The Drawings of Antoine Nicholas Duchesne for his Natural History of the Gourds. Harry S. Paris. 2007. Museum National d'Historie Naturelle, Publications Scientifiques, CP39, 57, Rue Cuvier, F-7505 Paris France. 454 pp., 258 color plates, List price $257. hardbound. ISBN 978-2-85653-604-9.
This gigantic book weighing about 6 kg and measuring 32 cm x 44 cm is the result of nearly two decades of research by eminent cucurbitologist, Harry S. Paris of the ARO, Newe Ya'ar Research Center, Israel. The search, with many disappointments along the way, finally led to the discovery of manuscript 5007 consisting of two voluminous portfolios containing Duchesne's gourd paintings and sketches, but without any accompanying manuscript.
Antoine Nicholas Duchesne (1747–1827) was born at Versailles, France. His father, who taught him the basics of art, science, and language, was the Superintendent of Royal Buildings. Later, he became the student of Royal Botanist, Bernard de Jussieu under whose tutelage he learned about horticulture, plant classification, and plant morphology. This education and training led to his widely acclaimed first book, Manuel de Botanique that was published in 1764 to wide approval. All of this activity occurred at 17 years of age.
Before his cucurbit studies, Duchesne did classic studies on strawberry, leading to publication of the also well-received Histoire naturelle des fraisiers in 1766.
Plants of the genus Cucurbita produce fruit ranging from less than 50 g to over 400 kg and having an array of vibrant colors with various stripes and color pattern that are cultivar specific. Duchesne grew gourds of different types together and in isolation. Those grown together were subject to cross pollination and produced fruit that differed among themselves. On the other hand, gourds grown in isolation produced fruit the same as their parents. After six years of study, he painstakingly documented his tests with elegant paintings of the results.
Manuscript 5007 contains the very detailed drawings and paintings mostly of cucurbit fruit, but also of flowers and vines. The watercolors show the shape, color, protuberances, and striping pattern of these beautiful fruit, sometimes in full size. Cucurbits, being of New World origin, were unknown in Europe before 1492. In the succeeding two centuries, very many cucurbits were brought to Europe where they were used mostly as objects of curiosity rather than for food.
Duchesne's drawings and their legends are the heart of this book. However, there are interesting short chapters in English or French that assist in one's understanding and appreciations of the subject of the book. In order of presentation, they are Prologue, Biography of Antoine Nicholas Duchesne, Essai sur l'Histoire Naturelle des Courges, Introduction, the Genus Cucurbita, Glossary, Experiments to Define the Species of Cucurbita, context of the Drawings, and Duchesne's General Remarks on the Pepo.
This book is not one to take to the beach, to read in bed, or to balance on your knee. It is definitely one to read at your desk, or as I have done on the dining room table. Although awkward to handle because of its size and weight, its dimensions were necessary to present the integrity and beauty of Duchesne's paintings. Again, because of the size of the book, it is difficult to shift from a Plate Legend to the Plate itself some 100 pages distant.
Altogether, the drawings of Antoine Nicholas Duchesne and his Natural History of the Gourds is a magnificent book what will be of great interest to horticulturists, botanists, and art enthusiasts.