Who was Jean Théodore Descourtilz?
Descourtilz’s life story might not be as well-known as some of the other great ornithological artists. But the detail and vibrancy found in Descourtilz’s work has secured his position as one of the world’s most renowned bird artists.
Descourtilz was the son of a botanist
One of eight brothers, Descourtilz was the son of the botanist Michel Étienne Descourtilz; himself a noted ornithological artist. It is his relationship with his father which ultimately set the young Descourtilz on his own career path. In fact, he began by creating illustrations for his father’s book, Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, producing over 600 plates to accompany his father’s text.
Descourtilz's travel in Brazil
There is evidence that Descourtilz was well-travelled even from a young age with documents suggesting he was taken to Haiti aged just three. But it was his travels in Brazil which shaped his work and life.
He arrived in Brazil around 1826 and by 1831 had presented a manuscript on the hummingbirds of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, where he later went on to work. In this work, he refers to a particular species of hummingbird which he explains is so rare that over five years of study, he only collected two specimens.
Descourtilz was fascinated by the species he studied and observed his subjects meticulously, in order to create detailed illustrations of the birds he encountered. He also kept notes, accurately describing the habits and appearance of each species.
Working for the National Museum of Brazil
By the early 1850s, Descourtilz had been sent by the Government to Espirito Santo – a province in southeastern Brazil. His task was to investigate the animal life of the area and report on the precious minerals found there. Exploring the villages and towns of the area, he found various minerals and crystals, which were then lodged with the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro.
Descourtilz began working for the National Museum of Brazil in 1854 but sadly, it was his love for the natural world which led to Descourtilz’s untimely death the following year. He died of arsenic poisoning caused by the chemicals he used when preparing specimens.
Fittingly, given his love for the wilds of Brazil, Descourtilz is buried near Aracruz, close to the coast, north of Rio de Janeiro.