Art and science: navigating the maze in the 19th century

Monde Papillons 2
Who painted this? Read on to find out!


Let’s begin with a little quiz… Which historical character said…


Classification is Ariadna’s thread in the Dedalus of nature.


So concise and poetic. Any guesses?


The answer is Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name: George Sand¹‌.

Aurore Dupin (1804 – 1876) was a French writer, socialist and feminist. Her novels and memoirs are highly regarded, and she is also remembered for refusing to conform to the gender norms of her time. Aurore was not only an accomplished writer; she was also an amateur naturalist with great fondness for Nature. In this post I wish to bring a little bit of light into Aurore’s dabbling with the natural sciences.

Aurore around 1835. Image in the public domain, taken from here.


Botany isn’t for girls? The importance of teachers

Aurore was much in contact with Nature from a young age. She was particularly attached to the fields and forests surrounding her family’s house in Nohant (a country house located in the French region of Berry). In fact, it was during her teenage years in Nohant that her tutor (François Deschartres) encouraged her to wear “men’s clothes” (a girl wearing trousers… the scandal!), so as to be more comfortable when hunting, riding horseback or roaming the fields. Aurore was further in contact with the natural sciences since she aided Deschartres (who was also a pharmacist and physician) in preparing medicines.

Nohant house (left) and a view of the gardens (right). Images by SiefkinDR, CC BY-SA 3.0, taken from here.

She also received lessons on anatomy and osteology by Stéphane Ajasson de Grandsagne2 (1802 – 1845). Stéphane appears to have collaborated with George Cuvier (1769 – 1832), but so far, I haven’t been able to get any information on this collaboration. Similar to Aurore, Stéphane was interested in the natural sciences, but the main focus of his activity was on writing and publishing. Stéphane authored over 200 volumes for a popular science encyclopedia (my attempt at translating the title: Popular library, or learning available to all classes and intelligences), which sadly was a financial fiasco. Additionally, he appears as having translated works by Pliny and Seneca.

Aurore also received lessons on Botany from her tutor Deschartres, much to Aurore’s dismay. The pedantic approach of Deschartres left a rather painful memmory, so at that time Aurore just didn’t see the point in Botany. In Aurore’s own words (from her autobiography “Story of my life“):

Nevertheless, I did study arithmetic, versification, and Latin, and even a little Greek and a little botany for good measure, and none of it appealed to me. To understand botany (which is not at all a science considered to be within the purview of young ladies) it is necessary to know about the mystery of procreation and the role of the sexes; indeed, that is about all that merits curiosity or interest in the way plants are structured. As you can well imagine, Deschartres made me skip over that issue, and I was much too innocent for the slightest observation in this area to occur to me on my own. Botany was thus reduced for me to purely arbitrary classifications, since I did not grasp its unspoken laws, and to its Greek and Latin nomenclature, which was but arid work for the memory. What use was it for me to know the scientific names of all those pretty meadow plants to which the peasants and herdsmen have given names that are often more poetic and always more meaningful – wild thyme, shepherd’s-purse, sorrel, cat’s foot, balsam, ragwort, wild succory, lamb’s lettuce, five fingers, forget-me-not, daisy, bellwort, etc. The barbarous-sounding botanical names seemed to me the fantasy of pedants, just as for Latin and French versification, I wondered, in my superb ignorance, of what use were these desiccated categories and rules which inhibit the flow of thought and nip it in the bud.

In spite of all of this, Aurore became a passionate amateur botanist! If one teacher (Deschartres) had caused a distaste for botany, it would take a different teacher to transform the distaste into enthusiasm. The teacher (and friend) in question was to be Jules Néraud (1795 – 1855), a lawyer and amateur botanist. Aurore nicknamed him “the Malgache” on account of plant collections he had conducted in Madagascar. Jules also collected plants in the island of Réunion (around 1815 – 1819), although a substantial part of his plant collections where lost due to a shipwreck. Upon his return to France (around 1820), Jules cultivated exotic plants in his garden. It was these exotic plants started the friendship between Jules and Aurore.

Our dhalia
Follow this blog for more historically accurate memes. Meme generated here.

Aurore related how one day she was riding horseback (in 1820, while she was 16), when she saw a beautiful Dahlia growing over a garden fence… for the first time! Nowadays we might take ornamentals plants for granted, but since many of them are non-native, they haven’t been around forever. Any common garden plant has been a complete novelty at some point! Anyways, Aurore fancied the flower, so she reached over the fence and stole it. Somehow Jules learned of this, and he sent additional Dahlia to Aurore. Aurore planted the flowers in her garden, and some years later they met in person and became friends.

Jules was decisive in changing Aurore’s perception on plants. This shows the importance of having the right teachers and mentors! Again in Aurore’s own words (google-translated excerpt from her book “Letters from a traveller”):

 My tutor had made nature an unbearable pedant; the Malgache made me an adorable mistress. He mercilessly tore off the variegated Greek and Latin dress through which I had always shuddered to look at her. He showed her to me naked like Rhea, and beautiful like herself. He also spoke to me about the stars, the seas, the mineral kingdom, the animated products of matter, but above all insects for which he had since then conceived a passion almost as lively as for plants.

