Picturing life in Jean-Henri Fabre’s Harmas, open-air laboratory and family home

SÉRIGNAN-DU-COMTAT. The Harmas is a hybrid place: its name refers to the wildlife observation garden created by the late-nineteenth-century naturalist and pedagogist but visitors also walk through the vegetable and fruit gardens, the mas and, in another building, the study. What did I find there and what didn’t I but wished I had?

In an interview published in Museums in Literature (2022), Emmanuel Guibert, scenario writer, graphic and bande dessiné artist who recounted drawing in museums such as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Tate Gallery in London, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, or the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris in Légendes, declares he particularly likes “monographic museums”, for instance “l’Harmas de Jean-Henri Fabre à Sérignan” (151). I was excited when, soon after editing the book, I visited it just before it closed for renovation[1].

In 1876, world-famous naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, bought a mas near Avignon, a farmhouse with a wildlife garden where he was able to observe local insects and write most of his educational books as well as his Memoirs of an Entomologist. It is now part of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN).

A museum: objects in vitrines

I did not know Fabre’s work as a naturalist nor how renowned and influential he was – entertaining a scientific correspondence with Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur, his works translated in 14 languages including Japanese. All this I learnt at the museum which, therefore, I did not enter as a pilgrim eager to pay homage to relics or fetishes. I walked in with an open mind, gathering information from the concise thematic panels.

A view of the living room, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

The entrance is in the mas, which you visit first. Red ropes keep visitors on the threshold of the small rooms but a homely atmosphere is created: on the living room table, a notebook and a nib pen, on a bench, a hat and a walking stick suggest the everyday occupations of Fabre, as though he had only just left the room. A card asks visitors not to touch the piano, on which family pictures are displayed in a somewhat informal manner. Above the piano, a historical black and white picture of the room we are standing in signals authenticity. Authenticity of the reconstitution, authenticity of a simple lifestyle based on routine and repetition.

A view of the photograph showing the room visitors stand in, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

What could be less spectacular than spending 36 years here, observing and drawing fauna and flora, and writing about it? Personal possessions in showcases alongside a few of Fabre’s many educational books conjure up a string of repeated activities: the leather clip purse he botanized with, the watercolour tubes he painted the series of mushrooms some of which are displayed in a newly purpose-built building, the pair of glasses, the notebooks, and the many nib pens.

The worn-out objects tell a personal story of hard work and relentless commitment. They also tell another, collective, story: that of a time when a botanizing drum and a tin watercolour palette lasted a lifetime. Perhaps, what is impressive is not so much the quantity of discoveries and self-illustrated books Fabre made as the conditions in which he made them.

An open-air laboratory: scientist vs writer

A view of the study, on the first floor, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

I then walked up the stairs of the adjoining building into Fabre’s study with its neatly organised collections: local species of insects, small mammals’ skulls, nests and eggs, stones, plants – Fabre’s colossal herbarium was recently restored and is no longer kept at the harmas –, each specimen neatly wrapped, described with its own personal narrative, and classified.

A detail of Fabre’s collection, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

The alignments of recycled sturdy cardboard and tin boxes of ordinary items – starch, ammunition, watercolour tubes, playing cards, the wonderfully vintage “fil au chinois” (made in France quality linen thread) and, again, nibs – tell a moving story of discreet, thrifty, round-the-clock dedication. Fabre was in his late fifties by the time he could afford this farmhouse.

Collections in recycled packaging, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

Another object, which gets pride of place, shows another facet of Fabre’s uncompromising determination. It is a black clock that was presented to him by the female students who attended his evening classes in Avignon. When he taught them the reproduction of flowers, there was such a scandal that he handed in his demission and quit National Education, after 28 years of teaching, without a pension (quite a few documents on display bear the label “Ministère de l’Instruction Publique”).

The tidily inventoried collections may have given me the impression that the scientist’s lifetime’s work may be made more tangible that the writer’s, but the clock materializing the teacher’s fight for women’s education shatters that impression. Fabre was also a poet in Occitan language and a member of the Académie française: how translate the life of such a polymath into museum objects?

« Immerse yourself in the natural sciences as they were practised in the 19th century », the museum invites visitors on its website. However, once in the wildlife garden, even though a board informs us that Fabre invented specific traps to catch different species of insects, no object labels or booklet provide us with technical details, so that I strolled through the wildlife garden, the vegetable garden, the arboretum and the greenhouse as in those of any other family castle, unable to understand the points of the traps. In the study, the classification system – did he devise his own? – is not explained either. But, did I come here to be immersed in natural sciences?

