The Naturalist Collecting Community in Paris, 1760—1789: A Preliminary Survey.

19 Jan 2018

Historical studies have usually separated collecting in the fine arts, where the focus is upon connoisseurs, amateurs and the art market, from that in the sciences, where instruments, cabinets and classificatory schemes have been of central importance. For the Renaissance, it has long been established that collectors of natural history were a subset of fine art collectors. But narratives of the later eighteenth century are dominated by the rise of the scientific institution, and few studies of natural history collecting outside institutions exist. What did the community of natural history collectors in late Old Regime France in fact collect? Who were these collectors? How did they understand the purpose of collecting itself? These questions, which can be explored using a range of sources including auction catalogues, guidebooks, travel accounts and inventories, take on added significance towards the end of the Old Regime within debates over the role of nature as the source of lasting and virtuous social order. In this essay, I will argue that an object-based approach to the history of collecting offers new possibilities for understanding natural history collecting as a way of connecting orderly minds and households to new concerns with governance and the nation. At the same time, this approach breaks down anachronistic divisions between ‘scientific’ and ‘amateur’ collecting in natural history, affording a new perspective upon the priorities, practices and approaches of institutional naturalists.