the golden age of French natural history publication. The present works are studies for three of the plates from this remarkable work.
Audebert was born at Rochefort and trained as a miniaturist painter. This initial training gave him a tremendous ability to capture detail, an important skill for a scientific illustrator and a talent clearly displayed in these exquisite watercolor studies. His introduction to natural history began with a commission to help in the preparation of plates for Guillaume Antoine Olivier’s Entomologie of 1789 to 1808. Audebert was also to work on Oiseaux dores ou a reflets metalliques [Golden birds or of metallic sheen], a work begun in the year of his death, 1800. Thus, the present watercolors are studies for the only work to be completed by Audebert during his lifetime and published in ten parts between 1797 and 1800.
Audebert’s innate skill was to temper the scientific nature of these works with an understanding of the aesthetic appeal of the image. In each he not only captures the monkey’s form and anatomy but also its characteristics and mannerisms, thus reflecting many of the evolution theories posited by his contemporary Frenchmen and which lay the foundations to Charles Darwin’s great writings. Therefore, these studies can be admired not only for their beauty but also for their importance in advancing modern science. They represent the perfect union of science and art.
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