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"The Father of Natural History Thought": de Buffon

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Say this five times fast: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. A little tricky, but he’s one of the most preeminent of the European naturalists in history. Born in September of 1707, Buffon was the son of a civil servant, Benjamin Leclerc. As the collector of the salt tax in the Montbard area of the Burgundy region, the elder Leclerc was respectable, though not wealthy. At the age of seven, Buffon’s godfather and namesake passed away, without an heir, bequeathing his young godson with a sizable estate. 


Jacques de Seve, engravings, 1834

In 1714 Benjamin Leclerc purchased an estate (which also included the village of Buffon in it), and moved his family to Dijon. While here, Georges-Louis began to attend school. He was trained in law in order to pursue a career in the civil service, as was the family tradition. In 1728, Georges-Louis travelled to Angers to study mathematics and medicine; however, while attending school at the University of  Angers, Georges-Louis met the English Duke of Kingston. This chance meeting led to Georges-Louis travelling Southern France and Italy with the Duke while he was on his Grand European tour. 


While travelling, Georges-Louis’s mother passed, and his father began to look at the proposition of remarriage. Fearing for his inheritance, Georges-Louis returned to Dijon, and claimed approximately 80,000 livre, and, having adopted “de Buffon” as a part of his title while travelling, purchased his namesake.


Martinet, hand-colored engravings, 1817

Martinet, hand-colored engravings, 1817

In his lifetime, Buffon served as the head of the Jardin du Roi (now the Jardin des Plantes), and expanded the facilities there. Here at Dandy Roll though, we primarily know him for his publication, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (don’t fear, we’ll refer to it as Histoire Naturelle). This immense text spanned 36 volumes in its publication (after de Buffon’s death, Bernard-Germain-Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, comte de Lacépède added 8 more volumes to the work), and covered a variety of species. 

 

Histoire Naturelle is considered one of the most notable of early naturalist writings because of its accessibility; the publication was translated into numerous languages, and is considered to have been read by more people than some of de Buffon’s contemporaries, such as Voltaire. Buffon placed considerable importance on the illustration of Histoire Naturelle; we are proud to have engravings from Jacques de Sève for the quadrupeds, and from François-Nicolas Martinet for the birds.


Jacques de Seve, engraving, 1817

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