Friday, 23 August 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Dezallier d'Argenville "La Conchyliologie"

Shell collecting comes naturally to most people. The world is blessed with an abundance of striking beautiful specimens, which for the most part grace the shoreline of our white sandy beaches. Casual collectors are often content with acquiring a few uncommon specimens, for display purposes in their home. Even the tiniest shell awakens the soul and can be considered a gift of nature which reflects the marvels of creation and lifts the spirit to the most sublime contemplations.
Publications that dealt with mollusks and their shells have been of interest for centuries. Dating back to the fourth century B.C., we find writings by Aristotle on conchology. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries shells became an object of curiosity. European aristocrats kept such objects in their 'cabinets of curios'. A mixture of antiquities and natural wonders encouraged a focus on the marvels of nature rather than scientific observation.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century people began to regard shells as having scientific interest. It was at this time when curiosity merged with scientific study resulting in elaborate and richly illustrated books on the subject. Of worthy mention are celebrated authors such as Buonnani ("Recreatione dell 'Occhio e della Mente",1681), Lister ("Historia Conchyliorum", 1685-1692), and Rumphius ("D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer", 1705).
A new rational approach was applied to the examination of shells. Special attention was given to new systematic classification arrangement of the “Mollusca” (Mollusks) and the description and illustration of new species. Shell collecting and its scientific study defines Conchology.
While Linnaeus (1707-78) is famed for introducing a system of classification and naming species upon which the scientific world is based, his revolutionary work entitled “Systema Naturae” lacked the illustrations that were most desired by collectors and scientists of the time.

La Conchyliologie. Frontispiece

In 1742 Dezallier d'Argenville's interest in natural history resulted in three treatises, on shells and minerals, “L'histoire naturelle éclaircie dans deux de ses parties principales, la lithologie et la conchyliologie” (Paris 1742), “La Conchyliologie, ou Traité sur la nature des coquillages”, (1757) and “La Conchyliologie ou Histoire Naturelle des Coquilles de Mer, d'Eau Douce, Terrestres et Fossiles. Avec un Traité de la Zoomorphose, ou représentation des Animaux qui les habitent: Ouvrage dans lequel on trouve une nouvelle Méthode de les diviser”, 1780.
Under the name of “Conchyliologie”, originating from two Greek words, concha (shell) and sermo, (speech), his work emphasized a new method of classification and addressed the need for admirable illustrations.
Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville (Paris, 1 July 1680–29 November 1765), “avocat” to the Parliament of Paris and secretary to the king, was a connoisseur of gardening. He became well-known after the publication of his celebrated treatise on French Garden design entitled "La théorie et la pratique du jardinage" (published for the first time anonymously in 1709 and subsequently in 1713).
Dezailller d'Argenville was called upon to edit or contribute to more than 600 entries in the “Encyclopédie” of Diderot and d’Alembert, published in parts from 1751.
The cabinet (office) of Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d' Argenville, curious in and of itself, was especially renowned for his personal collections of works of art and shells. He maintained a correspondence with scholars from all over Europe which helped him to build his collection, resulting in a collection of natural history curiosities, far superior to any of his contemporaries.
In 1736 the "taste" for Natural history began to spread in Paris. D'Argenville profited from the eighteenth century's infatuation with the natural sciences and, indeed, contributed to the vogue by publishing descriptions of the most notable exhibits of natural history in Paris and the provinces. It was at this time that many shells from private collections were featured in publications intended for wealthy purchasers.

