Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book of the Week: A Masterpiece in Eight Volumes

For this week's book of the week, we highlight an eight volume title, Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, ou, Histoire naturelle des plantes usuelles des colonies françaises, anglaises, espagnoles et portugaise (1821-1829), by Michel Étienne Descourtilz. The stunning illustrations in this work were completed by Descourtilz's son, Jean Théodore Descourtilz. This work is the first that Jean Théodore Descourtilz was known to have illustrated.

Michel Étienne Descourtilz was born November 25, 1775. A French physician, botanist, and historiographer, Descourtilz spent the years from 1799-1803 in Haiti, where he remained during the Haitian revolution. The plant collections that comprised his studies for this work were collected mostly between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien. Unfortunately, his natural history collections, as well as many of his drawings, were destroyed during the revolution. After returning to Paris in 1803, Descourtilz served as a physician at a hospital in Beaumont, and went on to serve as the president of the Paris Linnean society.

For this work, Descourtilz originally focused on the medicinal properties of the plants collected and presented. Descourtilz, in fact, arranged the plants in this work according to the medicinal properties as he ascertained them. However, Descourtilz eventually decided to include plants displaying commercial potential. The resulting work, with the "variety of tropical flora," and its 600 plates, "has become, overwhelmingly, a celebration of the beauty of the flora of the area." In 2002, a second edition set of this work sold at Christie's auction house for $17,925 (and you can look at it, and even print it, if you want, for free!).

This week's book of the week,Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, ou, Histoire naturelle des plantes usuelles des colonies françaises, anglaises, espagnoles et portugaise (1821-1829), by Michel Étienne Descourtilz, was contributed by the New York Botanical Garden.

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