An all-round naturalist

J.-H. Fabre was one of the most brilliant and prolific naturalists of the 19th century, inventorying and promoting the animal and plant species he studied, as well as being an ingenious jack-of-all-trades.

The autodidact

An entomologist and botanist, a precursor of ethology, a watercolourist, musician, poet and philosopher, J.-H. Fabre was a self-taught man. His career path was atypical: after obtaining his brevet supérieur, a training certificate, he became a primary school teacher at the age of 19. He then obtained two baccalauréats, secondary education diplomas, at the ages of 21 and 23, followed by three licences degrees at the ages of 24, 25 and 31, before eventually defending two doctoral theses at the age of 32. He had a passion for the natural sciences and never ceased to pass on his knowledge, as his pedagogical work attests. A member of the Société botanique de France, he nevertheless worked alone, surrounded by books, to earn his numerous diplomas. Far removed from major institutions and research groups, he still managed to surround himself with eminent specialists, with whom he exchanged views on his many collections. An avid conversationalist, J.-H. Fabre also enjoyed discussions with his students. He managed to write over a hundred books and textbooks with the same high standards of popularisation we find in his masterpiece, Souvenirs Entomologiques.

The botanist

Beginning in 1842 and for almost forty years, J.-H. Fabre collected and identified plants gathered in the Vaucluse, Hautes-Alpes and Corsica, always with the same objective in mind: to advance our knowledge of nature. The fruit of this work is a remarkable herbarium comprising 82 bundles, or almost 13,000 plates. Mushrooms were impossible to preserve in the herbarium. So he harvested them in autumn, identified them, drew them and then painted them. Over the years, J.-H. Fabre produced more than 650 watercolours of mushrooms. A friend of the botanist Théodore Delacour from Avignon who was director of the Vilmorin-Andrieux seed company in Paris, and of Bernard Verlot, head of the botany school at the Muséum, J.-H. Fabre explored the flora of Mont Ventoux with them and learned the latest techniques and advances in horticulture.

Aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

Boletus duriusculus Kohl., aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle
Aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

Armillaria mellea, aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle
Aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

Pleurotus ostreatus, aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

Boletus pachypus, aquarelle de Jean-Henri Fabre, 1890

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

The entomologist

J.-H. Fabre had been fascinated by insects since his teens. The Harmas garden gave him the opportunity to set up a "living entomology laboratory" and study them in their natural habitat. His innate sense of observation and meticulous note-taking served as the basis for his Souvenirs Entomologiques and established him as one of the precursors of ethology, the science of animal behaviour.

The Provençal poet

Literature was an important part of J.-H. Fabre's life. So much so that in 1911 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature for his Souvenirs entomologiques, which attests to his talent as a writer! In his writings, he paid tribute to insects, various trades and the seasons... and also set his poems to music on his harmonium. Passionate about the Provençal language, he read Provençal author Frédéric Mistral, whom he joined in the Félibrige movement to promote the language, and in 1909 published a collection of poems entitled Oubreto prouvençalo, under the pseudonym Felibre di Tavan (Felibre of the horseflies).

Over 600 watercolours preserved at the Museum

This treasure was restored by the Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris following its discovery in 1955 in the attic of the Harmas by his grandson. Ironically, one of Fabre's fears was that his descendants would dispose of it after his death. The library now holds more than 600 of them, many of which can be viewed online on its website.

See the watercolours

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