Daniela Bleichmar’s new book is a story about 12,000 images.
In Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2012), Bleichmar uses this vast (and gorgeous) archive of botanical images assembled by Spanish natural history expeditions to explore the connections between natural history, visual culture, and empire in the eighteenth century Hispanic world. In beautifully argued chapters, Bleichmar explores that ways that eighteenth century natural history expeditions were grounded in a visual epistemology where observation and representation were powerful tools for negotiating both scientific and imperial spheres. The “botanical reconquista” spanned fields, shops, gardens, and cabinets across the New World and the Old. Botanists, artists, and others employed images for collaboration and competition, developing distinct styles and practices for observing and representing the natural world. The expeditions’ taxonomic botanizing was ultimately more successful than their efforts to exploit the cinnamon, cinchona, and other products that comprised the “green gold” of the colonial herbarium. Nonetheless, they made imperial nature visible…even as they made much of the empire invisible. Enjoy the book! And be sure to check out the fifth chapter, which juxtaposes Casta paintings from Mexico with some fascinating and little-known paintings from Quito and Peru to deepen and extend our understanding of the visuality of Spanish empire in the eighteenth century.