Science, Art, and Culture during the

Golden Age of French Natural History, 1790-1830
Professors Sylwester Ratowt and Jane E. Boyd

This course will be held at the American Philosophical Society Museum, located at 105 S. 5th Street (next to Independence Hall), Philadelphia.


  1. Wednesday, October 5, 2011 - Introduction
    Natural history in Paris at the Museum of Natural History and Empress Josephine's Malmaison Estate.
  2. Wednesday, October 12, 2011 - Music for Elephants
    How a pair of live elephants and their fossil relatives revolutionized our understanding of the history of life on earth.
  3. Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - Hunting for Trees
    How France's search for new trees for constructing ships helped to build its far-flung empire.
  4. Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - Black Swans for an Empress

    Why aristocrats, artists, and scientists all admired and collected exotic birds from the far corners of the earth.

  5. Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - A Flower Blooms
    The art and science of Pierre Joseph Redouté's gorgeous botanical illustrations on paper and porcelain.
  6. Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - Everything Giraffe
    The tale of Zarafa, whose 1827 arrival in Paris sparked a fashion craze for all things giraffe.
  7. Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - Natural History Then and Now
    From the Golden Age of French natural history to the Wagner Free institute of Science and Beyond. This class meets at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Two hundred years ago, Paris was the center of science, art, and culture in the Western world. People, ideas, plants and animals from all over the globe flowed into the city. And from Paris, new scientific concepts, stunning works of art, and exciting stories were sent back out to Europe, the Americas, and beyond. This golden age of natural history forever changed the way we view the nature that surrounds us.

This course will explore such topics as the discovery of animal extinction, the role that artists played in shaping new scientific ideas, and science's contribution to the formation of European empires. Stories will include: the musical concert performed for two elephants; the fossils of extinct elephants that Thomas Jefferson sent to French scientists; the black swans from Australia that graced Empress Josephine's gardens; the exotic plants and birds hand-painted on porcelain; and the giraffe that walked across France and created a sensation.

This course is based on the current exhibition at the American Philosophical Society Museum, entitled Of Elephants & Roses: Encounters with French Natural History, 1790-1830. Many of the objects and images in the course are on display in the exhibition, which will be open for viewing before each class session.

Recommended reading:

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology. By Stanley Hedeen. The University of Kentucky Press, 2010.

The Painter as Naturalist from Dürer to Redouté. By Madeleine Pinault. Paris: Flammarion, 1991.

The Coral Thief: A Novel. By Rebecca Stott. Spiegel & Grau, 2010.


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