Botanical illustration: a forgotten art

As I was doing research for yesterday’s post on the South African sand lily (Veltheimia capensis), I came across this botanical drawing by Belgian painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840):

Sand lily (Veltheimia capensis)

I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkable representation of both the leaves and the flower. It looks just like the real thing, and it actually depicts the plant much more clearly than many photographs.

Nowadays we look at old botanical illustrations mainly as works of art. It’s easy to forget that their original purpose was a scientific one: to help botanists (and later gardeners and the public at large) identify plants. The esthetic appeal was not the primary motivation; not every botanical illustration from centuries past is pretty by any definition.

I won’t go into the history or techniques of botanical illustration because I know much too little about it (here is a good place to start). What I do want to do is show you some other pieces by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, regarded by many as the most talented botanical artist of all time. He illustrated numerous botanical volumes; his paintings of lilies and roses are considered to be his masterpieces.

As you look at the illustrations below (be sure to click on each one to see a larger version), pay attention to the amazing details in both the flowers and leaves. Redouté’s illustrations reflect the very essence of each plant and would be a very effective plant identification tool even today. In fact, I’m not sure that the high-resolution color photographs we’re so used to are better—and that’s coming from a passionate photographer!

Turk's cap lily (Lilium superbum)
St. Christopher Lily (Crinum giganteum)
Rosa eglanteria
redoute_Rosa Indica Cruenta
Rosa indica cruenta
redoute_Rosa Collina Fastigiata
Rosa collina fastigiata
redoute_Heliconia psittacorum
Parrot heliconia (Heliconia psittacorum)
redoute_Fritillaire Imperiale
Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
redoute_Tulipa Gesneriana
Didier’s tulip (Tulipa gesneriana)
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Wallflower (Cheiranthus flavus)
redoute_Ananas cultive
Pineapple (Ananas comosus)
redoute_Musa paradisiaca Cultivated Banana
Banana (Musa × paradisiaca)
Pomegranate (Punica granatum)
Orange (Citrus × ​sinensis)
Strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa)