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Botanical Illustration: The Essential Reference

Botanical Illustration: The Essential Reference

by Carol Belanger Grafton


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Comprising more than 500 years of printed botanical illustrations, this stunning compendium of black-and-white and color images begins with medieval illuminated manuscripts and woodcuts from the early days of printing. In addition to images from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the collection features highlights from such seventeenth-century classics as Gerard's Herbal, Besler's Hortus Eystettensis, and Crispin van de Pass' Hortus Floridus. Latter-day selections include illustrations from major nineteenth-century works — including the great flower prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté and hand-colored lithographs by many other artists of the period — as well as the imaginative twentieth-century floral work in the Art Nouveau style of M. P. Verneuil, E. A. Seguy, and others.
Detailed bibliographical information concerning every source and biographical information on the artists make this volume a vital reference tool as well as a splendid resource of significant and beautiful botanical illustrations. Students of graphic art and illustration as well as graphic designers, advertising professionals, and horticulturalists will prize this treasury of material from many rare historic sources.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486799858
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 06/20/2016
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Graphic artist Carol Belanger Grafton has edited and designed over 250 books for Dover, including titles on Art Nouveau and Art Deco graphics, vintage commercial and advertising art, historic engravings from the 16th through the 20th centuries, old-time postcards and collections of historic paintings, historic fashion illustrations and designs, and many other subjects.

Read an Excerpt

Botanical Illustration: The Essential Reference

By Carol Belanger Grafton

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81286-1


The watershed event in the history of botanical illustration, like the history of so many other aspects of Western life and culture, was the invention of printing in the 15th century. Before printing, artists were of course interested in the botanical world, and depictions of plants, trees, fruits, and flowers were common enough in Medieval illuminated manuscripts, whether as elements of the historical or religious scenes depicted, or for ornamental and decorative purposes.

The invention and spread of printing after the time of Gutenberg both reflected and stimulated an explosion in the spread of knowledge and information, including botanical information, about the physical world. Few subjects demanded more insistently to be illustrated when written about. Some of the greatest artifacts ever created concerning the botanical world as a result of this information explosion are the subject of this book. The literature of botanical illustration is so vast that what is presented here is a minute fraction of it, but it does at least point out a number of the most memorable signposts to be found along this fascinating road.

Gerard's Herbal was certainly one of those signposts. John Gerard (c. 1545–1612), English botanist and herbalist, compiled and published the first edition of his massive Herbal (1,454 pages) in 1597. With hundreds of woodcut illustrations borrowed mostly from other books previously published on the continent combined with Gerard's lively descriptions and vast amounts of esoteric information, including a great deal of entertaining Elizabethan folklore relating to the plants depicted, also appropriated from many sources, the Herbal was a huge success into the next century and beyond. In 1633, Thomas Johnson, a London apothecary and botanist, acting under a commission from Gerard's heirs, published an expanded and corrected second edition of the Herbal with about 800 additional species and 700 new illustrations included — this edition contained descriptions of 2,850 plants and included 2,700 woodcuts. Whatever its flaws, it represented a massive step forward in botanical publishing and is a cornerstone of any library of botanical literature.

Even before Gerard's Herbal was published in its second edition in 1633, the world of botanical illustration was undergoing a massive shift brought on by the development of hand-colored copperplate engraving which would inevitably take over the place formerly occupied by woodcut art. Hand-colored copperplate engravings produced much finer and artistically pleasing detail, infinitely better than woodcuts both for the purpose of presenting botanical information and for displaying beautiful images. In 1613 one of the first and greatest of copperplate botanical works was published in German, the Hortus Eysttensis (Gardens of Eichstätt) of Basilius Besler.

Besler (1561–1629) an apothecary and botanist from Nuremberg, became the curator of the gardens of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, Prince Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, one of the greatest gardens of his era. It took Besler and his group of writers and engravers 16 years to complete the great Hortus, and the Bishop died before it was finished. The massive Hortus Eysttensis represented something new in botanical art. It was not limited to culinary and medicinal herbs, but included plates of garden flowers, herbs and vegetables, and exotic plants which were highly sought after and prized by collectors such as the Bishop. In the Hortus, plants were depicted often almost life-size, and of course were beautifully hand-colored in the most lavish editions. The first edition of 1613 included 367 engravings with about three images to a page, for a total of 1,084 species. Later printings were made in 1640 and 1713 from the same plates. Miraculously, most of the copperplates were found intact in the Albertina museum in Vienna in 1994.

