Botanical Art in Full Bloom: Deeply Rooted in Science, This Ancient Art Form Is Blossoming in the Contemporary Market

By Mehta, Julie | Art Business News, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Botanical Art in Full Bloom: Deeply Rooted in Science, This Ancient Art Form Is Blossoming in the Contemporary Market


Mehta, Julie, Art Business News


Delicate tendrils fountaining from the center of a blossom. Thickly-veined heart-shaped leaves curling up at the ends. Needle-sharp thorns scaling a fuzzy stem. Botanical art is a rare union of art and science that captures both the intricate patterns and vibrant beauty of flowers. "It's a really accessible art form," said Robin Jess, executive administrator of the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA). "It appeals to a group that contemporary abstract art doesn't touch. There's an attention to detail that attracts engineers and scientists. And of course almost everybody likes flowers."

Artwork from the so-called golden age of botanical art in 19th-century England has long been popular with a niche group of collectors and interior designers, but now the market for contemporary botanical art is blossoming as well. "There's a big new interest in ecology and the environment and an increased interest in gardening, especially in the United States," said Dr. Shirley Sherwood, an Oxford-trained botanist who many consider principally responsible for the current resurgence in botanical art. Her two books detailing her extensive contemporary art collection helped coalesce modern artists committed to continuing this ancient art form.

A Flourishing Field

Dating as far back as images on Egyptian tombs and Greek vases, botanical illustrations were commonly collected during medieval times to identify medicinal plants. Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer brought a heightened realism and vividness to the art form during the Renaissance. European explorers carried home plants from North and South America, Asia and Australia, planting the seeds of the botanical art boom. The 1735 creation of the genus/species system of classifying living things by Sweden's Carl Linnaeus, the launch of Curtis's Botanical magazine in London in 1787 and the opening of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, in the mid-1800s each helped botanical art grow and flourish. Countless lavishly illustrated picture books of flowers printed with engraved copperplates flooded the market, containing work by the masters of the era, including Jane Loudon, Elizabeth Blackwell, Georg Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redoute. Today, these books are very valuable.

"Images from any of the top artists are in a similar price range," said Joel Oppenheimer, owner of the Kenyon Oppenheimer Gallery in Chicago. "Hand-colored originals go for around $25;000. We've sold an original engraving by Redoute for $150,000." Just this past Valentine's Day, the gallery sold a set of both black ink and color images of Redoute's most famous work, "Les Roses," depicting the rose garden of Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Collectors purchased shares ranging from $13,300 to $28,500, entitling them to select four of the 168 images.

This October, the gallery will begin releasing 10 sets of giclee prints of botanical art from the Royal Botanic Gardens' world-renowned collection. The first offerings will be images from Dr. Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora, camellias by Clara Maria Pope and Amazon orchids by Margaret Mee. Each print will range from $600 to $1,500.

In the United States, one of the biggest repositories of botanical art, both old and new, is the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh. The institute recently concluded an exhibition of American botanical art from the last two centuries. "Nature is so simple and beautiful, and when good artists look at flowers with awe, they can depict perfection," said Curator James J. White. "Whenever artists and gallery patrons see this art, they get hooked."

White gives Dr. Sherwood much of the credit for putting contemporary botanical art in the public eye. It was at a show at the Royal Botanic Gardens more than 10 years ago that Dr. Sherwood bought her first botanical painting. She now has the world's largest private collection of contemporary botanical art, consisting of almost 500 original works by artists from 27 countries. …

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