Pierre Jean Turpin ranked among the greatest floral illustrators of the Napoleonic Era. Yet he was relatively unknown and failed to achieve the celebrity of his equal Pierre Redouté. Not only was Turpin an outstanding illustrator, he was also a competent botanist with many significant scientific achievements to his credit.
Turpin the Artist
The son of an impoverished artisan, young Pierre studied drawing and the ‘Ecole de Beaux Arts in Vireo, France, but his artistic skills were largely self-taught. (2) In 1789 he left his native locale to join the army. His first duty station was in Haiti in 1794. There he met Alexandere Poiteau, from whom Pierre learned botany, and formed an important career connection.
Turpin and Poiteau collaborated on a study of Haitian flora, during which they collected a herbarium of well over one thousand plants. Turpin made field drawings of many of these to serve as the basis for describing around 800 species for further study in France. Upon return to their homeland, the two worked together refining the collection and preparing material for publication.
Soon, however, Turpin heeded the call for more adventure on foreign soil, traveling alone to Hispanola and Tortuga Island to make further botanical studies. Next he moved to the United States in 1800, where he met Humboldt, and developed a relationship that proved productive later on in Pierre’s career. Subsequently, he again went to Haiti, to serve not as a botanist or artist as one would expect, but as an army pharmacist. 1802 found Turpin back in France to more or less stay put, and devote himself to botany and plant illustration (3)
His career now became stellar. Delessert’s Icones selectae plantorium...was one of the important publications of the early Nineteenth Century, and Turpin provided many of its illustrations. He teamed up with his old colleague, Poiteau, in the early 1800s to produce an updated edition of Monceau’s Traité des arbres fruitiers, 1768. This work was an important reference tool used to distinguish botanical species from the races or varieties known to gardeners. However, it lacked good illustrations. Poiteau and Turpin undertook to remedy this deficiency in the new version, which became, as one biographer put it, as "...one of the most beautiful books on fruit trees ever published."(3:506)
Turpin’s association with Humboldt and Bonpland was a productive one, as he contributed 143 hand-colored engraved plates to their Voyage due Humboldt et Partie Botanic, Sect. I. With Poieteau, he furnished 120 hand-colored engraved plates to Sect. II of the four-volume set. In 1819-1820, Pierre Poiret with Turpin published their Lecons de flore, course complét de botanique... (4) The text was by Poiret, while Turpin provided 65 plates printed in color and hand finished. He also made 8 additional plates and one large folding plate. The set of three volumes was published in 17 parts. He also contributed a selection of Australian material to several French publications including J.J.H. Labillardiéreis Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen 1804-1806, and F.G. Levraultis Dictionaire des sciences naturalles, 1816-1829. Some of the plates in the Levraultis volume were provided by the artist’s son, about whom the literature is virtually silent. (1)
Turpin the Botanist
Turpin’s research interests were varied, but they centered on the theory that there exists a "...great chain of being and in a continuity of forms and organs."(3:506). He sought a model to explain the constitution of plants, and was especially impressed by Goethe’s work in this regard. Goethe held that in the leaf of a plant, we have the archetypal organ of the plant. Goethe turned to Pierre -- a kindred spirit -- to illustrate this theory in his Versuch die pjflantzen sur erklaeren, published in 1790.
In 1837 Turpin presented to the Académie des Sciences an illustration he made during one of his visits to Haiti. This depicted a plant type he thought revealed the "...unity of organic composition and the original identity of all the foliaceous and lateral appendicular organs of the plant." (3:506) The illustration appeared in C.F. Martin’s edition of Oeuvres d’historie naturelle de Geothe, 1837.
Turpin also made a number of studies on lower plants and the systematics of freshwater algae. He was among the first to confirm the idea that yeast is a living organism that reproduces by budding. (3)
Here was a man of gifted talents and achievements. Paradoxically he garnered relatively little notoriety or recognition for them.
- Australian National Botanic Gardens - Biography, http.www.anb.gov.au/biography/turpin-fils.html, 2002.
- Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn, The art of botanical illustration new edition revised and enlarged. Woodbridge, Suffolk England: The Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 1994.
- Gillespie, Charles Coulston, Ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume XIII. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Sitwell, Sacheverell and Wilfrid Blunt. Great flower books 1700-1900: a biographical record of two centuries of finely lustrated books. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990.
- Stafleu and Richard S. Cowan. Taxonomic literature: a selective guide to botanical taxonomic literatature...2nd Edition. Utrecht: Bohn Schectema & Holkema, 1986.
By Hu Walsh, Library Volunteer
October 21, 2002