The Golden Age of Botanical Art

The Golden Age of Botanical Art

by Martyn Rix


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Global in scope, this beautifully illustrated book explores the evolution and diversity of botanical art. It tells the stories of intrepid explorers and professional artists who recorded the flora they encountered in lands ranging from Russia to South America. Special features cover key figures and distinguished collections, while rare and previously unpublished images reveal how these illustrations contributed to our understanding of the world and the glories of nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780233005423
Publisher: Welbeck Publishing Group Limited
Publication date: 04/03/2018
Series: Y
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 559,392
Product dimensions: 9.90(w) x 11.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Martyn Rix is a botanist and the Editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and as such has an unrivalled knowledge of botanical art. With a PhD in Botany from the University of Cambridge, he has worked at the University Botanic Garden in Zurich and at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden, Wisley, in the UK, and has made many expeditions to different parts of the world to collect new plants for gardens. He is the author or co-author of a number of books, including the highly acclaimed The Botanical Garden (Macmillan).

Read an Excerpt

The Golden Age of BOTANICAL ART

By Martyn Rix


Copyright © 2012 Martyn Rix
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09359-8




The representation of flowers in art has a long history. Flower paintings were originally made for two main reasons: as decoration, or as a means of identifying plants used for medicine. The earliest surviving good representations of flowers date from the late Minoan period in Crete and the eastern Mediterranean, around 1700 years ago, and were the product of a rich palace culture, with lilies, saffron and other flowers used to decorate pots and wonderful painted rooms. These depictions are not as old as paintings of animals, where the earliest cave paintings of bulls, aurochs and humans date from the end of the last Ice Age around 20,000 years ago.

In China there are records of herbs used in medicine around 4500 years ago, but their knowledge did not spread to the west. During the classical period, in Greece, Asia Minor and Babylon, medicine began to be used by specialists, and herbals were produced, with drawings and descriptions of plants used for treatment. The first herbals that survive date from around 2000 years ago, but were based on the works of previous writers, such as Theophrastus who was working circa 300 years earlier. These classical drawings of plants, such as the great herbal of Dioscorides, continued to be copied until the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, herbals merged into books of flowers grown for decoration, so-called "florilegia." Pictures of the earliest European garden flowers can also be seen in paintings from the early fifteenth century, but are usually shown for their religious significance; lilies, roses, irises, and carnations are commonly shown.

The earliest flower paintings to survive in which the flower itself is the main object are probably those done by Chinese painters in the thirteenth century; these were usually as hand scrolls, and show flowers and often fruit and birds as well. The scented Narcissus tazetta, which is early flowering and was a treasured import from Mediterranean Europe, is a frequent subject; its leaves and flowers appear to dance across the page.

In Europe, the earliest pure flower paintings to survive are by Albrecht Dürer; his famous depiction of Das großer Rasenstück, the big bit of turf, and a painting of peonies date from circa 1503. Two generations later, in about 1580 in Florence, Jacopo Ligozzi painted a series of realistic flowers, which are as accurate and artistic as anything depicted until the eighteenth century.

The period between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries was the golden age of botanical art, when rich patrons, skilled artists, new plant discoveries and a scientific desire for knowledge coincided. The flower paintings and wonderfully illustrated botanical books created during this century, are the main theme of this present book.


The frightful volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that destroyed the Minoan civilization in Crete and the eastern Mediterranean have allowed us a remarkable insight into both their culture and the decoration of their houses. When Sir Arthur Evans excavated the palace of King Minos at Knossos in Crete in around 1900, he found the remains of wall paintings, and was able to re-erect and restore some of them. Apart from the famous painting of the man leaping over a bull, there are others that show the flowers that might have been brought back to the palace or grown in the palace gardens; a fine clump of Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) can be seen in the museum at Heraklion, taken from a villa in Amnissos, the port for Knossos: it dates from around 1600 BC. The saffron crocus is also shown in a Cretan wall painting, with the long styles that are the source of the flavoring and the dye, clearly protruding from the flower. The night-scented sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), familiar to anyone who uses a sandy Mediterranean beach in the summer, is commonly depicted, on frescoes, on a Mycenean sword blade and on a Cretan sarcophagus. Roses are shown, too, and more flowers can be seen on decorated Minoan pottery, showing that a love for of plants was a feature of their civilization.

