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 Jacques (Jakob) Burkhardt  (1808 - 1867)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts / Switzerland      Known for: illustration-natural history, survey

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in 1818 in Hasle-bei-Burgdodrf, Switzerland, Jacques Burkhardt became known for his natural history and scientific illustrations. His work led to some extensive travels including to Europe and South America.

Burkhardt studied painting and drawing in Munich and Rome. In 1839 he was among twelve scientific draftsmen working under the young scientist, Louis Agassiz, at Neuchatel, Switzerland. He then joined a Belgian expedition to Guatemala and, when that failed, was dismissed in New York.

Jacques Burkhardt moved to Boston, where he was earning a meager living as an illustrator when, in the winter of 1846-47, Agassiz coincidentally arrived. Burkhardt accepted an invitation to work for him, doing natural history illustrations for his lectures and publications, and remained in his employ until his death. He became a permanent member of Agassiz's household, even after Agassiz's marriage to Elizabeth Cary in 1850, spending winters in Cambridge and summers in Nahant.

In 1861-62, he made a trip to Europe, delivering specimens for Agassiz, who had become the founder and director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 1859. In 1865-66, he was Agassiz's official artist on the Thayer Expedition to Brazil. Included were Agassiz, his wife Elizabeth, and a dozen assistants on a fifteen-month collecting expedition financed by Boston banker Nathaniel Thayer.

Agassiz hoped that investigating the distribution of the freshwater fish species in Brazil would help him refute Charles Darwin's recently formed theory of evolution. As Agassiz's personal assistant and principal artist, Jacques Burkhardt did fish watercolors and landscape paintings that remain valuable records among the expedition's treasures. In total, Burkhardt made nearly 2000 drawings of South American fish specimens and landscape views.

In Brazil he fell ill and had to return prematurely to Cambridge. Apparently he had suffered greatly from the heat and mosquitoes while painting. He arrived back in Cambridge from Brazil very weak and died ten months later in February 1867.

Most of Burkhardt's drawings from the Thayer Expedition have never been studied in detail. Thomas Barbour, then director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology simply gave the bulk of the drawings to George S. Myers in 1940 saying "... perhaps you can find some use for them. If not, I suppose even in California you occasionally have a fire in the grate." Fortunately, many of drawings were anonymously returned to the Museum years after Myers' death.

Burkhardt's drawings from the expedition are in the archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology and remain largely unpublished but can be accessed online at the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The offering includes the entire Jacques Burkhardt collection of watercolors and pencil drawings (approximately 1000 items), as well as Thayer Expedition correspondence, field notes, diaries, sketches, photographs, monographs, specimens and specimen records. The project manager is Robert Young, Special Collections Librarian.


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Painted in Latin America

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