Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Rousseau depicted on a botanizing excursion

Born in Geneva, Switzerland June 28, 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau became one of the greatest European thinkers of the 18th century. His political, social, and philosophical writings inspired leaders of the French Revolution and influenced what became known as the Romantic generation. Although Rousseau had little formal education, he read widely, and was well-versed in the classics. During his life, Rousseau apprenticed as an engraver, worked as a music teacher, and tutor. After some years living in obscurity, it was through his criticism of French society that he achieved fame. His influence was broad because he expressed himself not only in political and philosophical treatises, but also in novels and autobiographical works, as well as music, music theory, theater, verse, opera, botany, and even chemistry. Rousseau lived, often in exile because of his political opinions, in both cities and rural areas of France, Switzerland, Italy, and England.

Rousseau began to study botany while in Switzerland in the 1760s. There he became acquainted with the botanist Jean-Antoine d’Ivernois who instructed him in the Linnaean system. Interested in the knowledge of plants which came from exploration, collecting, and organizing herbaria, Rousseau engaged in many botanizing expeditions, often alone, in Switzerland, England, and France. His botanical writings include Dictionary of Botany and Letters on the Elements of Botany. In addition, part of his Reveries of a Solitary Walker contains his thoughts on the pleasures and worth of botanical studies. It was during his last years that Rousseau made his distinctive contributions to the study of botany; and, many, such as Johann von Goethe, credit their own interest in nature study to Rousseau’s influence.

Featuring Rousseau’s copy of Dominique Chabrey’s 1658 Omnium Stirpium Sciagraphia et Icones, in which are copious annotations in his handwriting as well as his signature on the title page, this exhibit explores Rousseau’s study of botany through a display of other botanical works from the Lloyd collection, which, while not his personal copies, are the same volumes and editions known to have been in Rousseau’s library at the time of his death in July 1778.

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