The surviving wall paintings on Santorini (formerly called Thera) are even more remarkable; the city of Akrotiri was buried by a cloud of pumice in a violent eruption that is now thought to have occurred between 1627 and 1600 BC. Since 1967 the city has been excavated, and many frescoes have been discovered in a remarkable state of preservation. The saffron Gatherers shows two girls picking the flowers from a rock, and in the background clumps of saffron plants seem to have been planted in rows, an early example of the cultivation of this valuable herb. In the House of the Ladies there is a fine representation of two clumps of sea daffodils, showing the stamens attached to the corona.

The most spectacular of all ancient flower paintings is now in the National Museum in Athens. A whole room is painted with a single scene: large clumps of lilies emerge from a rocky, weatherworn limestone landscape, and swallows swoop around the sky; the lily flowers are painted bright red, and there has been some discussion that these are the red-flowered Lilium chalcedonicum, from mainland Greece, rather than the white-flowered Lilium candidum, which is the one usually shown in Minoan art. The same red lilies are shown elsewhere arranged in a large decorated vase.

A much later volcanic disaster has given us an insight into Roman painting. Pliny the Elder died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ad, but his nephew escaped and described the destruction of Pompeii, which was buried, like Thera, in pumice-like ash. The House of the Vettii, with its numerous frescoes therefore survived, and one of these shows a garden scene, with a red Rosa gallica, daisies, and poppies.


The earliest illustrated botanical books were herbals, designed to help the reader identify medicinal plants and understand their uses. Pliny the Elder mentions illustrated herbals, and the name of one of the most famous botanists, herbalists, and painters of the first century BC, Cratevus, whose work became connected with the most famous herbal in existence, the Codex Aniciae iulianae picturis illustratus, nunc Vindobonensis Med. Gr. I, to give it a full title, shortened to Aniciae Iulianae Codex. The text is mostly by Pedanios Dioscorides who was born in Anazarbus, north of present-day Çeyhan in Turkey in around 40 AD. He travelled widely in Asia Minor, as a doctor in the Roman army, and based his work on his own experience and the writings of others such as Cratevus, who was also physician to Mithridates VI of Pontus. The Vienna copy of the manuscript was made in 512, for Anicia Juliana, daughter of the Emperor Olybrius, who donated a church to the citizens of the Honorata district of Constantinople (now Istanbul); the copy was probably based on manuscripts owned by her great-grandfather, Theodosius II, Byzantine Emperor in 425, who was renowned for his learning and knowledge of herbal medicine. There are 385 plant pages on parchment, rather brown but otherwise in good condition, and it is known that the manuscript was restored and rebound in 1406 in a monastery in Constantinople. The illustrations are often very well painted and most are instantly recognizable; many of the names used are still correct today. The text of Dioscorides is written in Greek around the painting, and has been annotated in Arabic, probably by Turkish physicians who used it between the fall of Constantinople in 1485 and its purchase for the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna in 1569.

The influence of this herbal was remarkable: it was copied again and again, initially by Greeks in Constantinople, and later by Arabic scholars who were often Nestorians, working in Baghdad for the Caliph: a good Arabic example is in Leiden (UNIV. Cod. Or. 289).

Even later it was translated into Latin, but, with each copying the illustrations tended to become cruder and less accurate.

In the Early Renaissance a few Italian herbals were illustrated by new paintings; some are beautiful and good representations of the flowers described, even if the text is still basically that of Dioscorides. One example is the Egerton MS 747 in the British Library, which was produced in Salerno in around 1300. Most of the wild flowers, which the artist would have known personally, are well painted, but exotic ones, such as Dracunculus, the dragon arum, are stylized and the painter cannot resist showing a snake twining up its stem. The Carrara herbal (Sloane MS 2020), whose text is an Italian translation of an Arabic medical treatise, painted in Padua in around 1400, has elegant, original paintings swirling across the page, but these two examples are the exceptions, and even early printed herbals had debased illustrations, derived from repeated, careless copying.


