The Age of Enlightenment Le Siècle de Lumières

‘It is a noble and beautiful spectacle to see man raising himself, so to speak, from nothing by his own exertions; dissipating, by the light of reason, all the thick clouds in which he was by nature enveloped; mounting above himself; soaring in thought even to the celestial regions;…’

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1750, A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences).

The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Ideas concerning God, reason, nature and man were meshed into a worldview that was widely embraced and created revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought was the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were knowledge, freedom, and happiness.

The leading proponents of the Enlightenment were known as ‘philosophes’ — mostly writers and intellectuals such as Voltaire (1694–1778), Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). They were supported by the ‘salonnières’ — the socially conscious and learned women who regularly entertained them. These women sponsored their discussions of literary works, artistic creations, and new political ideas. By 1750, the salonnières, their salons, and the philosophes had made France the intellectual centre of Europe.

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Nova Tabula India Orientalis
Published at the Werrelt Caert, Kalverstraet, Amsterdam, 1697 (1702–5)

Carel Allardt & Hugo Allardt

This map covers an area from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan, including the East Indies and Australia as discovered by Tasman, lettered Nova Hollandia, Terra del Zur. Clearly marked is the location of the wreck of the English East Indiaman Trial (1622) off the Western Australian coast.

At the bottom of the map is the title cartouche, accompanied by a vignette of natives and animals.

Lent by Jock Clough collection

The New Science ‘Natural Philosophy’

‘The arts and sciences, in general, during the three or four last centuries, have had a regular course of progressive improvement. The inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation and commerce, and the advancement of civilization and humanity, have occasioned changes in the condition of the world and the human character which would have astonished the most refined nations of antiquity. A continuation of similar exertions is everyday rendering Europe more and more like one community, or single family’

(John Adams, 1735–1826, second president of the United States).

In the 18th century, the aftermath of the scientific revolution spilled over into the new Enlightenment. France became an international focus for the advancement of science. French became the international scientific language with scholars traveling to Paris to refine their education and meet the great teachers of the new sciences.

Chemists gained new understanding of major elements and biologists developed a vital new classification system for the natural species. The new scientific methods were applied to the study of human society, sketching and the modern social sciences.

Access to the ‘new science’ became widespread as the scientific institutions and academies were opened to anyone who could pay the necessary fee. Experiments using instruments such as air pumps, microscopes and electrical machines provided immediate and convincing proof of scientific ideas.

In the 1770s, publishers started to produce popular science books for children. Today’s science books often feature the same experiments and tell the same stories about the past masters of science.

Hemisphere Meridional pour voir plus distinctement Les Terres Australes
Hand-coloured. First published in Paris, 1714
Guillaume de L’Isle of the Académie Royale des Sciences

Guillaume de L’Isle’s map of the Southern Hemisphere illustrates the scientific approach taken by 18th-century French cartographers. The map shows that de L’Isle was a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences. He was later appointed to the highest honour as ‘Premier Geographe du Roi’. His critical approach to the maps of his predecessors, backed by his training in mathematics and astronomy under J.D. Cassini, earned him early recognition as the ‘first scientific cartographer’ and the foremost geographer of his age.

This map shows Abel Tasman’s tracks and those of William Dampier in 1699–1700.

Lent by Jock Clough collection

The Political World

‘Today, in spite of all the knowledge that has been acquired through the mathematical sciences and the discoveries of navigators, a great many things still need to be found and vast countries to be discovered. Almost all the land that lies near the Antarctic pole is unknown to us; all we know is that it exists and that it is separated from all the other continents by the Ocean; there are also a number of places to discover near the Arctic pole, and we must admit, with a touch of regret, that the earlier ardour motivating the search for new lands has cooled quite considerably for more than a century’
(Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, 1749, Histoire Naturelle).

During the 17th and early 18th centuries French maritime interest was mainly directed towards establishing strategic bases in North America and the Caribbean. The Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763, brought French colonial development to an end, and saw Great Britain apparently set on world supremacy. French political strategy was redirected to occupying unsettled territories at key points on sea routes to counter the British expansion.

France and Great Britain competed vigorously to organise expeditions to seek new colonial interests and scientific knowledge. King Louis XV (1723–1774) was greatly interested in geography and realised that if France was to equal its rival as a major power the Government needed to finance expeditions around the globe.

