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The Art of Science

From a queen's roses to weeds in a vacant lot, botanical illustration is a perfect convergence of science and art

Once relegated to physicians' herbals, botanical illustration changed course over its long history, the intrinsic beauty of plants luring artists in even the most scientific endeavors to create works of great beauty. It reached its Golden Age during the 18th century and the first half of the 19th with such artists as the Bauer brothers, Georg Ehret, and particularly Pierre Joseph Redouté, considered the "Raphael of botanical illustration."

Today botanical art is experiencing a renaissance not only with renewed interest in works of the past, but also because of a growing group of contemporary artists. Shirley Sherwood, who has tirelessly promoted modern botanical art and whose international collection of contemporary works is unrivaled, believes that "many of today's artists can be confidently placed alongside the masters of the past."

Up until 10 years or so ago, a stigma was attached to botanical illustration in the art world because it was science-based. And art schools had moved away from teaching re alism and drawing from observation. But the tide has turned, and realism is once again in vogue. Schools teaching botanical illustration, many offering certificate programs, have also developed atThe NewYork Botanical Garden and in Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago,Tucson and other cities.

Nothing compares to seeing the original painted work or engraving (for a list of some upcoming ex hibits, see page 15), and exhibits of both past and present artists occur across the country and internationally. Botanical gardens have been the unsung heroes in this, having the perfect clientele and exhibit space. Another venue is institutions with significant col lections, such as the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh.

The 10-year-old American Society of Botanical Artists and several florilegium societies, including one at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, have provided a vital network for these artists, most of whom work in relative isolation, to inspire each other.

While botanical illustration is a profession for a lucky few, most have other jobs and pursue it as a very serious passion. Undeniably historical art has a strong influence on today's practitioners for its decorative qualities but also in techniques and materials. Interestingly all the techniques ever used for botanical illustration are still in play, from woodcuts to stipple-point en-

If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world — john ruskin november / december 200 5

If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world — john ruskin

graving. Even the use of watercolor on vellum has been revived by such artists as Wendy Brockman and Kate Nessler—a very demanding approach, but the results are saturated colors and a unique luminosity.

The self-stated goal of botanical artists going forward is to continue to improve their craft and to find new inspiration. A few artists are even exploring other media, such as digital imagery. A recent exhibit atWave Hill, Bronx Lot Florilegium, used a nontraditional, multi-media approach to examine the overlooked plant life in a vacant lot—a far cry from Redoute's lush roses painted for the Empress Josephine.

Many artists feel botanical illustration is more relevant today than ever, with the strong popular interest in gardening and concerns about the environment. Some feel this new Golden Age meets a need to balance our high-tech world. As artist CarolWood-in explains, botanical art is "an antidote to the machinery of modernity and a reconnection with the aesthetic." Illustration is still an essential tool for science, showing a plant in more detail than photography can, but the best botanical art rises above the strict depiction of the "nuts and bolts" of a plant and is also a work of beauty.

On a basic level, people like to look at plants and at lovely pictures—botanical art provides both.—jenny Andrews

Hood with Ailsa Craig II;'Homage to Karl Blossfeldt' no. 5" by Rory McEwen, 1977.


  • The Transfer of Knowledge:The Art of Botanical Illustration, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum; through November 7; 952-443-1400;
  • Eighth Annual International Juried Exhibition,ASBA and The Horticultural Society of NewYork; through November 18; 866-691-9080; [email protected]
  • Inspiration and Translation: Botanical and Horticultural Lithographs of Joseph Prestele and Sons, Hunt Institute; through December 22;
  • Flowers by Redoute,Artist for an Empire (shown at left, "Aster de Chine," 1827), The NewYork Botanical Garden; through January 22; 718-817-8700;

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No-Crack Pots

In colder zones, choose garden containers that stand up to the big freeze.They can stay out all year, even if the plant moves indoors

  • 1 ] Tall fiberglass planter with horizontal ribbing detail: 24,36 or 48 inches tall, $278, $365 and $498. From the Shop in the Garden, 718817-8073 or
  • 2] Designed to be left outdoors all year, these containers are made from iron Vi6 inch thick.Three window-box planters in natural rust finish: vertical, $360; horizontal or square, $310 each. See for local sources and full range.
  • 3] The Westminster planter, 20 by 20 inches, comes with a lifetime warranty. In plantation teak, $242. Call 888-592-8325 or see —JOANNA FORTNAM

Art is like a border offlowers along the course of civilization — lincoln steffens

GARDEN design

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fyi Combining ikebana and Western style floral design, Keiko Kubo offers custom floral work for offices, galleries and events in the Chicago area. Call 773-7267755 or email [email protected]

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