The illustrations from this 18th century text are both beautiful and intensely disturbing. They come from a time when science was separating superstition from medical practice with the development of teratology, the study of deformities — but retained the unfortunate word “monster” as a medical term.
The prospectus of Les Ecarts de la nature ou recueil des principales monstruosités (The Deviations of Nature or a Collection of the Main Monstrosities) opens with the provocative quote from the French poet Boileau: “No monster exists that cannot be made pleasing through art.” Artists Nicolas-François and Geneviève Regnault published their book of beautiful “monsters” as a blend of freak show and high art. And then this dubious catalog was reworked and republished, as a legitimate medical text.
There is a long and sometimes grotesque history of books cataloging “monsters”. From ancient times to the around the 17th century, people with congenital defects and deformations were lumped in with fantastical beasts and considered less than human. Around the 18th century, science began to counter superstition and the portrayal of “monsters” began to soften. Though the images from the original text are lovely and actually evoke sympathy, this book was primarily aimed at exploiting an interest in the strange and unusual.
Famous French anatomist and philosopher Jacques-Louis Moreau de la Sarthe republished the book in in 1808 as Description des principales monstruosités dans l’homme et dans les animaux précédée d’un discours sur la physiologie et la classification des monstres … avec figures coloriées par N.F. Regnault. This time, the book was aimed at a scientific audience. Moreau added 15 pages of introductory text and laid out scientific classifications and reasons for “monstrosities.” He even went as far to counter the popular idea that a woman’s imagination during pregnancy shaped a baby and was responsible for any deformation. The beautiful monsters were turned into illustrations for a legitimate (for the time) scientific text.
Below is a selection of prints from the 1808 version of the text. The entire collection can be viewed at Gallica bibliothèque numérique. To read more about the history of teratology through portrayals in text, see the online exhibit Telling Wonders at the New York Academy of Medicine. — Amanda Yesilbas, IO9, 5/15/2013