JCSM called nine members of the university community to respond objectively and subjectively to art from JCSM’s growing collection of natural history prints. The resulting exhibition is an orchestrated chorus of diverse voices responding to the art, science, and wonder of representing the natural world.

To expand the conversation, Ralph Brown Draughon Library’s Special Collections Department loaned materials from their collections; JCSM appreciates their kind collaboration. We also thank the Auburn University Museum of Natural History in the College of Science and Mathematics for loaning materials from their ornithology collection.

Kathryn H. Braund

William Bartram’s “Animated Scenes of Nature”

This selection of prints was curated by Kathryn H. Braund, Hollifield Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. Bartram’s work first attracted her attention due to his description of the Southeastern Indians, her research specialty. But her curiosity about the natural environment of the South sustains her interest in his writings and art.

William Bartram (1739–1823) is the best known American botanist of the eighteenth century as well as one of early America’s most widely read authors. The devout Quaker spent most of his life helping run his family’s landscape business at his father’s residence near Philadelphia. Bartram is best known for “Travels“, published in 1791, which documented his tour of eight southern states from 1773–77 and built on an earlier journey to East Florida in 1765–66. That extraordinary book, which stands as one of the great classics of American literature, was equally influential as a new approach to writing about the natural world and continues to serve as a rich source for the study of the southern landscape and southeastern Indians.

In these “animated scenes,” Bartram the artist reveals the motion, conflict, and drama inherent in simplest natural settings. The prints here feature carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap and pitcher plant that were native to the American South and eagerly sought after by plant collectors in the Atlantic world. To Bartram, these “curious” plants defied the passivity expected of a member of the “vegetable kingdom” by actively consuming animate beings. Bartram was also fascinated by the “motion and volition” by which plants twirled and reached for the sun or, like the flytrap, actively expanded and contracted to trap prey. Rhetorically, Bartram asked the readers of “Travels,” was it not apparent that “vegetable beings are endued with some sensible faculties or attributes, similar to those that dignify animal nature.”

The four works here were all produced for English patrons following his first Florida tour. The original manuscript drawings are now owned by the British Museum of Natural History. The prints in this exhibition are facsimile impressions produced by Alecto Historical Editions. The prints and book are on loan from Auburn University’s Ralph Brown Draughon Library Special Collections and Archives.

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