Another 17th-century work illustrates very well the influence of copperplate engraving on the development of botanical art, the Hortus Floridus of the Dutch artist Crispin van de Pass (1589–1670). The Hortus Floridus was produced at the height of the Dutch tulip craze of the 17th century. Tulips had been introduced to Europe from Turkey in the 16th century and relatively quickly became very popular and a highly prized luxury item. Because they are grown from bulbs, and it was a slow process to grow flowering bulbs from seeds, bulbs were soon in great and continually increasing demand and the prices of them — even speculative prices for contracts to produce and deliver future bulbs — escalated well beyond anything which was reasonable. In the later 1630s, the tulip 'bubble' inevitably crashed with consequences for the Dutch economy which economic historians still debate.

Seeing the interest in tulips all around him, Crispin van de Pass made the drawings for the Hortus Floridus which were, as the text in the original edition said, produced with great effort and drawn true-to-life. He included engravings of other bulbous and tuberous plants and also fruit trees, fruits, and medicinal plants. The engravings themselves are considered the equal of any ever produced for a botanical work.

It was in a very different world that Robert John Thornton, born in the 1760s, created the most magnificent English botanical book of his era, The Temple of Flora, published in parts in England between 1799 and 1807. Thornton had an interest in natural history since his childhood and when he came into a substantial inheritance, the idea of The Temple of Flora started to develop. He employed the best artists and engravers he could find, and they produced plates generally considered of unequalled quality, each a magnificent example of the Romantic Art of his era, with each plate showing a brilliant flower set in an imaginative Romantic landscape. The printing techniques were the most up-to-date, employing aquatint, mezzotint and stipple engraving, partly printed in colors and then finished by hand. The greatest of English flower books was also a commercial disaster. Thornton lost a great deal of money on the project, which had to be abandoned when it was half completed because it never captured the necessary public support to see it through to completion. But the plates which were completed are today the treasures of any library or collector fortunate enough to own them.

Many great artists' work is depicted in these pages, but we'll complete this brief overview with a note about Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840), often described as the greatest flower painter of all time, based on the brilliance of his talent, the immense size and consistency of his output, and his ability to survive and flourish in tumultuous times under three different political regimes. Born in present-day Belgium, Redouté came from a family of painters, including his father and grandfather, but had little formal education. At the age of 13 he made his way to Paris where an older brother worked as a painter of theatrical scenery. His talent brought him into contact with men and women at the French Court at Versailles who became patrons and mentors, encouraging him to specialize in the art of painting flowers for which he early on demonstrated his unique aptitude. Finding safety in this niche, he painted on through the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror which followed, into the age of Napoleon, painting his pictures under the auspices of various institutions and giving lessons to aristocrats. Redouté contributed to over 50 books during his career, had many patrons including Napoleon's Empress Josephine, and his death in 1840 certainly marked the end of the Golden Age of French flower painting. In his lifetime, Redouté produced about 2,100 botanical paintings, including 486 for his multi-volume work on lilies (Les Liliacées), and another 168 for Les Roses.

The art of botanical illustration continued to flourish into the Victorian period and beyond with many fine books and periodicals devoted to this genre regularly appearing in England and on the continent of Europe, often with outstanding color reproductions of botanical paintings produced through the new medium of lithography, which made it possible for the first time to print authentic and subtle color reproductions relatively inexpensively for a much larger audience than the few hundred who subscribed to the first printings of books like The Temple of Flora early in the 19th century. While flower painting as such certainly continued as a genre, and is alive and well today, legions of graphic artists took the idea of using botanical forms and shapes into the new worlds of Art Nouveau and later decorative styles, proving over and over again that the fusion of the worlds of botany and art is truly inexhaustible.

John Grafton
Princeton, NJ
February, 2016


Excerpted from Botanical Illustration: The Essential Reference by Carol Belanger Grafton. Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


15th–16th Centuries,
17th Century,
18th Century,
19th Century,
A Floral Interlude,
20th Century,
Index of Artists,
Plant Identifications,
Source Information,

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