Where Art and Science Meet in Petal and Stem

THE botanical artist must work quite differently than the painter we more frequently encounter. Unlike the landscapist, portraitist, and executor of still lifes, he must constantly make a division in his craft between science and art. His primary goal must be not the creation of a beautiful, striking, or evocative picture, but a delineation as true to nature as possible - a representation faithful to every nuance of his subject. These artists are legion, but we are generally little aware of their carefuland sensitive draftsmanship; their sketches, drawings, watercolors are hidden away in botanical treasuries and known chiefly to their fellows. This curious art began long ago and was at first chiefly devoted to identifying and preserving the characteristics of useful plants - often medicinal herbs. Such drawings are found in the old herbals and were sometimes exquisitely done - we find them in books of hours and other contemporary works - but it is true also that they were often stereotyped and careless. In the Renaissance, floral drawings were frequently most beautiful, but afterward there ensued a phase that promoted gaudy and vulgar represen tations. The best early schools of Western flower painting were in Burgundy and Flanders. (The Chinese had by this time long been producing masterpieces, almost as a matter of course.) The Germans earned deserved praise with an herbal published in 1530, the achievement of the botanical artist Otto Brunfels; the French who had early triumphs then reentered the field, and in the 18th-century England and Austria produced a plethora of these artists. Many of us are acquainted with Pierre Joseph Redoute and his roses, with George Ehret (who ranks among the English painters, though he actually was a German), and Francis and Ferdinand Bauer who flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are many great names to be encountered in this roster. That their work is not widely known is an indication that these drawings have been hidden away in cabinets and remote drawers, their whereabouts are known only to botanists. The New York Botanical Garden, for instance, has some 9,000 such prints stored away, seen rarely in exhibits and occasionally reproduced in botanical journals. These prints are of first importance in the discipline of botany, and so are best known to the devotees of that field. The New York collection was founded in 1891 - most of th e documents date from the mid-19th century, but some go back to the 18th. THE National Academy of Design in New York is now showing drawings and books from the New York Botanical Garden's collection in an exhibit called "Illustrating Nature: The Art of Botany," which will run until the end of September. There are a variety of illustrations - pencil, ink, woodcuts, and etchings - but watercolor holds an important place. Oils are not as effective as these other mediums; neither is photography. It becomes evident, as one studies the examples, that the art is extraordinarily demanding, and yet it is seldom accorded much reward. Wilfred Blunt justly observes in his admirable "The Art of Botanical Illustration": "The landscape artist may be tempted to feel that the flower painter has an easy task. Shifting skies and changing light do not indeed disturb the tranquil labors of the latter. But only those who have attempted to draw flowers can appreciate what restless models these can sometimes be - how quickly petals open and stems curve. Further, the color of many flowers is so dazzling that at best it can only be approximated in p aint. Moreover, the botanical artist finds himself at once and always in a dilemma: is he the servant of Science, or of Art?" Botanical artists work either in the open, the natural habitat where they find their specimens, or in the laboratory, where they dissect and study these plants. Sometimes they use pressed flowers to aid them in determining the exact contours of whatever they are analyzing. In the United States, botany developed as the new country pushed its frontiers westward: Just as the geologists and surveyors were reporting their finds, so were the botanical explorations recorded. The largest and most important source of botanical records was instigated by the US Pacific Railroad, which published its "Reports of Exploration and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean" between 1855 and '60. A few years earlier, Stansbury's "Exploration of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake" had appeared, another treasury for scientists. ISAAC SPRAGUE, an example of whose work is reproduced here, is a model for any botanical artist, a man to whom John James Audubon gave high praise in his journal (August 1840): "Saw some very remarkable drawings of birds... ," he wrote, "by a young man named Sprague. Truly wonderful drawings... ." The young man in question was then 29, and apprenticed to a master who was teaching him to paint carriages, but Audubon's perception of his talents would change the whole course of his career. Sprague received a note from the famous painter and went to see him in Boston. Audubon's incomparable "The Birds of America" had been published in London (1826-1838) in 87 parts, and four years later the artist started a new series, "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America" (1842-1854). This project entailed going on a trip to the West with a few scientific friends, a 1,400-mile journey to Fort Union in what is now Montana. The passage was called the "Missouri River Trip," the itinerary taking the travelers through Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis. Isaac Sprague was invited to join the expedition, and his career was launched. His meticulous, observant, wonderful drawing and harmonious colors made him invaluable to the men of Audubon's circle.

HE was passed from one to another of these discoverers and pundits, all of whom seemed in need of a man of his caliber. When the Missouri River trip ended, he took a position as a clerk in Massachusetts for a short time, but his tenure there ended when Asa Gray asked him to illustrate his work. Gray was then Fisher professor of natural history at Harvard (this was in 1842); he is called the most celebrated American botanist of his time. Eventually, scientists named two specimens after this artist: Spragu e's Pipit, a species of Missouri lark, and Spraguea, a plant of the lower Sierra Nevadas, colloquially known as "pussytoes." Gray called Sprague "the most accurate of living botanical artists," saying, "He has a singular aptitude for this kind of work and the most exact eye, and conscientious as well as skillful hand." It was felt that Sprague raised the level of botanical illustration in America to that of Europe; his work expanded until he was considered the foremost botanical artist in producing chromolithographic books. His personality pleased everyone, as he was modest, gentle - even shy - yet so quick and acute. It appears, however, that most botanical artists must be content to "blush unseen" (and this includes Sprague, who is quite unknown to the general public and is hard even to find in libraries). This is perhaps not inappropriate; we know that their subjects must often also "waste their sweetness on the desert air." Eleanore Clarke, who painted the day lilies shown on this page, seems to have left no record other than that she was probably a Works Progress Administration worker. These artists, employed by the government during the Depression, often were highly gifted. Recognized or not, known or unknown, botanical art endures, and, for its happy creators, is in the long run its own and sufficient reward.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Where Art and Science Meet in Petal and Stem
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today