Botanical Illustrations

By Terry Quillen


It was a role worthy of Errol Flynn or Brad Pitt: a fellow so politically nimble that he frequented the court of Marie-Antoinette, but managed to avoid the guillotine. Later, he was regularly found in the company of not one, but two of Napoléon Bonaparte’s wives.


Pierre-Joseph Redouté was not a swashbuckler, nor scoundrel, nor prince. He painted flowers.


In fact, Redouté is perhaps the most celebrated of the botanical illustrators — those artists capture the beauty of growing things and their most minute scientific details. They marry the skill of an artist with the knowledge of a botanist, as did Redouté was adept at both. (Photo right: Works signed by Redouté include hundreds of plants, flowers and fruit, such as the cabbage roses at top, or the prunes, camellias and cherries, left to right, along the bottom of the collage.)


Marie Antoinette commissioned Redouté as her flower painter. French revolutionaries — instead of executing him as a member of her court — had him paint the contents of royal gardens that they had seized and nationalized. Napoléon's first empress, Joséphine, hired him to chronicle on canvas her vast gardens at the Château de Malmaison. Redouté even taught Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, to paint.


Among his many botanical works, Redouté may be best known for his depiction of what we now call antique roses. While some still grow, their root stocks carefully preserved over the centuries, many of the roses that Redouté painted no longer exist, except in his exacting work. (Photo left: A few of Redouté's magnificent rose illustrations. See dozens more at the Website, A Picture Roses, dedicated to his work.)


Original work by Redouté is reserved for those in a particular tax bracket: Sotheby's drew $5.5 million in 1985 for Redouté's Les Liliacées, a two-volume collection of some of his original work. That said, prints can be had at much more reasonable prices, making botanical illustration popular among decorators and designers. (Photo right: A couple of stunning botanical illustrations that are part of a grouping of four – see inset – in Booth T-360 at GasLamp Too.)


You can easily find prints of works by Redouté and his 18th century contemporary Georg Dionysius Ehret, along with many other botanical illustrators. They are abundant at GasLamp Too.


Decorators particularly favor two lush botanical collections by 18th-century English engraver Henry Fletcher — Twelve Months of Flowers and Twelve Months of Fruit. There are various Fletcher prints scattered around GasLamp Too, including in Booth T-266. Booth T-182 has a lovely set, seen in the photo at left (though the set is missing prints from the months of August, November and December).


Porcelain makers have also picked up on the dimensional beauty of botanical illustration. There is an exquisite set of Spode luncheon plates in Gaslamp Too's Booth T-134 that feature exotic specimens recreated in amazing detail (photo, below right).  


If you plan to visit Paris, a great place to find old botanical prints is along the sidewalks above the Seine. The bouquinistes sell all manner of printed goods: old books, magazines, comics and prints, including botanical prints are priced to sell.


But if you don't want to pay the price of a transatlantic flight and hotel, GasLamp Too has a great selection of botanic prints. However, you may have to forego the Eiffel Tower keychain.











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