June 11—September 5, 2004
Reflecting the importance of the vegetable world to human health and pleasure, plants have been portrayed in printed works since the development of the printing press in the late 15th century. From early Renaissance herbals to magnificent illustrations of Baroque gardens and the increasingly naturalistic interpretation of plants and flowers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, nature has been depicted as a paradise on earth.
The first illustrated botanical works to appear in Western Europe were herbals providing information on the healthful properties of plants. Elizabeth Blackwell drew, engraved, and hand-colored 500 plants growing in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London for her Curious Herbal published in weekly installments from 1737-1739. One of the first women to gain recognition for authoring a botanical text, she undertook the project to raise money in order to secure the release of her husband who was in prison for debt.
With the decline of the physic gardens looked after by monks or apothecaries as part of their ‘license’ to practice medicine, the great European botanic gardens began to take form. They became museums of living plants and centers for research and display. Interest in the decorative qualities of plants gave rise in the 17th century to florilegia, or picture books describing collections of living ornamental plants. Illustrated for their beauty and desirability, these florilegia spread ideas of gardening possibilities all over Western Europe.
The Hortus Eystettensis, regarded as a masterpiece of Baroque book illustration, was first published in 1613. No garden of the Baroque age was documented as precisely as that of the Prince-Bishop of Eichstätt. The author, Basilius Besler, supervised the work on 367 copper engravings over a period of sixteen years. The arrangement of plants follows the order of the seasons and presents a mirror of the world as it was known at the time.
The Flowering of Botanical Art
Artistic elegance, refinement and scientific precision came together in France in the late 18th century in what is for many the apex of the art of flower painting. Pierre-Joseph Redouté was commissioned to paint the roses in Empress Joséphine Bonaparte’s garden at Malsaison outside Paris. The original watercolors on vellum were translated into lyrical stipple engravings and published as Les Roses, (1817-1824). Seldom was an artist so closely identified with his subject as Redouté and his great work on roses.
Sumptuous antique illustrations inspired by these gardens are on display in Garden of Earthly Delights in which every plant grows in a perpetual spring.