A Brief History of Botanical Art

The Renaissance

By Jutta Buck 

Originally Appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 15, Issue 3


The art of botanical illustration saw a dramatic change during the Renaissance. Both scientific precision and artistic sensibility were introduced by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). These masters became celebrated for their studies of flowers and plants that displayed a rare genius for depicting both plant structure and habit, and their works are considered to be the first modern botanical representations. Leonardo’s early pen and ink drawing of a Lilium candidum, a later study (c.1503) of a bramble in red chalk on pink prepared paper, and another pen and ink drawing (c.1505) of a wood anemone and marsh marigold, in the collection of the Royal Library at Windsor, are but a few of this artist’s treasures that have survived the ills of time. 

Albrecht Dürer also made drawings of plants, birds and animals, which he later used in paintings. In his Large Piece of Turf (1503), at the Albertina in Vienna, each blade of grass, each leaf, dandelion and root has been meticulously depicted making this enchanting watercolor the first study of ecology ever created. Eleven other watercolors of flowers attributed to Dürer are considered genuine. Of these watercolors, the most important are the studies at Bremen of a peony, a martagon lily, an anchusa and an iris, all of which are drawn on paper. 

Also at the Albertina, there may be seen three paintings on vellum by this artist, which separately depict violets, a columbine, and a greater celandine. Additionally, there is another study of an iris, maintained in the collection at the Escorial in Spain. 

  • Lilium candidum, pen and ink with color, Leonardo da Vinci
  • Nosegay of Violets, paint on vellum, Albrecht Durer