The “Raphael of Flowers”: How Despite Photography Botanical Artists Still Thrive

The skills of the botanical illustrator, at their height in the Regency period (1798 – 1837), live on today despite the ubiquitousness of the camera.

Sarah Jane Humphrey 1 (Credit Sarah Jane Humphrey)

All photos in this article courtesy of Sarah Jane Humphrey

Among botanical artists in French history who have become celebrities was Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1789 – 1840) also known as the Raphael of Flowers. Redouté, actually a Dutchman, was official painter and botanist at the Versailles court of Louis XVI whose art-loving queen was the Habsburg Marie Antoinette (1755-1793).

According to The Story of Flowers — a recent book celebrating the craftsmanship of Redouté — : “Paris in the 17th and 18th century was a hive of creativity and scientific progress, particularly in the realm of botany.

Sarah Jane Humphrey 5 (Credit Sarah Jane Humphrey)
The Jardin du Roi, laid out in 1635, was home to an ever-expanding collection of flowers, plants and herbs that were delivered from every corner of the earth, recorded and cultivated into what became an unparalleled research facility and stunning resource for artists and scientists alike…”

Even though ensconced in an official capacity at Versailles Redouté continued painting through the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror to die a natural death aged 80. Having survived French revolutionary turbulence Redouté gained international recognition for his precise depictions of plants.

Sarah Jane Humphrey 4 (Credit Sarah Jane Humphrey)

The botanical artist, or illustrator, combines science and art to create images that are both pleasing to the eye and accurate in terms of colour, shape and habit of the plants they portray. This specialised art form gained prominence alongside the development of botanical nomenclature. At a time when amateur botany and gardening were starting to gain in popularity, it created a reliable market that enabled artists to sell their work.

Some such as Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1789 – 1840) became celebrities and Redoutés work was favoured by French royalty from Louis XVI to Louis-Philippe. After he came to the attention of Marie Antoinette he went on to become a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1825. During his life time he published 2100 plates while two books — Les Liliacees and Les Roses — remain famous today.

His work was exhibited in the Louvre in 1819 by which time he had earned the sobriquet Raphael of Flowers.

One might be tempted to imagine that the advent of photography after 1839 would have made botanical illustration redundant but in fact there has been a recent renaissance of the art form fuelled in part by the fact that botanical art is very popular as wall hangings in homes and offices. Artists are able to produce very accurate images of plant detail as well as to provide reverse features and enlargements of sections of the plant such as leaves or petals, which are a challenge for photographers to match.
Sarah Jane Humphrey 3 (Credit Sarah Jane Humphrey)
Among modern young illustrators making their mark is Sarah Jane Humphrey, an RHS silver medallist. During one of her recent visits to France I chatted with her about her work.

Sarah Jane studied art and technical illustration at Isle and Wisbech Colleges and is currently working on a series of paintings of alien plants invading Europe. This was commissioned by a firm in the UK that specialises in alien plant removal. Her client is one of a growing number of companies that now focus on eradicating the famously problematic Japanese Knotweed.

I’ve written about its presence in France here . This weed continues to plague much of Europe today. In addition to her work as an illustrator Sarah Jane gives lectures and is in the process of writing at least a book. See more of her work here.

What makes Sarah Jane’s illustrations unusual is her wide use of the famous Fibonacci sequence to achieve the balance and proportion she strives for in her art. The Fibonacci code, or Golden Ratio, was first introduced to Europe by Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano Bigollo in 1202.

Under the name Fibonacci, he is given much credit for its discovery but there is strong evidence to suggest that this reoccurring mathematical sequence was known about in India in 200 BC and that it was on a trip to Asia that Bigollo became entranced by the subject.

Sarah Jane Humphrey 2 (Credit Sarah Jane Humphrey)
Fibonacci used the sequence to estimate how many pairs of rabbits could theoretically be produced from a single pair over the course of a year. As a numerical sequence it has fascinated mathematicians the world over ever since, largely because it occurs so frequently in nature and the universe and is so beautifully symmetrical.

We see it in spirals on pine cones, the proportion of worker bees to drones and petal numbers on flowers. On a grander scale it is even demonstrated in the spiralling patterns of massive galaxies. Creationists have been quick to point to it as proof of intelligent design as opposed to random selection, though in fact, there is still no conclusive evidence as to why this numerical pattern occurs so frequently in the world about us.

The Greeks referred to the reoccurring sequence of numbers as the Golden Mean or Phi (1.618) which they regarded as the aesthetically perfect proportion and used it in both their art and architecture. More recently author Dan Brown deployed it as part of the theme for his bestseller, The De Vinci Code.

Basically the sequence uses the sum of the preceding two numbers to get the next number so 1+1=2, 2+1=3, 3+2=5 and so on. By using this formula artists are able to create complex spirals and curves without losing that all important sense of proportion.

What is interesting is just how often this sequence occurs in the natural world around us and how under recognised it is. It is sometimes referred to as Nature’s numbering system and can be found in anything from leaf arrangements in plants to spiral patterns on a snail’s shell. It is a method that has been trialed in architecture for thousands of years and is now being used more and more frequently by garden and furniture designers.

We may never find what it is about this numerical system that is so pleasing to nature and the human eye but the balance and form it produces will no doubt continue to be both practical and seductive.

Writer: Mike Alexander
Follow Mike on Twitter 

About Mike’s regular column the Grumpy Gardener
Our Grumpy Gardener has been gardening professionally in France for more years than he cares to remember and before that in Africa and the UK. Today he happily shares his expertise with French News Online readers. Mike also contributes regular pieces about nature, the environment and French food. A selection of his published work can be found below.

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