What is botanical art?
A botanical drawing or painting of a plant shows a detailed and scientifically sound reproduction of a plant or parts of a plant, with special attention to the characteristics which separates one species from another. The image can be a prototype or a portrait of an individual plant.
The contemporary botanical artist builds on a centuries-old tradition in which research, correct representation of the subject and creativity in composition and imagery are combined.
It is not exactly known since when botanical art exists and was produced in a scientifically sound manner but below a few historic dates worth mentioning. There are woodcuts known from around 1500. In 1484 the Latin Herbarius appeared and around 1500 Ortus Sanitatis, with decorative illustrations which were more folkloric representations of the plant. The drawing was not in the right proportions and the lines were rather rude. Not much later, 1530-1540, however, there were artists who were able to reproduce the plant true to nature and could make detailed carvings which could be used for printing detailed images of plants.
The first watercolours date back from the same period, for example the plates of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. The majority of these early plates were used in herbal books for medicinal purposes.
In the 17th century there was a trend in publishing a ‘florilegium’, which literally means flower book. In these books, the text is subordinate to the image, and they were often commissioned. Flowers came more into fashion. In addition to the herbal, vegetable and medicinal gardens, the number of flower gardens grew quickly. Assembling your own florilegium became into “fashion”, because with a catalogue of plants from your own garden you can show visitors your treasures all year round. The ‘Hortus Eystettensis’, published in 1613, with plates by Basil Besler is perhaps the best known example of such an florilegium. The images were engravings that were later coloured. Because this is not always done with great care, not all coloured expenditure is of the best quality. The colours were botanical incorrect or the paint was so thick that important details have disappeared. Another well-known artist, and a great inspiration for many, is Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). He was court painter to Queen Marie Antoinette and later painted the collections of roses and lilies of the Empress Josephine (wife of Napoleon Bonaparte) in the gardens of the Château de Malmaison.
The need of illustrations which were scientifically correct became vital with the discovery of new plants in the only recently discovered continents (for example Asia). Plants from Asia that could not be shipped to Europe alive had to be drawn and painted on the spot. Seeds, dried specimens, etc. were then sent to Europe. Much of the information about the plants had to be acquired from the description of the botanist and illustrator. The task to illustrate was often left to local artists which were then corrected in Europe, refined and translated into engravings, prints or lithographs in order to reproduce large amounts of plates. Other artists painted the plants when they came into bloom in the botanical gardens. Notable artists Georg Dionysus Ehret, Walter Hood Fitch, Franz and Ferdinand Bauer, and Maria Sibylla Merian.
Over time, botanical art has been evolving constantly. There are several purposes for which the illustrations are made. Still for scientific use, for example in field guides as aid in determination, but also to emphasise the beauty of a plant or a part thereof.
The botanical artist now
Botanical drawings for scientific purposes are still made today. Photography is an excellent addition, but only in a drawing can be displayed details clear, repaired damaged parts, and may be precisely those details highlighted that the scientist finds important.
In recent years, botanical art has become popular outside the scientific world. More and more people are discovering the pleasure of meticulous study of plants, and the challenge to capture all its beauty.
Please have a look at the portfolios in our Members Gallery and see what the members of the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists have created for wonderful pieces of art.