Q&A: Forgotten fish illustrator remembered through first publication

An illustration of the large scaled gurnard, drawn by naturalist Charles Plumier

An illustration of the large scaled gurnard, drawn by naturalist Charles Plumier. Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris

More than three centuries ago, a French monk made thousands of drawings of plants and animals, traveling under the authority of King Louis XIV to the French Antilles to collect and document the natural history of the islands. These drawings were often the first ever recorded for each species and were completed in remarkable detail.

The illustrations were nearly lost forever during the tumultuous French Revolution, and the volumes compiled by Father Charles Plumier were discovered by chance, found serving as stools for the monks to sit on by the fire in the convent where he lived.

The illustrations are now safely held in a national library in France, but they have never been published as Plumier intended. Ted Pietsch , a University of Washington professor emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences, and curator emeritus of fishes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, has published the first of several volumes showcasing the work of the French naturalist. After many trips to France and a bit of investigative work, Pietsch has compiled Plumier’s fish drawings in a book, " Charles Plumier and His Drawings of French Caribbean Fishes.”



Venezuelan troupial, Icterus icterus

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Common opossum, Didelphis marsupialis

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


European perch, Perca fluviatilis

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Channel billed toucan, Ramphastos vitellinus

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Greater bulldog bat, Noctilio leporinus

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Green iguana, Iguana iguana

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Indian elephant, Elephas maximus indicus

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Large scaled gurnard, Lepidotrigla cavillone

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Lesser Antillean barn owl, Tyto insularis

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Martinican pit viper, Bothrops lanceolata

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Sand tilefish, Malacanthus plumieri

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Snakes, species unspecified

Image courtesy of Emmanuelle Choiseau, © Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris


Hover above each photo to see the caption and click on each one to see the full drawing.

How did you get the idea for a book about Charles Plumier?

TP: Charles Plumier made drawings of hundreds of fishes from the Caribbean, the coast of France and the Mediterranean. As an ichthyologist (one who studies fishes), I thought I should look at these drawings, and this entire project got started from there.

You say in your introduction, "Never was a man so denied a place in history than Father Charles Plumier.” What do you mean by this?

TP: The poor fellow died too young - he was only 58. He put scientific names on hundreds and hundreds of plants, fishes and other animals, but because they were pre-Linnaean - or named before the Latinized nomenclature for species was established - none of Plumier’s species names were recognized as valid. After he died in 1704 he was largely forgotten, and the only thing that saved him was the survival of his manuscripts.

Can you characterize the volume and quality of Plumier’s work, compared with other naturalists?

TP: The number of manuscripts is vast and the quality is far superior, compared with the majority of naturalists of his day. His 39 bound volumes include nearly 6,000 separate figures, of which about 4,300 depict plants, and the remaining drawings are devoted to animals. Four volumes are devoted to fishes; one constituting the master set is reproduced in this book.

How did Plumier get his start?

TP: He started out as an illustrator. His father taught him how to use the lath and work with instruments like clocks. He got into engraving, and then early on joined a monastery and became a monk. There, people began to recognize his talent, and Plumier went on collecting trips in France with famous naturalists, like the great French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Finally, someone recommended him to the king, who sent him to the Caribbean. Plumier traveled to the New World three times to document the flora and fauna. When he returned he was given a pension and the title "Botanist du Roi"; for the first time, he became somewhat famous. He had elaborate plans to publish his work on fishes, but died before it came to be.

Talk about his illustration technique. Do any drawings stand out as exceptional to you?

TP: With his drawings, he not only sketched the whole fish in front of him, but he also dissected and drew the bones. He was one of the very first naturalists to study the skeleton of fishes, and he made illustrations of all sorts of internal structures, including the muscles and guts as well as the bones, all details that very few people cared about at the time. In many of his drawings, Plumier labeled the various body parts with numbers and a color key listed on the side of the sketch. This allowed him to make a final finished rendering intended for later publication. When we compare his drawings today to the animals themselves, it’s amazing how accurate the drawings are.

How did you complete the research for this book? Did it take you down any interesting roads?

TP: What a privilege it was to sit in the library of the natural history museum in Paris ( Bibliothèque Centrale du Museum national d’Histoire naturelle ) and study Plumier’s manuscripts. I’ve been visiting that library for many years - my first visit was 40 years ago. I spent time poring over manuscripts, making sure all of his fish drawings were covered in my book. Once I was able to make a list of the drawings, the library was very kind and digitized everything so I could work from home in Seattle to identify the various species. I sent my identification notes to my ichthyological colleagues, so the work was proofed and checked many times.

Describe the manuscript. How did you arrange it, and how do you tell the story of Plumier and his work?

TP: One of Plumier’s volumes contains numbered drawings of all the different kinds of fishes he encountered, and we suspect he was preparing that manuscript for publication before he died. We arranged the book exactly how he left his manuscript. The big piece of work for me was identifying all of the different species. The names he gave to plants and animals were lengthy Latin polynomials that described color and shape, so I had to identify everything and put currently recognized Latinized names to each. From start to finish, it took about 10 years.