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Have you seen the Library's long-running exhibition "Lunch Hour" yet? If not, this is your last chance, for it closes on Sunday, February 17. To whet your appetite, I'd like to present a delightful volume that was recently added to the Spencer Collection.
The work is Drôleries végétales (Vegetable Drolleries), also known as L'Empire des légumes (The Empire of the Vegetables). It was originally published in Paris in 1851; the Spencer Collection copy belongs to a later but virtually identical edition from 1861. It contains two dozen steel-engraved plates in the style of J.J. Grandville, whose better-known Les fleurs animées from 1847 is also in the Library's collections. The humorous text is by Eugène Nus and Antony Méray, and the plates were drawn and engraved by Amédée Varin (1818-1883), a French illustrator and engraver who had also worked on the Fleurs animées, assisting the credited engraver Charles Geoffroy.
In a tradition that can be traced back to the animal fables of Aesop, the work presents a satirical view of humanity and its follies, as reflected in the goings-on among the denizens of the vegetable kingdom ... or "Empire," as it is called here. The Vegetable Empire is presided over by a benign despot, "Cucurbitus I"—at least, I assume he is benign, for what else can a turban squash be?
Many of the illustrations charmingly illustrate a range of real or pretended vegetable traits that are well-known in the human world. For instance, you may have heard that once upon a time a curious child who wondered where he came from was told that he was found under a cabbage leaf. But how do babies get there? Like this:
I have a feeling that the shock on the faces of the two cabbage spectators is largely feigned. Their companion, whose leaves have been commandeered for the rendezvous, is content to wink and point a finger at the goings-on.
Or again, it's a well-known fact that all the members of the onion family can make you weep. That's illustrated by this bourgeois spring onion couple, whose marriage is on the stormy side. Unfortunately, the one whom Monsieur Scallion has driven to tears is his lovely bride:
I love the details of the interior. Everything is vegetables. Wouldn't you like a chair like this to weep in?
The back of the chair shows a "tapestry" version of another Vegetable Empire couple, who are also given their own plate with the caption "The Extremes Meet," or as we more commonly say in English ... "Opposites Attract."The text notes that many of the most rotund among the squash and pumpkin kind seem to prefer to take a wife from among the "svelte viragos" of the asparagus tribe.
Wordplay is behind the humor of some of the illustrations. For instance, at one point Cucurbitus, who is giving the narrator a tour of his realm, berates the loose moral habits into which the young, pretty romaine lettuces have fallen. He upbraids a group of them by contrasting their present decadence with the virtuous glory of their ancestresses in ancient Rome, who preferred death before dishonor:
But the modern-day "Roman women" only laugh at his folly.
Some of the pictures are just fun. Many a modern-day teenage heartthrob could relate to the dilemma of this handsome young leek, surrounded by his adoring admirers ...
... who will end up devouring him entirely!
I also am fond of the plate illustrating the "Mustering of the Beans." This is another pun, as a "flageolet" can be a bean or a flute ...
Some of these fellows have come all the way from Soissons (where beans grow huge and white).
According to the text, the Legume tribe is exceedingly friendly and cheerful, embracing everyone and everything with their tendrils, and beans are the natural musicians of the Empire. They march in formation like this to mark all the great ceremonial occasions. Finally, returning to our "Lunch Hour" theme ... the next time you take the same old dressing to pour on your salad bar selection, you might consider the feelings of the vegetables in your bowl ... like this artichoke and asparagus stalk, they may have been subject to the same sauces for longer than they can bear!
The caption (cropped from this view) reads, "We've been subjected to the same sauces for too long! It's time to finally put our foot down" (or literally, "to put our feet in the plate").
The Bibliothèque nationale de France has made digital versions of both editions of this work available. The 1851 edition has been reproduced in color, so even if you don't know French, you might enjoy digitally thumbing through it to look at all the plates. If you want to enjoy the French text, I would suggest the 1861 edition, which is in black and white and easier to read. I've borrowed some of the Bibliothèque's plates for this presentation; others come from Wikimedia Commons. The details are taken from the Spencer Collection copy.