new generation of artists commits the myriad
the natural world to paper
What makes an art form endure from generation to
generation, from century to century? An audience that
continues to appreciate the material is certainly a
significant part of the equation. But perhaps even more
important is the sustained interest of artists themselves.
Botanical painting - a blend of art and science in which
plants are depicted with an eye toward exacting accuracy -
has succeeded on both counts.
"If you asked six artists to paint the same
flower, the result would be six very different images,
"explains Katherine Manisco, a British-born botanical
painter who divides her time between homes in New York
City and Rome, Italy. "That endless variety keeps
this old tradition very much alive."
Arkansas painter Kate Nessler concurs.
"There's no flower, leaf, fruit, or vegetable that
hasn't been depicted already," she admits. "The
challenge for botanical artists today is to bring
something new to subjects that have always been
there." By such seemingly humble considerations as
where to place a flower on a page or which parts of a
plant to include or exclude, artists can create works
entirely their own.
The roots of botanical art in the West trace back
to the "herbals" of ancient Greece and Rome, in
which simple, stylized drawings of medicinal plants and
flowers accompanied written observations of the natural
world. As the years passed, illustrations became
increasingly realistic. Throughout the 1500s and in the
centuries that followed, botanical artists accompanied
explorers on their voyages, capturing the flora and fauna
of far-off places on paper. Back home, these sketches
would be transformed into woodcuts and copperplate
engravings that were then printed, hand colored, and
incorporated into large picture books. These illustrated
volumes proved extremely popular because they allowed the
folks who stayed at home to iew the world beyond their own
towns and led to subsequent editions devoted to plants and
flowers grown closer to home - roses or camellias, for
example, among others. Early masters of the art included
Basilius Besler (1561-1629), George Brookshaw (1751-1823),
and Pierre Joseph Redoute (1759-1840).
Advancements in photography during the late 19th
and early 20th century brought an end to the necessity of
creating hand sketches and engravings as scientific
records, since photographs could capture botanical
subjects with greater accuracy. Over the course of the
following century, a handful of artist kept the tradition
alie, eith hand-colored engravings gradually being
replaced by the freehand watercolor renderings that are
most common today.
Unlike the still-life tradition, which often
portrays flowers and fruits in a dramatic or
impressionistic manner, botanical painting depicts nature
in exacting detail against a plain white background.
"Some people think that the strict rules of botanical
art stifle creativity, but that's not the case at
all," Kate Nessler reveals. "You're telling a
story with details. Only on close examination can you
capture the quiver of a delicate violet stem or the
crackle of a dried leaf in the underbrush".
Nessler is not alone in her love of the genre:
Since its establishment in 1995, membership in the
American Society of Botanical Artists has grown from 350
to more than 800 painters, scholars, and collectors.
"There has been an incredible surge of interest in
botanical art in the past decade," says ASBA
president Michele Meyer, whose San Francisco-based
organization is credited by many in the field with
bringing botanical art to the public's attention through
exhibitions, lectures, and workshops in galleries, botanic
gardens, and natural-history museums. "Its popularity
is closely connected to the heightened awareness of
environmental issues these days," she says. "As
the number of flowers and green plants diminished around
us, we cherish the ones we have left more."
Collectors, too, have developed a soft spot for
these depictions of the natural world, reports Evelyn
Kraus, owner of Ursus Books & Prints, a Nw York City
bookshop and gallery that regularly hosts exhibits of
contemporary botanical art. According to Kraus, the desire
to preserve and celebrate the natural world has definitely
increased the demand for this work, but she thinks that an
equally important factor has been the diminishing number
of antique prints on the market. "Collectors who were
finding it more difficult to locate fine period pieces
have been pleasantly surprised to learn that so many
artists are continuing the tradition," she says.
Prices for contemporary botanical paintings start
at about $500 and quickly rise to $3000 or more, depending
on size, subject, and an artist's renown. The factor that
affects value most, Kraus adds, is the complexity of the
subject. "A single jonquil will take less time to
commit to paper than an orchid with an intricate floral
pattern and root system," she explains.
While some collectors favor a particular subject -
hollyhocks or sunflowers, for example - others appreciate
the endless variety that botanical painting provides.
"Unlike real flowers or fruit," Michele Meyer
observes, the subjects of these paintings will never
Timeline of Tetrapanax papyriferum:
The earliest mention of the use of pith paper is thought to be during the Tsin
Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). In the official records in the year of Jiann Kang
"Jiann Kang Shyr Luh", it is mentioned that the emperor ordered
servants to arrange flowers made from "Tung-tsaou".
Image of Rice Paper plant is published in 1590 in the Pen ts'ao kang mu
(Chinese Materia Medica) by Shizhen Li.
Pith papermaking discussed in T'ien Kung K'ai Wu, a guide to Chinese
technology in the 17th century.
Rice paper plant first mentioned in Western literature in Georg Eberhard
Rumpf's Herbarium Amboinenes under the name Buglossum litoreum.
The first examples of "rice-paper" were brought to England in 1805
from China by a Dr. Livingstone.
Pith paper paintings begin to be produced in Southern China, more than likely
for the tourist trade.
General Hardwicke identifies the "rice-paper" plant as Aeschynomene
paludosa in Botanical Miscellany v.1, 1830.
George Bennett, in his Wanderings in New South Wales (1834) publishes
the first picture of the "rice
paper" plant available to the western world. [Image can be seen on the
main exhibit page]
Sir William Jackson Hooker receives the first samples of pith paper, a model
of the knife used in cutting the plant, and a series of paintings detailing
the plant and the production of the rice paper.
Berthold Seeman, during the voyage of the H.M.S. Herald , collected a specimen
of the rice paper plant that he believed belonged to the family Malvaceae.
Hooker receives first living specimens of the plant and comes to the
conclusion that the "rice paper" plant is part of the Araliaceous
family and so re-names it Aralia Papyrifera, Hook.
Hooker receives a flowering specimen from J. W. Bowring esq., Hong Kong, and
is able to prepare a complete description for Curtis's Botanical Magazine
mid to late 1850s
With increased European interest, the market for pith paper and its product
German botanist Karl Koch, in Wochenschrift fur Gartnerei und Pflanzenkunde
recharacterizes the plant as a Didymopanax, subgenus Tetrapanax.
Over 144,000 lbs of rice paper are exported from Taiwan, and 2,000-3,000
people are employed in the rice paper artificial flower industry in Canton,
China, and Hong Kong alone.
The European demand for rice paper paintings dies out.
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