This post is based on research from the following books/references:
Assigned reference numbers are included throughout the post to indicate a direct quote or an idea that was gleaned from research.
(1) The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfred Blunt & William T. Stearn
(2) The Clutius Botanical Watercolors by Claudia Swan
(3) Jim Dine: Flowers and Plants by Livingstone & Abrams
(4) Hokusai and Hiroshige by Honolulu Academy of Arts
(5) The Floating World of Ukiyo-e, from the The Library of Congress website
(6) Podcast: “Botanical Illustration” with Alice Tangerini, of the Smithsonian Museum
(7) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(8) Linnè on line, a site dedicated to Linnaeus history by Uppsala University
(9) The Endeavor botanical illustrations, Natural History Museum, London, UK
(10) Wikipedia is referenced throughout this post for term definition and person identification
In writing this post, the information presented was edited to give a high level overview. The artists and developments chosen were pivotal in the developments of botanical illustration.
Man’s earliest art depicts the elements of hunting, but not the elements of gardening. Dating back approximately 20,000 years, these cave drawings/paintings reveal that man’s hand for skilled draftsmanship and composition and color was evident early on. The earliest artists looked with intensity at their world, in particular game and the hunt. Their artwork shows that they observed well and they show us the synopsis of a hunt, of charging horses, of a bison being killed as well as his hunter. Recognizable plants are rarely found in man’s early art. Plants were domesticated for a long period before their form was found in art.
The possible medicinal power of plants was the beginning of scientific botany. Pharmacists-in-training would use the descriptions and later the illustrations to help identify the plants/herbs. Medicine linked with science, prepared the way for the herbal presence in art.
Florilegium: The word is formed in the Latin flos (flower) and legere (to gather): literally a gathering of flowers. This term is used when referring to a collection of depictions of plant forms.
One of the earliest known florilegium is an Egyptian stone relief in the Great Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak c.1450 B.C. This bas-relief recorded the spoils of a victory by Tuthmosis III collected during his campaign in Syria. An inscription reads, “all the plants that grow, all the goodly flowers that are in the Divine Land (country NE of Egypt) His Majesty saith, ‘as I live, all these plants exist in very truth; there is not a line of falsehood among them. My Majesty hath wrought this in order to cause them to be before my father Ammon, in this great hall for ever and ever.'” (1)
In the first century A.D., two botanical works were created: the Natural History by the Elder Pliny in Latin and De Materia Medica, written by a Greek military physician, Pedanius Dioscorides. This later work would be a leader in the field of pharmacology for over a thousand years. The manuscript was not originally illustrated, but copied many times. In the year 512, a copied manuscript was made for the Byzantine princess Juliana Anicia, daughter of the Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West (Rome). The plant drawings in this codex seem to be made from earlier works, but they still offer quality in their naturalism. (1)
The practice of copying and recopying often led to stylization and loss of naturalism. Naturalism didn’t return until the 15th century. Two artists of this period show a renewed interest in observational painting: in Italy (Leonardo da Vinci), in Germany (Albrecht Dürer). Dürer’s, Great Piece of Turf is a watercolor that displays such keen observation given to every weed, leaf and seed. This study of nature stands as an artistic first. Botanists can easily identify the unique species: such as the Taraxacum officinale (dandelion). A contemporary of Durer is Weiditz and his work transitions into the printing technology of woodcut. (1&2)