During the early Renaissance, in the fifteenth century, painting became more realistic, discarding the stylized figures that are such a feature of Byzantine art. The figures, though still mainly of religious subjects, became more naturalistic, and gave the artist scope for scenery and other objects to be placed in the background of the painting. Two main branches of art from this period show flowers: ordinary paintings, often produced as altarpieces, and books of hours, delicately illuminated manuscripts of the psalms or prayer books. The flowers are clearly painted from nature, and are the common cottage garden flowers that the artist would have known.

One of the earliest floral altarpieces is in St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. It was painted in about 1430 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (fl. c. 1420–85), and depicts the adoration of the Lamb: part of the background shows the corner of a rather unkempt garden, with a fig tree, and hedges of red gallica roses and trailing vines. The lawn is planted as a flower meadow with dandelions, daisies, wild strawberries, lady's smock, solomon's seal, rue, valerian, and rose campion. The cathedral itself is shown in the background. Other parts of the altarpiece show Madonna lilies, irises, a peony, columbines, woodruff, primrose, and ivy.

A second famous altarpiece, by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, (c. 1440–82), is now in Florence. It was commissioned for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence by the Italian banker Tommaso Portinari, a descendent of the hospital's founder and agent of the Medici in Bruges in around 1475. The Virgin kneels, looking at the infant Jesus, and surrounded by angels and groups of ladies and friars. The vases of flowers in the foreground have special significance: the blue iris is a royal flower, often associated with the Queen of Heaven, and the white Florentine iris was also associated with the Virgin. The columbine, so-called because the petals were thought to look like a dove, symbolizes the Holy Ghost, while the orange lily is also a royal flower. Elsewhere, violets are strewn on the ground.

The painter Martin Schongauer (1469–91), a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, is known for only one major painting with flowers, but several other are attributed to his pupils or followers. His altarpiece, The Madonna of the Rose Garden of 1473, in the Église de St Martin, in Colmar, shows very natural red peonies and red Rosa gallica, which would have been popular garden flowers at that time.

A remarkable survival is a study of the peonies made for this painting, which is now in the Jean Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. It is on paper, watermarked around 1470 and was bought by the museum in 1992. At first it was thought to be by a follower of Dürer, but Fritz Korney, the curator of drawings at the Albertina in Vienna recognized it as the peony flowers in Schongauer's painting. Dürer went to visit Schongauer in Colmar but by the time he arrived, Schongauer had died. Dürer is said to have bought several paintings from Schongauer's brother, and it may be that this peony inspired Dürer's very similar peony painting, dated 1503, now in Bremen. As W. T. Stearn has pointed out, Schongauer's painting is remarkable for showing, with perfect botanical accuracy, the progression from leaves to sepals at the back of the flower.

A painting of Mary in a Garden with Cherry Tree, now in the National Gallery in London, is cataloged as school of Martin Schongauer. It is one of the earliest garden scenes, showing a picket fence surrounding a flowery meadow of irises, carnations, strawberries, lily of the valley, stocks, soapwort, ragged robin, and plantains, all of which might be expected in a garden in northern Europe in the fifteenth century.

Another altarpiece in the National Gallery, dated to circa 1500, and probably French, shows the story of St Giles and the Hind. The King of France and a bishop kneel before St Giles, who is holding a pet hind, after a member of the royal hunt had shot at the deer, but wounded the saint. The flowers in this painting are brilliantly drawn, and perhaps show the hand of Schongauer as well. The woolly mullein on the right has its leaves tapering into the stem, and the other flowers – greater celandine, irises, mallow, and a wild rose in the background – are easy to identify.

Illuminated books of hours are the most charming miniature manuscripts, and give another insight into the flowers grown in gardens in northern Europe in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Hastings Hours, painted by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, now in the British Library, dates from around 1480; it has several pages with floral borders, showing wild roses, pinks, garden peas, speedwell, and forget-me-not, while another page has irises, heartsease, and a variety of insects. Some pages have text, others illustrations such as the Flight into Egypt. A beautiful book of hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Douce) contains many pages where the main image is surrounded by borders strewn with all kinds of flowers.

