Plant art allows us to capture the grandeur and wonder of a blooming tree, the allure of an intriguing forest, or even the intricate details of pollen grains – something art has long done but continues to do today. It is an age-old practice and continues to thrive today.
Conventional botanical illustrations are typically pen-and-ink line drawings used to supplement descriptions of new plant species or illustrate them further. They often also include relevant dissections.
Since ancient times, people have used plant and flower art to document and share their observations of nature. Even though early illustrations were somewhat crude, they became the go-to for centuries. During the early Renaissance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer introduced scientific precision into botanical illustration, coining their work with the moniker ‘Linnaean’ after Carolus Linnaeus, who pioneered it. From the mid-18th to much of the 19th century, botanical art flourished. However, during the Victorian era, it tended to veer more toward decorative rather than naturalistic pieces. With photography coming along later, however, botanical illustration has fallen somewhat but still serves its purpose in field guides, floras, and catalogs, which still include drawings.
Botanical art has recently been revived due to increased awareness of its essential role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and growing concerns over the extinction rates of plants and wildlife. Artists are responding with renewed efforts at drawing and painting botanical subjects – groups explicitly dedicated to this form of expression have recently emerged in both the US (American Society of Botanical Artists), UK (Botanical Artists’ Association), and Australia (Botanical Art Society).
Before recently, plant artwork was mainly used for identification. It played an essential part in herbals – books that use illustrated explanations to teach medicinal and culinary uses of different plants – the oldest surviving manuscript with botanical illustrations is Codex Vindobonensis from around 500 AD; ancient Greece likely saw herbal books featuring botanical illustrations first.
Manuscripts that included botanical sketches and paintings were integral to pharmacopeia until printing became mainstream. By Medieval times, however, art generally took on a less vibrant style; botanical illustration was mainly limited to illuminated copies of herbals or manuscripts.
The Age of Discovery (15th – 17th Centuries) witnessed botanical artists accompanying explorers into uncharted lands to document its flora, such as George Ehret (1708-1770) and Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840). Franz Bauer and Ferdinand Bauer traveled widely, recording plants around the globe and painting in their gardens.
Plants are art subjects in their own right or as elements accompanying essential themes. Since humans first evolved, plants have held symbolic meaning and gained prominence as subjects. Beyond their beauty, research indicates they provide healing benefits like improving mood and productivity increases – scientists now refer to this phenomenon as “Green Bathing.” Therefore, it’s no wonder botanical art remains relevant over the eons.
Botanical illustration is the meticulous depiction of plant species for scientific study, typically alongside scientific text. This form of art often appears alongside herbarium specimens or books with scientific texts and can also be found as part of herbal and pharmacopeia compilations from various civilizations; two early known illustrated manuscripts include Codex Vindobonensis and Flora Graeca manuscripts as examples of botanical illustration.
Scientific botanical illustration emphasizes precise detail to enable accurate identification and study of plants, often by dissecting or boiling them to preserve them for future research. The resultant artwork typically uses monochrome pen-and-ink or digital techniques to reduce reproduction costs; many botanical artists possess science training and access to herbarium specimens or research material and can accurately identify numerous plant species.
Botanical painting has emerged as a mainstream artistic practice in contemporary exhibitions, books, and online media such as Big Botany and Photographer in the Garden exhibitions. They showcased works created using this medium alongside traditional botanical prints and contemporary media platforms.
Painting provides botanical artists an invaluable medium for conveying the details and subtle nuances of plants’ textures, delicate coloration, and distinctive features. The image also allows them to capture a sense of movement by employing specific brushwork techniques that evoke its life force and energy.
Many artists find inspiration in nature’s vast power and incorporate it into their artwork. Polly Brown’s photographic series Plants depicts office plants from high-profile companies with humor and pathos; Luke Stephenson’s Foyer Flora captures dull green walls of corporate offices for similarly riveting results.
Plants have long been seen as symbols in art because of their symbolic importance to global cultures. Plants are used as visual motifs in paintings and other artwork to convey feelings, add depth, and inspire creativity. Furthermore, plants may mark special occasions or commemorate special events by symbolism in art. Flowers have long been associated with faith or love and have been used in numerous religious paintings throughout history. Iris flowers, in particular, have long been associated with art and imagination. Its distinct shape, resembling a flag or banner, has made the carnation an iconic symbol for art, often featured in paintings and sculptures. Furthermore, certain colors represent specific meanings in various cultures – for instance, the carnation is often seen as representing motherly affection.
Flowers have always been an attractive subject for artists, but more recently, their popularity has surged thanks to social media. People can now create and share their art without limitation or restriction; one trend driven by this sharing platform has seen boys and men pose with plants and flowers for Instagram pictures in what has now become known as boy with plant art.
Renaissance artists began exploring the naturalistic elements of plants and flowers through an art practice known as phytosociology; its goal is to understand their symbolic and cultural significance.
Ancient Greek art revered the ivy plant as an embodiment of Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre. Ivy leaves and vines were often used decoratively in paintings, sculptures, and architecture to represent Dionysus or as religious symbols representing purity and innocence in paintings, sculptures, and architecture.
Georgina Walton and her colleagues’ research indicates that prehistoric people relied heavily on intimate knowledge of their natural environments for survival. Yet, plant depictions in European caves are surprisingly scarce – accounting for only 0.077% of images identified across 113 European caves! Instead, animals and abstract symbols appear much more frequently.
Botanical art dates back to the first century BC with early herbals – books of plants that described their uses for medicine or poison. One such early herbal was written by ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, who also included colored illustrations. Later, botanical art would become used by scientists for classifying and identifying plants and flowers scientifically; botanical painting involves painstakingly outlining specific plants with paint for scientific reasons.
Botanical artists historically worked as part of teams of scientists, including botanists, gardeners, and other experts, documenting their discoveries in drawings known as Flora. Flora can include full descriptions of species, including characteristics and natural habitat. Early Floras were often collected during exploration trips by taking along artists to document both journeys and newly found plants.
Printing methods advanced rapidly, and botanical illustrations became widespread. From the mid-18th to 19th centuries, botanical illustration reached its golden age, as artists like Pierre-Joseph Redoute, Franz and Ferdinand Bauer, and Maria Sibylla Merian developed styles still used today – known as Linnaean illustration after Carolus Linnaeus, who standardized botanical nomenclature.
Botanical art looks stunning, but its purpose is educational: botanical paintings convey an essential story about specific plants that helps geneticists understand how and when certain varieties were first produced and their evolution. Furthermore, each color in floral paintings represents certain feelings – red for love and yellow for friendship.
Though botanical art may have diminished due to advances in photography, its beauty and scientific value remain appreciated by modern audiences. Botanical artists are still capable of recreating fine details of plants through their work, such as pollen grains that make up flower petals, allowing scientists and researchers to study under a microscope for further examination.