Most of us are familiar with famous artworks such as Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” putti and Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s roses. However, these artworks have been so heavily commercialized and reproduced on various products that many of us may not know their original context or even their creators. Redouté, in particular, was a pioneer of botanical prints and his work spanned various types of art depicting flora.
Redouté excelled in three different types of art relating to plants and flowers: botanical illustrations, botanical art, and flower paintings. Each type served a different purpose. Botanical art, for instance, focused on aesthetics and was created with the same level of accuracy as botanical illustrations. Flower paintings, on the other hand, leaned towards the fantastical and often sacrificed botanical accuracy for artistic expression.
Botanical illustrations, which are highly detailed and accurate drawings of plants, serve scientific and identification purposes. These illustrations are created from live plants or specimens and often include the entire life cycle and all parts of the plant. One example of Redouté’s botanical illustrations is his delicate watercolor of the heather Erica fulgida, where he numbered each part of the flower for easy identification.
Interestingly, botanists today still rely heavily on botanical illustrations for their work. According to illustrator Alice Tangerini from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, botanical illustrations provide a level of accuracy and attention to detail that digital photography cannot achieve. A botanical illustrator acts as a proofreader for the scientific description of a plant and can emphasize specific features that a camera may overlook.
The tradition of botanical art dates back to the 16th century when growing, studying, and collecting exotic plants became popular. Early botanists would create illustrations in the field or hire artists to accompany them to avoid damaging plant specimens during transportation. These detailed illustrations, often featured in albums called “florilegium,” meaning “a gathering of flowers” in Latin, assisted scientists in identifying, describing, classifying, and naming species.
Redouté himself was recognized as the preeminent botanical artist of his time and was a favorite among royals and aristocrats. Both Marie Antoinette and Joséphine Bonaparte were patrons and students of his. His impressive body of work includes over 2,100 botanical paintings, covering more than 1,800 species, some of which were previously unknown.
Born in present-day Belgium, Redouté learned the art of painting from his father and studied with Flemish masters while working as an itinerant artist. In Paris, he honed his skills and learned about color printing and botanical illustration from renowned artists and botanists. His talent and expertise led to various commissions, including one from Charles L’Héritier, a biologist and plant collector, who commissioned Redouté to create drawings for engravings of rare plants.
Redouté perfected the technique of stipple engraving, which involved incising dots of varying densities into a copperplate to convey tone and shading. He introduced this technique to France and used it in his botanical prints, which were created using watercolor on parchment or vellum. His prints showcased his intricate and delicate use of color and shading, often requiring the addition of multiple ink colors at once.
Redouté chose yellow-ocher tinted paper for his monochrome prints, as it enhanced the subtle tones of his stipple engravings. After printing, he hand-colored each print and intentionally destroyed the copperplates to prevent further reproductions. This meticulous process allowed him to achieve the utmost accuracy and beauty in his botanical prints.
In addition to his famous series “Les Roses” and “Les Liliacées,” Redouté also depicted other plants such as succulents, cacti, and North American trees. His contributions to botanical illustration and art have had a lasting impact, with his work revered for its precise accuracy and artistic elegance.
To truly appreciate the original intent and beauty of artworks such as Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” putti and Redouté’s roses, it is important to understand their context and the artists behind them. These works serve both scientific and aesthetic purposes, bridging the gap between art and science in their intricate depictions of the natural world. Through their meticulous attention to detail and artistic expression, artists like Redouté continue to inspire and awe us with the beauty of plants and flowers.