Botanical art has a long history that many believe dates back to as early as 15th century B.C. According to the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA), in the tomb of Thutmose III in Karnak, Egypt there is a large work of art created following the return of the Egyptians from a triumphant crusade in Syria. Of course this intricate display was not crafted using smooth canvas. No, the ingenious artists of the time worked with what they had—stone.
The piece is a large stone frieze of 275 plants depicting all of the known plants of Syria and it may very well be the earliest example of representational, accurate botanical art as we know it today, says the ASBA. After this, botanical art began its impressive ascent, but it was not based on the need for expression. Back then, clear, realistic drawings of plants became necessary with the development of herbal medicines and the numerous books dedicated to them.
The Age of Exploration & The Golden Age of Botanical Art
Fast forward to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when, in the 16th century, books gave way to the return to naturalism and botanical art as part of prayer books made for the wealthy. During the 17th and 18th centuries, botanical art was popular among botanists, horticulturalists, and the wealthy seeking precise paintings of the exotic plants they brought home from their travels and expeditions.
Called the “Age of Exploration,” the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries marked what the ASBA calls “an explosion of botanical art activity,” with around 1750-1850 branded the “Golden Age of Botanical Art.” During this time, Paris resident Pierre-Joseph Redoute became one of the most famous botanical artists of all times, known for his watercolors of lilies, roses, and exotic plants from as far away as Australia, South Africa, Japan, and America. Many other botanical artists emerged during this time as well, from Franz and Ferdinand Bauer to Elizabeth Twinning, but it was Redoute that became known as the “Raphael of flowers.”
Still adored today, watercolor canvas prints of Redoute’s floral designs are sold around the world and his work is proudly displayed at museums across the globe.
Botanical Art in the 19th Century to Today
By the 19th century, botanical art became a respected skill, popular among women of the “refined class”—much like needlepoint or music. However, during the first half of the 20th century, botanical art experienced a sort of snub by the public, only to come roaring back during the late 20th and early 21st century. This was thanks to a renewed interest by contemporary artists that, in addition to traditional watercolor or portrait canvas, use digital canvas and other technology to create botanical art in startling detail.
For examples of the resurgence of botanical art, just browse your favorite bookseller to find hundreds of books published within the last 10 to 20 years, botanical art exhibitions galore from as high up as the U.S. Botanic Gardens to the Phoenix Art Museum. More examples of blooming business of botanical art can be seen at The Society of Botanical Artists exhibitions or even your local art gallery or museum.
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