A home to a scientist and… who else?

As a Virginia Woolf scholar, I am aware of how important it is for writers – that includes nineteenth-century scientists – to have a small income and a room of their own. Fabre had an open-air laboratory and a study and his personal belongings sketch out his daily routine here. But very important pieces of the jigsaw that was life at the harmas at the turn of the twentieth-century are missing.

How many people did the vegetable and fruit garden keep? Was there a gardener, or more than one? There are no clear indications as to whom Jean-Henri Fabre lived in this house with. A board presents a family tree: his second wife and, I am assuming, their three grown-up children, Pauline, Anna, and Paul-Henri, as well as his only surviving child from a first marriage, Aglaé also lived here.

A photograph shows Paul-Henri taking a picture of a specimen his father is observing (or is it of his father observing a specimen?). It is explained that when Fabre died in 1915, the house remained in the family until it was bought by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in 1922 (and opened to the public in 2006). His daughter Aglaé was the keeper until her death in 1931. Paul-Henri then became curator until 1966. Why was Aglaé a “keeper” and Paul-Henri, a professional photographer, a “curator”? To what extent did Fabre’s children contribute to his life work in one way or another when he was alive? What about his second wife, in what way did she contribute?

Virginia Woolf mentions income and a room but coily omits servants. On the terrasse where we had drinks in the shade, there is a wide stone sink: who kept the Fabres’ home, dishes and clothes clean? Did the isolated house have running water, or gas? How many servants did it take for Fabre to dedicate his life to science, and for his children to support him? Where there full-time live-in servants? Could Fabre afford such help?

A view of the farmhouse and the right and the study on the left, ©Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, photographie ©MuséaLitté

When Edmund de Waal was invited to add ceramic pieces to the Count of Camondo’s hôtel particulier in the posh Monceau area in Paris, now a house museum displaying an impressive eighteenth-century collection of decorative art, he wrote letters to the dead collector. In one of them, he reflects:

I think there is a tendency to imagine you alone in this house. “Happiness of the collector, happiness of the solitary: tête-à-tête with things,” wrote Walter Benjamin with some kindness to the condition in one of his terse notes in The Arcades Project. (Letters to Camondo, 98, Letter XXXVI)

Don’t we also imagine the scientist, the artist, or the literary genius, as a solitary? De Waal adds:

This is a house full of people. There are fourteen servants – butler, under-butler, a couple of manservants, footmen, chef, chef’s assistant, odd-job man, laundry maid, gardener, a stoker for the boiler, a couple of mechanics for the cars – but aloneness and living with servants isn’t incompatible I believe. (Letters to Camondo, 98, Letter XXXVI)

Even though the harmas stands at the very opposite end of the social spectrum, I find myself wondering about the invisible work Fabre’s impressive work implied, about what the house museum overlooks.

What this special house museum could help us picture

I would like to know more about the lives that were lived in this house making barely readable marks, or no marks at all, about the way nineteenth-century writers and scientists produced volumes and volumes not single-handledly as we picture but with assistants or secretaries and whether they were hired help or family. I would like to know about the whole household’s daily routines, which had to be so closely knit to that of Jean-Henri Fabre.

I feel that the harmas, a private home in which every single space (farmhouse, outbuilding, gardens) was dedicated to science but in the context of family life, has a lot more to offer than another focus on a prominent turn-of-the-century man, however fascinating his legacy. It could provide visitors with a deeper, more humane understanding of Fabre’s work, « [i]mmerse [us] in the natural sciences as they were practised in the 19th century », to a certain extent as a sort of family business, and, more generally, give us a much-needed cultural insight in the way the monumental mass of scientific and literary texts were produced in the past.

Works Cited

  • Chassagnol, Anne. “Conversation avec Emmanuel Guibert, dessinateur et scénariste: La bande dessinée comme reliquaire ou l’art de collectionner les connivences.” Museums in Literature. Fictionalising Museums, World Exhibitions, and Private Collections. Edited by Caroline Marie & Anne Chassagnol. Turhout: Brepols, coll. Musideas 3, 2022. 151–154.
  • De Waal, Edmund. Letters to Camondo. London: Vintage, 2022.
  • Guibert, Emmanuel. Légendes. Dessiner dans les musées et autres lieux de culte. Paris: Dupuis, 2020).
Caroline Marie
Université Paris 8


[1] It is due to reopen in Summer 2023.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Caroline Marie (5 avril 2023). Picturing life in Jean-Henri Fabre’s Harmas, open-air laboratory and family home. . Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/roq3

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