The officers on these expeditions were given precise instructions detailing their geographical limits, areas to explore and intelligence they would need to gather. The ships’ companies included specialists in astronomy, mathematics, physics, natural sciences and cartography to name a few. Naval officers were often eminent astronomers or mathematicians in their own right.

Louis XVI giving instructions to de Laperouse

Louis XVI giving his instructions to de Lapérouse

King Louis XVI (1774–1791) was passionate about geography, navigation and the discovery of new lands. He personally gave instructions to Jean-François de Lapérouse at a final audience on 26 June 1785. A painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1817) held in the Palais de Versailles documents this last meeting. This is an image of a copy made by Edouard Nuel around 1909 which is held in the State Library of NSW.

Behind the King stands the Maréchal de Castries, Secretary of the Navy, holding a copy of the King’s Statement to be ‘Used as Specific Instructions to Monsieur de La Pérouse’. Captain de Fleurieu, Director of Ports and Arsenals, who helped to prepare the plan for the expedition is also shown. King Louis XVI took a close interest in the organization and progress of the voyage.

De Lapérouse and his ships the Boussole and Astrolabe left Botany Bay on 10 March 1788 and were never seen again. On 20 January 1793, King Louis XVI was guillotined. Before the execution it is said that he asked his secretary: ‘…a-t-on des nouvelles de Monsieur de Lapérouse?’ — ‘…have we any news of Monsieur de Lapérouse?’ No news ever reached the King.

Reproduced courtesy of State Library of New South Wales (Inv. Nr. ML39).

Napoléon Bonaparte — patron of the New Sciences

‘I would have traced a path following the route of Galileo and Newton. And because I have always succeeded in my great enterprises, I should also have won great distinction for myself by scientific work. I would have left behind me the memory of great discoveries’

(Napoleon Bonaparte, quoted in Maurice P. Crossland, 1967, The Society of Arcueil, London).

Napoléon Bonaparte would have liked to have been a scientist, if he hadn’t been a general. He had a genuine interest in science, mathematics, gardens, natural history, classics and arts. When he came to power in 1799, as First Consul of the French Republic, his government supported all branches of the sciences with a renewed sense of national purpose. Napoléon wanted to impress Europe with his interest in non-military questions.

Unsuccessful in his bid to join the Lapérouse expedition, Napoléon continued his interest in the scientific discoveries made in the Terres Australes with his support of the Baudin expedition. His instructions were quite specific:

‘You will make up this collection of living animals of all kinds, insects, and especially of birds with beautiful plumage. As regards animals, I don’t need to tell you how to choose between those intended for the menageries and those for a collection of pure pleasure. You will appreciate that it must comprise flowers, shrubs, seeds, shells, precious stones, timber for fine works of marquetry, insects, butterflies, etc. …’

(Napoléon Bonaparte).

Josephine and Malmaison

‘The curiosity that Josephine showed for the natural sciences, especially botany, reveal an open mind and not, as her detractors like to portray, a frivolous one’

(Jill Duchess of Hamilton, 1999, Napoleon the Empress and the Artist, Kangaroo Press, Sydney).

The Empress Josephine, was an extremely keen gardener creating an extraordinary garden at Malmaison, her property on the banks of the Seine, outside Paris. The extensive grounds became home to her passion for roses and the many newly discovered plants and animals from the antipodes.

Josephine pioneered the growth of eucalypt trees, Melaleuca, Acacia and Casuarina, and propagated many Australian species of plants. She commissioned Belgian artist and botanist Pierre Joseph Redouté, former court painter to Marie Antoinette, to paint the many plants and flowers in the garden. These exquisite paintings were published and acclaimed across Europe, bringing more fame to the garden.

Live kangaroos, emus and other ‘exotic’ animals wandered in the grounds, the black swans becoming a spectacular feature. The black swans from the Baudin expedition were the first outside Australia to build nests of sticks and reeds and lay fertile eggs. Josephine adopted them as her unofficial emblem about the house and gardens. A swan was carved on the side of her elaborate gilded bed and into decorative swan shaped metal brackets.

The Muséum d’Histoire naturelle and Josephine were actively competing for the specimens from the Baudin expedition. When charm failed, Josephine influenced Napoléon to ask the Minister of the Interior to intervene and divert them to her garden. The professors of the Muséum were consequently ‘invited’ by the Minister to defer to the desires of Madame Bonaparte. After her divorce from Napoléon, Josephine remained in the house until her death in 1814. Malmaison is now a national museum.