Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Carl Linnaeus and the Visual Representation of Nature
Isabelle Charmantier


The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) is reputed to have transformed botanical practice by shunning the process of illustrating plants and relying on the primacy of literary descriptions of plant specimens. Botanists and historians have long debated Linnaeus's capacities as a draftsman. While some of his detailed sketches of plants and insects reveal a sure hand, his more general drawings of landscapes and people seem ill-executed. The overwhelming consensus, based mostly on his Lapland diary (1732), is that Linnaeus could not draw. Little has been said, however, on the role of drawing and other visual representations in Linnaeus's daily work as seen in his other numerous manuscripts. These manuscripts, held mostly at the Linnean Society of London, are peppered with sketches, maps, tables, and diagrams. Reassessing these manuscripts, along with the printed works that also contain illustrations of plant species, shows that Linnaeus's thinking was profoundly visual and that he routinely used visual representational devices in his various publications. This paper aims to explore the full range of visual representations Linnaeus used through his working life, and to reevaluate the epistemological value of visualization in the making of natural knowledge. By analyzing Linnaeus's use of drawings, maps, tables, and diagrams, I will show that he did not, as has been asserted, reduce the discipline of botany to text, and that his visual thinking played a fundamental role in his construction of new systems of classification.

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