Botanical Art - An Historical Overview

Animal subjects figured more prominently in prehistoric art than did plants. In the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Crete, and Egypt, plant representations were scarce or far more simplistically drawn than animals and people.

In the tomb of Thutmose III in Karnak, Egypt, there is a large stone Frieze of 275 plants, dating from the 15th century B.C. It was created following the return of the Egyptians from a victorious campaign in Syria and depicts all of the then know plants of Syria. This may be the earliest example of representational, accurate botanical art as we know it today.

Clear, realistic drawings of plants became necessary with the development of herbal medicines. Books known as "herbals" recorded the medicinal uses of plants. The Codex, considered the first herbal, combined drawings by a Greek physician, Cretavas who lived in the 1st century B.C. with the text of an ancient Greek medical manuscript by Dioscorides. It became a major reference book throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Throughout the first part of the millennium, books were individually created and hand-copying of illustrations became a standard practice. Illustrations were copied repeatedly from "copybooks" rather than from the original paintings and consequently the quality and accuracy declined.

Around the beginning of the 16th century, many artists abandoned the copybook tradition and returned to naturalism. Botanical art was included as part of the Book of Hours or personal prayer books made for the wealthy.

During the Renaissance, inventions such as the microscope expanded the range of botanical imagery. Improved printing methods disseminated new knowledge about plant reproduction and structure. Botanical art became increasingly concerned with intrinsic beauty of the plant and less preoccupied with the medicinal uses and religious meaning.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, botanists and horticultural enthusiasts demanded accurate paintings of the many exotic plants entering Europe from around the world. Wealth resulting from world explorations began to pour into Europe. Newly rich middle class patrons commissioned artists to paint their prize specimens. Some of the best painters of the period became affiliated with the courts of Europe.

An explosion of botanical art activity occurred in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries during the period referred to as the "Age of Exploration".

Among the adventurous artists who traveled over the world to see the exotic flora, was Maria Sibylla Merian. She packed up her daughters and sailed from Germany to Surinam where she lived and worked for two years.  One of her major contributions was to associate plants with their pollinators.

George Ehret was the son of a gardener who taught him how to draw. He and his father worked on large estates, many of which had resident artists. He developed his talents by observing the estate artists and eventually won attention and esteem for his own paintings. In 1735 he moved to England where he became popular among the British aristocracy. He later traveled to Holland where he is credited as the first artist to illustrate Carl Linnaeus' system of plant classification.

1750-1850 is often called the "Golden Age of Botanical Art". Pierre-Joseph Redoute, the most recognized botanical artist of all time painted plants in the royal gardens of Paris.  His most famous patron was Napolean's wife Empress Josephine for whom he painted works that would later be published in the volume The Roses and the book The Lilies.

The Austrian brothers Ferdinand and Franz Bauer were also key figures in the Golden Age.  Franz was invited by Sir Joseph Banks to come to Kew Gardens in England where he spent the rest of his life painting their extensive exotic collections.

During the 19th century, botanical art became prized as a "female accomplishment", for the "cultured class" like music or needlework.

Beatrix Potter, famous for her Tales of Peter Rabbit had serious scientific and artistic interests in natural history particularly in fungi and mosses.

In the first half of the 20th century, botanical art began to fade from public view. Non-representational "modern" art dominated the art world. Kew Gardens in London continued its tradition of sponsoring excellent botanical art for Kew Magazine, originally founded by William Curtis as Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

One of the best known artists to work for Kew was Margaret Mee.  She moved to Brazil and painted the plant life of the Amazon.

Excerpts from Botanical Art: A Continuing Tradition, a public slide presentation prepared for the American Society of Botanical Artists in collaboration with the New York State Museum by Patricia Kernan and Diane Bouchier.  Copyright 1999 ASBA

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