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Antoine Gallay //Drawing as an epistemic practice: The work and status of draughtsmen and engravers in early modern scientific institutions (1650-1750)

During the last few decades, our understanding of both social and epistemic aspects of early modern scientific illustration has been considerably broadened, and it is nowadays commonly acknowledged that pictures played an active role in the development of modern science. However, while most studies have hitherto focused on the impact of pictures – once achieved – on scientific works, I intend to investigate how the making of pictures by professional draughtsmen and engravers led to the production of new knowledge, and to what extent, in such cases, artists were then recognized as genuine actors within scientific milieus.
This approach goes against the main historiographical narrative for which draughtsmen and engravers were merrily used as the savants’ “hands” and would have thus played no other significant role. In fact, when closely studying the pictorial production of the early Académie royale des sciences, I have gathered evidence that, in some cases, draughtsmen – and, to a lesser extent, engravers – genuinely contributed to the epistemic enterprise. Indeed, not only were they able to observe minute details in specimen and artefacts, but they were also able to consider that such details could be meaningful – while savants were more often prompt to disregard them if they did not fit with their prior knowledge.
This preliminary research led me to consider the potential value of a broader study on the relationship between illustrators and scientists in early scientific institutions. By focusing on the actual practices, status and ambitions of scientific illustrators while considering their connection with traditional artistic practices, I hope to shed new light on the complex status of scientific drawing in early modern Europe. Moreover, this study may contribute to the history of the impact of artisans and practitioners on scientific change, following Pamela Smith’s revaluation of Edgar Zilsel’s thesis on the role of artisanal practices in the Scientific Revolution. Finally, my aim is to provide a more nuanced view on Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s thesis on the historicity of objectivity by reevaluating the evolution of the pictorial production in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
[Caption: Sébastien Leclerc, L’Académie des sciences et des beaux arts (detail), 1698, etching and engraving, Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale]