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Botanical Illustration

Botanical illustration is immediate intimacy: easily accessed through familiar profiles, its intricate combinations of swirls, curving expanses, and definitive lines charm the viewer into an understanding of plant functions and anatomy. Yet appreciative audiences are perhaps one of the smallest constituencies involved with this genre today. Hobbyists and professionals, botanists, gardeners, classically trained artists, commercial illustrators, and many others have dabbled in botanicals. For the sake of narrowing an overly broad scope, this article focuses on the interplay between art and science. The 20th-century art historian Wilfred Blunt (1994, 4) adds another element, “soul”:

A great botanical artist must have a passion for flowers. You can set a good architectural draughtsman to draw a flower, and he will give you—if he thinks the subject worthy of real effort—a careful and precise study of the plan before him. But unless he loves what he is drawing, unless he knows the flower in all its moods, in all stages of its development, there will be something lacking in his work. ... The artists, poets, and philosophers of the Far East have shown how little ... is the gulf that separates man from the rest of Nature; we in the West have still much to learn from them.

There are two general types of botanicals, herbal and floral, that emerged with pharmacology and global exploration, respectively. Early civilizations—when confined to their own territories—took plant life for granted. The temple of

In 1534 German theologian and botanist Otto Brunfels published a herbal of medicinal plants. Here is the cover to this volume. (Library of Congress)

Pharaoh Thutmose III at Karnak, Egypt dates to 1450 BCE. It displays 75 limestone bas-relief botanicals, artistically well in advance for their era, that commemorate the unusual plants found during Thutmose’s military campaign in Syria.

Although few of the early herbal illustrations survive, we know of them through classical writings. Perhaps the first practitioner was Aristotle’s pupil, Greek botanist Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), who wrote a book titled Enquiry into Plants. In his Natural History, Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) stated that Krateuas, Dionysius, and Metrodorus “painted likenesses of the plants and wrote under them their properties.” (Krateuas, who served as physician to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, exemplifies the then-common link between botany and medicine.) The earliest surviving herbals owe to first- century CE Greek physician Dioscorides, who has been called the “father of modern pharmacology.” His De Materia Medica, a compendium of classical writings, remained authoritative—and in print—through the 1500s. The original publication may or may not have contained illustrations, though later editions certainly did.

Art, Science, and Technology

As with most other creative and scientific endeavors, the fall of Rome and ensuing Middle Ages saw a qualitative decline in botanical illustration. Classical works were reinterpreted from copies, with subsequent “generations” of images losing integrity. Beginning in the early 15th century, however, new technologies and heightened commerce revived botanical illustration. The woodcut appeared in Europe again around 1400, and Gutenberg’s first printing press followed 50 years later. The cost of publications soon fell. Movable type and woodcuts worked well and easily together on pages destined for printing. Botanicals were introduced into border designs, and chapter-opening drawings sometimes contained natural motifs. Botanical illustrators found a use for their skills, though relatively few entered the artistic limelight.

The genre also became increasingly refined. The 16th and 17th centuries are associated with the movement toward naturalism, but the issue is more complex: art and scientific thinking converged through the concept of perspective. The Florentine artist Giotti (ca. 1266-1336) first turned away from flat surfaces, portraying his subjects as rounded objects with spatial relationships to each other. Drawing on classical art and architectural theories, Italian architect and artist Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and, later, Italian architect and artist Leon Battista Alberti (1402-1472) imparted more precise, mathematical thinking. The polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who invented an early printmaking technique, also insisted on real models for his artist works. People and other subject matter— including plants—thus assumed three dimensions.

Two period publications of herbal woodblocks provide a snapshot of botanical illustration in the mid-16th century and offer insight into the ways it would evolve. Otto Brunfels’s Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1534) and Leonhart Fuchs’s De Historia Stirpium (1542) are remembered by the names of their editor- compilers, medical practitioners both. Herbarum was illustrated by Hans Weiditz (1495-1536), a student of the respected German painter-printmaker Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), who nevertheless remained anonymous. Fuchs proved a more gracious editor than Brunfels, crediting several members of his publishing team.

In fact, increasingly complex printing technologies necessitated collaborative approaches—often diluting individual credentials. As the woodcut yielded to more detailed engravings, artists and craftsmen could be appreciated for their separate talents. Collectors later would compare differences between the original drawings and the finished prints, and editor/text compiler, botanical illustrator, calligrapher, printmaker, and publisher all had distinct roles in period productions. (The term “editor/text compiler” is used because most of the named authors borrowed from the ancient pharmacological experts.)

At the time, however, Brunfels and Fuchs both grappled with the spatial problem of placing an odd-shaped plant on a linear page. Yet their visions—balancing naturalism with art—varied. Weiditz (Brunfels’s anonymous artist) showed the plant in whatever way he found it, sometimes withering from disease or, simply, a declining life cycle. Fuchs’s illustrators overlooked the flaws or elevated their subjects to more perfected forms. Both herbals nevertheless revealed the desire to serve science. The less attractive (and spatially challenging) root and stem structure generally had been hidden or reduced in proportion to leaves and flowers. Weiditz dealt with the geometry at one point by cutting the stem, and running the lower part of the plant horizontally along the bottom of the page. Fuchs displayed the flowering plant; buds and seeds appeared on the same page, too, but apart from the graceful stalk.

Whatever the case, increased learning revealed much more about botanical subjects, and advanced art techniques of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance elevated their composition. Just as art, science, and printing technologies seemed to converge, however, the original function of herbal illustrations faded. In 1533, a professorship in botany was created at the University in Padua, establishing plant study as distinct from medicine. Fifty years later, the physician-botanist Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), began grouping plants by their characteristics, or morphology (specifically, their fruits and seeds), rather than medicinal values—or simple alphabetical order. His De Plantis Libri (1583) gained the scientific authority so long relegated to the early Greco-Romans. As academic disciplines solidified, plants with no outstanding function were once again viewed as everyday features of the local landscape.

At the same time, Europeans developed a potent attraction to exotic species from new worlds. The first printed illustration of a tobacco plant, for example, was published around 1570. Monarchs, barons, and city-states subsequently cultivated these treasures on their own turfs. Meticulously tended estate gardens soon flourished in much of the continent, and patrons needed botanist-illustrators to publicize their status—and formally document the contents. Actual botanic gardens in Pisa (1543), Padua (1545), Florence (1545), and Bologna (1567) inspired more scientific interest, with illustrative approaches to match.

Rapidly rising in popularity and purpose, floral drawings thus overtook the traditional herbals. However, the terms are not exact. “Florals” more accurately refer to cultivated species; the genre grew to embrace ornamental, decorative, and edible plants.

The early illustrators tended to be multidisciplinary, too: botanists, gardeners, general artists—per chance employed in or near a garden. Nor did they render just one picture. Botanical illustration benefited from, and contributed to, a growing publishing industry. The physician Pietro Andrea Matthioli (1501-1577), updated Dioscrides’s work with new and revised text, as well as quality woodblocks. Dis- corsi (Commentaries) was printed first in Latin during 1544 and, 10 years later, in Italian—reputedly selling 30,000 copies. More than 40 Matthioli editions were to enter the market, also in Czech and German, and containing new illustrations.

Hortus Eystettensis (1613) was a pioneering celebration of place, rendered by professional artists. The largest single book published to that time, its 367 plates covered over 1,000 species. The idea germinated with Johann Conrad von Gem- mingen, descendant of an ancient, affluent line, who came to the southern German town of Eichstatt as its new bishop. Seeking to elevate both worship and church property, he built what was said to be the first botanical garden north of the Alps, a rambling wonder of eight differently planted parterres; herbs, vegetables, and fruits descending from the palace above to the river below; and exotic displays from abroad, including cactus, peppers, and potatoes.

Basilius Besler, an apothecary and physician from Nuremburg (35 miles distant), was what we might today call Gemmingen’s procurement officer, negotiating on his behalf with Dutch merchants for rare species. Besler also was charged with cataloguing the garden; among other duties, he conveyed live flowers from Eichstatt to premiere local artists for illustration. Gemmingen advanced some of the money needed to print these works. When he died in 1612, Besler opted to proceed with the publication anyway. His plan was a black-and-white edition for the book trade—and special, hand-colored versions commissioned by individuals wealthy enough to afford them. The Hortus Eystettensis illustrations are united by a Baroque character, full utilization of the page, visible species names, and (following a certain tradition) diminished representation of roots and stems. Yet artists’ individuality and talents managed to surface. A few florals are full-face portraits, while most appear from a slight distance. One or more varieties grace each page. These partners possess different scientific relationships to each other. Some layouts seem to allocate equal space to each of the smaller illustrations, rendering an ordered, box-like appearance; other placements are unifying and creative, even showing movement.

If these anthologies did little to further the careers of most Renaissance illustrators, some achieved lasting recognition. Before going to war, the soldierly Charles de Sainte-Maure (1610-1690), later Duke of Montausier, decided to secure his future with the much sought-after and cultured Julie D’Angennes. He commissioned Nicolas Robert (1614-1685) to craft an extraordinary birthday gift. The resulting album, the Garland of Julie, featured spectacular, skillfully rendered flowers that appeared individually—and together on the title page, forming a circle around the recipient’s name. It was a multimedia production, too, as Robert snared the era’s best known calligrapher and one of its revered poets for their respective artistic contributions. The Garland sealed the baron’s marriage proposal; it simultaneously bolstered Robert’s reputation as an artist. In short order, he catalogued a baronial garden, served the court of French king Louis XIV (1638-1715) and, with a turn toward more scientific work, became chief illustrator for a landmark history of plants published by France’s new Royal Academy of Sciences.

Botanicals nevertheless filtered to the average person. The Dutch had become masters of the flower trade. Blooms in general—and tulips in particular—were universally admired, but generally not affordable. According to legend, one aficio- nada engaged the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) to paint the flowers that were beyond her purchasing power. Jan Brueghel was the son of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/1530-1569), who so memorably depicted the era’s folk culture. Originally dedicated to landscapes and historical scenes, the younger Brueghel gained lasting recognition for his floral still lifes. And while not exactly botanical illustration, oil paintings of flowers (revealing the period’s dark backgrounds and rich color schemes) became popular throughout the Low Countries.

 
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