The History of Botanical Illustration

Discover how botanical illustration went from being a medical tool to a way of connecting with nature

Flowers are part of our planet, our society and our culture. We use them to say “sorry”, “I love you”, “get well” and “goodbye”. They decorate notebooks, clothing and houses, and are probably one of the first things we learn to draw, perhaps before we learn to write.

But, although it seems like humans always painted flowers, botanical illustration actually began relatively recently. In fact, you could say that practically no plants were painted for most of human history. How did this lovely discipline start? And what do the flowers we have painted say about us?

Watch the video to find out:

The beginnings of botanical illustration

People first started to paint plants not because of their beauty, but for their ability to heal or hurt.

One of the oldest examples of botanical illustration is De Materia Medica (On Medical Material) a book by Pedanius Dioscorides written in 50 AD, based on his study of Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Theophrastus. His book classifies plants according to their purpose: medicine, poison or food.

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A page of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medicina (written in 50 AD)

This botanical illustration approach dominated the discipline until Europe’s Renaissance brought about a new way of understanding the natural world. From the 15th to the 16th century, artists realized that nature’s aesthetics far exceeded its medical uses. Artists like Leonardo Da Vinci turned religious paintings into the perfect excuse to create studies and sketches that were both useful and beautiful. Flowers and plants began to find their place in art.

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15th-16th century sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci

Worth their weight in gold

As Europe’s empires began expanding beyond her frontiers, ephemeral plants and flowers became veritable symbols of power and prestige. You didn’t need gold or jewels to vaunt your wealth and power: a flower could also convey status.

In fact, the world’s first anthology of ornamental illustrations is a book by Basilius Besler, which documents the exotic plants belonging to Prince Bishop Johann Konrad. This book took about 16 years to complete and is essentially a codex of the plants adorning the beautiful gardens that surrounded his palace at Willibaldsburg.

Although these gardens were destroyed in a raid by Swedish troops in the 17th century, their glory was preserved in Basilius Besler’s book.

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Illustration by Basilius Besler in his Hortus Eystettensis

For the first time in history, plants were painted simply for their beauty, and this revelation awoke an insatiable appetite. In the 17th century, the speculative euphoria of tulip mania drove the value of tulip bulbs to exorbitant levels in the Netherlands. It was in this context that artist Jan Brueghel saw an opportunity, and became the first person to paint still lives composed entirely of flowers.

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Flowers in a Wooden Vessel by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1606-1607)

The golden age of botanical illustration

Although the tulip craze collapsed when the speculation bubble burst in 1637, our fascination with plants and flowers didn’t. The Kings of France commissioned their best artists to paint the natural world. Around 7,000 vellums captured the huge variety of flowers popular at that time. Roses, sunflowers, lilies and all kinds of plants were painted over the next two hundred years, and have been passed down to us.

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Watercolor by Nicolas Robert (1614-1685)

But it was a German artist who came to define the golden age of botanical illustration, and a Swedish artist that gave the style longevity. Botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret, began work as a gardener’s apprentice, and finished his career painting and studying nature. He learned how to capture plants with his brushes from the French masters, and his contribution to the artform was so great that a species of flowering plants belonging to the Boraginaceae family was named Ehretia in his honor.

But it was Carl Linnaeus, who is considered the father of taxonomy, who taught Ehret exactly what to paint. Linnaeus devised a system in which all of a plant or flower’s major scientific features were painted alongside the main illustrations. You may even be familiar with this style, because his method is still used in modern textbooks.

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Carl Linnaeus’ botanical illustration system used in an illustration by Georg Dionysius Ehret

Nature in an industrialized world

Flowers and plants soon began to expand off the frame. Art Nouveau flourished at the turn of the 20th century. This movement aimed to re-introduce nature to modern life. From art to fashion, design to architecture, nature and organic forms became an artistic comfort and a major source of inspiration for world that was beginning to be shaped by industry and metal.

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Flower by Alphonse Mucha (1897)

Even after photography made it easier to capture detailed botanical images with macro lenses, artists continued to depict nature in brushwork. Some 20th century botanical illustrators, like Margaret Mee, combined art with an environmental message. She spent her life recording the flora of the Amazon rainforest, and her paintings have become a testament to an endangered ecosystem.

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Bromeliaceae, Ananas bracteatus, Margaret Mee (1964)

Although humanity has taken millennia to learn that capturing the beauty of plants is an end in itself, since this artform began, we haven’t been able to stop trying. Botanical illustration has taught us and inspired us, and it’s now a vital way of staying connected to a planet that might soon disappear.

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Tabebuia umbellata, Margaret Mee (1964)

In spite of the fact that we all have a camera in our pocket and an infinite source of images of any kind of flower or plant at our disposal, we still want to capture the natural world through our own eyes, brushstroke by beautiful brushstroke.

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A Swiss Cheese Plant leaf painted by Luli Reis
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