One of the most famous artists in this period was Jean Bourdichon (1457–1521), who made illuminated books for Louis XII, King of France from 1482 to 1515. Some of the borders of his manuscripts, now in the British Library, show very detailed drawings of flowers, which appear, by the clever use of shading, to be strewn around the page.

An interesting album of flower drawings by another French artist, Jacques Le Moyne (c. 1533–88), is now in the British Museum, with others in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Le Moyne was a Huguenot, and was sent on a disastrous expedition to survey Florida in 1564; the Spanish overran the colony and massacred most of the French, though Le Moyne escaped, to spend his later years in England. His flower paintings, mostly done before and after his visit to America, are detailed and accurate; some are formal, in the tradition of the miniatures of Bourdichon, others, in delicate watercolor, are true to nature, like those of Dürer's pupil Hans Weiditz.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was born in April 1452 on the outskirts of the small town of Vinci near Florence, and was apprenticed to the painter and sculptor Verrocchio in the city. His earliest known work is The Annunciation and was painted circa 1472–73; it remains in Florence (in the Uffizi Gallery) and shows the angel Gabriel kneeling on a flowery lawn, greeting Mary with a raised hand; a Madonna lily is growing in the background.

The custom of painting flowers in religious paintings started in the fifteenth century, and continued throughout the Renaissance. The flowers were not only for decoration, but had a deeper sybolism. The Madonna was commonly shown with a blue iris, as well as a white lily, and was also associated with both red and white roses. In The Madonna of the Carnation (1477–78), now in Munich, Leonardo shows Mary holding a dark red double carnation. Another Virgin and Child, now in St Petersburg, shows Mary holding a four-petaled flower, probably a scented stock.

Leonardo moved to Milan circa 1483, and it was here that he painted his two famous versions of The Virgin of the Rocks for an altarpiece. The painting in the Louvre was probably begun in 1483, and the National Gallery version was probably finished in 1508.

Many of Leonardo's drawings from this period survive: a sketch of a group of violets (c. 1487–90) and a group of drawings of different flowers (c. 1505) are now in the Royal Library at Windsor. These are elegant and accurately observed, and show simple flowers such as wood anemones, kingcups, star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum angustifolium), a flower of spurge, an oak branch, several brambles and bulrushes (Schoenoplectus and Cyperus), grasses such as Job's tears (Coix), as well as the usual Madonna lily.

Though the figures in the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks are very similar, the flowers in the foreground are quite different. In the Louvre version is a clump of irises, always associated with the Virgin, but in the National Gallery version the irises are replaced by a clump of Narcissus tazetta whose leaves are much too broad, and three other imaginary flowers. It seems inconceivable that the same hand that sketched the delicate flower drawings could have painted the flowers so badly. Perhaps the answer is that the painting of the foreground was done by an assistant. Leonardo finally received payment for the picture in August 1508, 25 years after it had been commissioned. From 1513 to 1516 he was in Rome in the papal service, where he was described by a courtier as one "of the world's finest painters, ... despises the art for which he has so rare a talent, and has set himself to learn philosophy; and in this has such strange ideas and novel fancies that for all his skill in painting, he could not depict them."


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Table of Contents


1 The Origins of Botanical Art

Leonardo da Vinci

2 Early Works of the Sixteenth Century

Jacopo Ligozzi

3 Seventeenth-Century Florilegia

Dutch Flower Paintings

4 North American Plants

Linnaeus and Plant Classification

5 Travellers to the Levant

Maria Sybilla Merian

6 The Exploration of Russia and Japan

Les Vélins du Muséum

7 Botany Bay and Beyond

Sir Joseph Banks

8 The Golden Age in England

Mrs. Delany and her Paper Mosaicks

9 South American Adventures

Thornton’s The Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature

10 The Golden Age in France

Empress Joséphine

11 Botanical and Horticultural Illustrated Journals

Henry C. Andrews

12 Early Chinese Plant Drawings

Père David and the French Missionaries

13 The Company School in India

The Story of Flora Danica 1761-1883

14 A New Era at Kew

George Maw

15 Victorian Travellers

Elwes and the Genus Lilium

16 Bringing China to Europe

Modern Florilegia

17 The Flowers of War and Beyond

Exhibiting Botanical Watercolours

18 Carrying on the Tradition



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