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Flower Power

The history of botanical prints has deep roots
April 15, 2016

Large Flowering Sensitive Plant, from “The Temple of Flora” 1799. Joseph Constantine Stadler (German, active c. 1780–1812) after Philip Reinagle. Color aquatint, stipple, and etching with watercolor added by hand; 76.2 x 61 cm. Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland in honor of Mrs. William G. Mather 1955.479

The Flowering of the Botanical Print, an exhibition tracing the history of the fruit and flower print, celebrates the centennials of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. The museum began collecting botanical prints in 1939 when the Print Club of Cleveland established a memorial for Donald Gray, a landscape architect and Cleveland Press garden columnist who served as the club’s president in 1933–34. Over the years this collection has grown to more than 100 prints and related drawings.

One of the earliest representations of a group of plants is 275 examples carved in low relief on the walls of Thutmose III’s temple at Karnak, Egypt, dating to the mid-1400s bc. The ancient Greeks and Romans also contributed to botanical records by illustrating “herbals,” books describing plants used for medicinal purposes. The first one, written in Greek by Dioscorides about ad 40–90, contained naturalistic drawings, but as they were copied repeatedly over the centuries, they became more and more stylized—often becoming useless for the purpose of identification—and errors were perpetuated.

The first printed herbals in Europe appeared in Germany in the late 15th century with illustrations based on schematic representations in ancient manuscripts. Designed and cut by anonymous craftsmen, the images are simple but have a bold and decorative charm.

The Herbarius Latinus (loaned by the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, Case Western Reserve University), containing German native and garden plants, was intended to serve as a book of simple remedies for the general public. Printed by Peter Schoeffer in 1484, the images are hand colored with watercolor. By the 16th century herbals were more sophisticated, such as Herbarum Vivae Eicones (also loaned by the Dittrick Museum), published in 1531–36 by Johann Schott. The volume set new standards of truth and skill for botanical illustrators through Hans Weiditz’s beautiful, realistic drawings, which were expertly interpreted by woodcutters, resulting in lively and naturalistic plants.

Seventeenth-century botanical illustrators were stimulated by a surge of interest in their subject. While in the mid-16th century only 500 plants were known, less than a century later that number had grown to 6,000. A passion for cultivating beautiful rather than useful plants prevailed, and formal gardens, which had carefully arranged flower beds based on embroidery designs, supplemented varieties of local plants with foreign samples. Exotic flowers became available in Europe as the Dutch founded colonies in the East and West Indies, South America, and India. Fabulous royal gardens were planted in France at Fontainebleau and the Louvre, and in England, according to the historian Wilfred Blunt, “a whole nation went mad about flowers.” Kew Gardens, founded in London in 1721, became a major institution for knowledge about plants from every continent.

From the early 17th century wealthy European amateurs who cultivated lavish gardens also hired artists to make “florilegia” (from Latin, meaning a gathering of flowers), sumptuous picture books of their favorite and most prized flowers. Compiled for the horticulturist rather than for the botanist, the pages were painted with watercolor on vellum or paper, since watercolor gives the illusion of transparency, luminosity, and the delicacy characteristic of many flowers. The white background duplicates bright sunlight and also provides highlights on the image.


Orange Lilies, in “Florilegium” 1600s. Anonymous (French). Watercolor on vellum; 31.1 x 20.2 cm. Gift of the American Foundation for the Maud E. and Warren H. Corning Botanical Collection 1963.594aa

A major problem in horticulture was the lack of a consistent system of classification. The first successful attempt to establish a common nomenclature was in 1724 when 20 London nurserymen published a list of all the trees, shrubs, plants, and flowers grown in their nurseries. But the real breakthrough came in 1735 when Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, which classified 7,700 plants by their sexual parts. The flora is divided into classes or families according to the number and disposition of the stamens and pistils. Linnaeus also developed a binomial naming system in which the first name applied to a whole group of plants and the second identified each plant individually. Since then, the scientific accuracy required for the delineation of flower, fruit, leaf, and stalk required an artist who combined artistic skill with botanical knowledge.

The 18th century also saw the invention of new printmaking techniques that offered a variety of tonal effects that tremendously enhanced botanical prints. Artists such as Pierre Joseph Redouté executed drawings using gouache and watercolor, which skilled craftsmen translated into prints. While mezzotint (a process where the printing plate is roughened and then the engraver works from dark to light, creating different values) and stipple (where dots create values) make it possible to produce an enormous variety of tones, the etching technique known as aquatint imitates the delicacy and transparency of watercolor and ink wash.

Redouté, who in the 1780s studied flower painting in Paris with Gerard van Spaendonck, one of the masters of the art, achieved an international reputation for his botanical illustrations and enjoyed a long, successful career. He is especially famous for Les Roses, a set of lavish prints commissioned by Empress Josephine, who after marrying Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795 rebuilt the royal country estate Malmaison and its opulent gardens. An immense hothouse was constructed to shelter her magnificent collection of rare and exotic plants, including 250 varieties of roses. The museum is fortunate to have some of Redouté’s drawings, which were executed in watercolor over graphite on vellum.


Rosa Gallica-Agatha (study for “Les Roses”) 1817–24. Pierre Joseph Redouté (French, born Belgium, 1759–1840). Watercolor over graphite on vellum; 50.8 x 38.1 cm. Gift in the name of Warren H. Corning from his wife and children 1959.20

The greatest English botanical publication of the early 19th century was Dr. Robert John Thornton’s Temple of Flora. Although Thornton studied medicine, his passion was botany, and he soon embarked on a major publishing venture that brought both fame and financial ruin. The work, New Illustrations of the Sexual System of Linnaeus, was the most sumptuous botanical publication ever produced. The section “Temple of Flora” has 28 flower portraits set not against a plain conventional background but in the full richness of their natural settings. Unfortunately, the day of the great florilegia had passed and in 1837 Thornton died in poverty. Only four years later, at age 81, Redouté suffered a stroke while examining a lily. With his death the age of the spectacular French flower painting drew to a close.   

Cleveland Art, May/June 2016