La Conchyliologie. Plate II

Famous illustrations of exotic seashells reflected and stimulated the great interest of 18th century Europeans in the arrival of elaborate specimens from increasingly distant shores. Shells were considered to be exotic treasures, objects of marvel and elegance.
New specimens were made available and acquired by European collectors though epic voyages, such as Captain Cooks Pacific Ocean Exploration.
This landmark work on conchology showcases an illustrated inventory of a comprehensive documentation of shells in Eighteenth century France.
First published in 1742, this work became very popular amongst private collectors of the time. The connoisseurship of shells and their most colorful and fantastic form was a gentleman's occupation and a worthy inclusion in a cabinet de curiosities before it became a science under the Linnaean system of classification.
The “Conchyliologie” was used by Carl Linnaeus for the organization of his own collection. Aimed at facilitating the determination and classification of shells, being marine, river or ground, fossil or current, D'Argenville used a binominal list (nomenclature) which precedes that of Linnaeus. The shells were classified in the same fashion that botanists used to identify plants, classes, families, genre and species.
The method that the author uses for this classification is very simple. The distinction is made between univalves, bivalves and multivalves. This encompasses all of the known shells. The examination of the general shape and sometimes of the mouth of the shell determines the family and the genre.
All that concerns the formation of shells and their geographical location, the manner in which they are collected and their placement and order in the Natural History Cabinets, the way to improve their surface appearance and the vivacity of their colors is presented in the most detailed format.
In 1757, during the publication of the second edition, Dezallier supplemented the text and plates by adding a description of the animals that inhabited the shells entitled "Zoomorphose". This part succeeds the section on the “Conchyliologie”. The word Zoomorphose derives from two Greek words: zoo (animal) and morphos (form). It is the representation of the animals which inhabit the shells and their descriptions. The illustrations have been drawn in the Indies and in many European harbors.
The present much enlarged third edition from which these color plates were meticulously recreated is superb. Published in 1780, it is rarer than the first edition and offers an additional selection of plates.
The first edition only contained 41 plates. It was published after the death of the author by Jacques de Favanne and his son Jacques Guillaume. The 1780 edition contains three emblematic hand colored copper engraved frontispieces, one of which was engraved after Boucher, one engraved portrait and 80 magnificent hand colored copper engraved plates. The third edition was divided in two volumes concerning sea shells, river shells and earth shells.

La Conchyliologie. Plate XIV

While portrayed in a conventional manner yet decoratively arranged, the “Conchyliologie” provides excellent illustrations. A work of a connoisseur of the fine arts, we are granted a deluxe production, portraying countless shells, arranged by their classification, on 80 plates.
Accurately drawn, hand colored and arranged in an eye-catching kaleidoscope composition, the marvelous detailed plates give us a pictorial reference illustrating a system or order to describe new species that were not yet recorded.
The original sketches for the copperplates were drawn from life by Dezallier himself.
He was able to record in fine detail all that he observed as a naturalist during his travels. Many of the shells illustrated throughout the work are life size.
Dezallier D'Argenville’s “Conchyliologie” had a huge impact on its own time, and is highly valued by present-day historians as a record of the unprecedented innovation of techniques and vocations of the pre-Industrial world. It is also a great resource for collectors, artists and scholars.

For more information on the original book, please contact us at the following e-mail address:

La Conchyliologie. Plate XVI

No comments:

Welcome to The Art of Living with Art

This is Vasari Books & Fine Works of Art Blog.

We started our company with the goal of providing a fine art resource for those individuals wishing to collect historically significant original artwork.

Some of the images displayed on this blog and our website ( may evoke a sense of familiarity as many of the original pieces we offer are in fact being reproduced in a wide variety of interior design applications. We are fully aware that it is a simple matter to purchase a copied look. However, we feel you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that the ability to own an original work can be not only quite affordable, but a very personally rewarding experience as well.

Based on diminishing supply, high quality prints are becoming scarce. It is important to collect original prints that meet high standards of condition, quality and artistic merit, a connoisseurship that takes years to acquire and one that Vasari Gallery immediately makes available for purchase through its superb artistic offering.

We at Vasari have a strong personal interest in the artwork we represent and are committed to providing our clients with quality original art. We stand behind each work of art we offer and pride ourselves in taking a collector approach to the business of selling art. We guarantee all rare books, antiquarian prints and art works to be original and authentic.