Aurore eventually became well acquainted with the local flora, and started an herbarium. The herbarium was enriched by plant collections during her trips around Europe, and even by North-American plants brought by her son in 1861 (more on him below). Unfortunately, the bulk of the herbarium has been lost, only 68 specimens remain. Aurore was also an adept gardener, and she became learned in horticulture as she was learned in botany.

Jules and Aurore remained friends for years, and they even collaborated. Jules authored one elementary book about botany: “The botany of infancy” (1847), where she related the characteristics of the plant families to his daughter Àngele. This book was prefaced by Aurore, but the preface was absent in the book’s reedited and revised version (“The botany of my daughter”, 1866). The reedition went on to become a bestseller, how sad that the author wasn’t alive to enjoy the success.


Maurice Sand: crossing disciplines

Maurice Sand in the 1880s. Image in the public domain, taken from here.

An interest for the natural sciences might by hereditary: her son Maurice Sand (1823 – 1889) was an accomplished artist and entomologist! (Go here for an engrossing account of Aurore’s and Maurice’s passion for Nature) Maurice used to chase butterflies as a child, and from the 1850s his interest became increasingly scientific and systematic. Maurice was furnished with an entomological cabinet at the country house of Nohant, where he could organize his collection of cocoons, caterpillars and butterflies. His mother assisted him in butterfly hunting, which could take place during the day or at night. To catch nocturnal species, the technique was to spread honey over the bark of some trees. A sort of hatcher was constructed, that allowed to rear caterpillars through the metamorphosis.

Monde Papillons 1
Maurice was a fine illustrator. A plate from “The world of butterflies” (1867). Image in the public domain taken from here.

All this effort lead to the publication of two books on entomology. The first book (in 1867) is a work in two parts, as a result of a collaboration between Maurice Sand and the entomologist Alphonse Depuiset (1822 – 1886). The book was prefaced by Aurore, with Maurice authoring “The world of butterflies. Walks through fields” and Depuisset authoring “Natural history of the European Lepidoptera”. Maurice’s part was sort of a manual on butterfly hunting and building a collection, while Depuisset’s part is a classification of European butterflies. Both parts are beautifully illustrated. Maurice was an excellent illustrator, so his part contains dozens of beautiful vignettes. The second book (in 1879) was a fully-fledged scientific publication, entitled “Reasoned catalogue of the lepidopterans of the regions of Berry and Auvergne”. This catalogue lists around 6000 lepidopterans, quite a feat! Other scholarly works by Maurice include a study on commedia dell’arte (an early form of professional theatre). He also appears to have been interested in geology, although without publishing about it. Additional details on Maurice’s facet as an amateur geologist might be found in this PhD thesis, but is a story for another post.

Monde papillons portada
Beautiful illustrations such as this are a treat to the eyes. A plate from “The world of butterflies” (1867). Image in the public domain taken from here.

I find it so remarkable that both mother and son were artists and naturalists. It makes me wonder whether we are losing the spirit of crossing disciplines. Both Aurore and Maurice were accomplished in the arts and in the sciences, will we see many more characters like them? Perhaps a way to find our way in the maze of the world is to cross the borders between arts and sciences. Will intersdisciplinarity be the thread of Arianna in our current Dedalus?



A pair of concluding remarks: on memes and stimuli

I’m aware it’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog. It is time to resume activity here. There are two things that I wish to say.

First, I think science needs more memes, so I’ll do my best to include (hopefully funny) memes in my posts.

Second, I want to write about what stimulated me to write about a specific topic. I have Jorge Wagensberg to thank for this. I’ve been reading some of his books recently, and in one of them, he comments how science communication faces an obstacle: scientists always publish their results and conclusions, but not their stimuli. So, alongside with whatever topic I’m covering, I’ll write about what happened that stimulated me into writing.

In the case of this post, my interest in Frederick Chopin (one of my favorite composers3) lead to an interest in George Sand (she and Chopin were together for over a decade). Around a year or so ago I picked up a biography on Aurore (= George Sand), and unexpectedly, I found that Aurore was also an amateur naturalist, in addition to an outstanding writer and novelist. Aurore authored many books, of which I’ve only read “A winter in Majorca”, which I quite recommend. Even if probably partial and biased against the people of Majorca, it is still a very interesting account of journey and life in the first half 19th century.


1 I have read the original lines in Spanish (Maurois 1955 p. 364): “Aprender a ver, he ahí todo el secreto de las ciencias naturales”, “La clasificación es el hilo de Ariadna en el dédalo de la naturaleza”. Moreover, I offer you an additional name for Geroge Sand, her married name would be: Aurore Dudevant. And if you’re curious, know that the pen name “George Sand” was derived from Jules Sandeau (1811 – 1883), an early lover and collaborator of Aurore.

2 The focus of this post is on history rather than gossip, but according to some sources, Grandsagne would be the father to Aurore’s daughter (Solange Sand, 1828 – 1899).

3 In case you want to listen to some Chopin, here are some musical recommendations: the heroic Polonaise, the Etudes, the Berceuse (Lullaby) or the first Ballade.



Maurois A (1955) Lélia o la vida de George Sand. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

Sand G (1855) Story of my life

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