Art History 101

The Art of Botanical Illustration

Rachel Witte 19 May 2022 min Read

We are finally in the midst of Spring. It’s that time of year when people are out planting flowers or otherwise tending to their gardens. While some of us might not have a green thumb, botanical illustrations can still be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. And furthermore, perhaps something for us to aspire to as artists or gardeners. But even more, botanical illustrations are an important aspect of scientific research.

Botanical Illustration
Botanical Studies, French, 19th Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Today’s photographic capabilities are a better means of capturing the beauty and inner workings of plants; however, that has not always been the case. Before the invention of the macro lens or even microscopes, artists and scientists took to drawing the plants; both for science and visual pleasure. It is an artistic practice as old as “art” itself. And although it was a necessary part of identifying plant life in decades past, it is a process that is still very much alive today.

Macro photography of pink petaled flower. Pexels, 2020.

Where Science and Botanical Art Meet

Botanical illustration is generally classified as “the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant species”. There are different categories within the overall art of botanical illustration; in general, the illustrations can lean toward the more scientific, or more artistic and aesthetic like the below 18th-century plate.

Botanical art
Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory, Botanical plate with fruiting branch, ca. 1755, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

The art itself can be traced back to the mid-1st century. Since its beginning, various professions sought out and utilized the illustrations: physicians, pharmacists, botanical scientists, and gardeners to name a few. Contributions from botanical illustrators are numerous. Their work has helped to highlight plants distinguishing features which aid in the categorization of differentiating plant species.

The Golden Age of Botanical Art

The golden age of botanical art coincided, roughly, with the Age of Exploration: the 15th-17th centuries. As explorers “discovered” new continents, they brought along artists to detail the experience as well as to document any newly found plant or animal species.

Botanical art
White Flower and Dragon Fly, French, early 16th century, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, USA.

The fundamental factor in scientific quality of a botanical illustration is not the medium the artist chooses to use or the technology used for its representation, but the artist’s understanding of plant morphology.

Stephen A. Harris, Botanical Art & Artists.

Botanical Illustrations from 5 Artists: Past and Present

Thankfully, now that we are in the digital age, many of the publications and illustrations are available to view online. Museums carry them, garden organizations display them; there is an abundance of art to be seen. Below are listed just a handful of botanical artists ranging from the 17th century to the present day.

1. Alexander Marshal

Alexander Marshall (1620-1682) was a gardener interested in documenting the species of plants growing in English gardens and beyond.

Botanical illustration
Alexander Marshall, German flag irises, Montpellier ranunculus, turban ranunculus, and bluebells, c. 1650-1682, The Royal Collection Trust, London, UK.

2. Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758) is notable in the world of botanical art for being one of the first artists to complete the full process of drawing, etching/engraving, and hand-coloring her own designs. Through this process, she was able to save money while putting together and publishing her A Curious Herbal in 1735; this led to Blackwell providing the money to free her husband from a debtor’s prison.

Elizabeth Blackwell, Herbarium Blackwellianum vol. IV, before 1758. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

3. Anne Pratt

Anne Pratt (1806-1893) was known as one of the most influential Victorian botanical artists; she wrote and illustrated more than 20 books during her life.

Anne Pratt, Dog Rose, printed in Wild Flowers, 1857. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

4. Stella Ross-Craig

Stella Ross-Craig (1906-2006) is known for her artistic work and also for spearheading the publication of Drawings of British Plants, published between 1948-1973.

Stella Ross-Craig (and Lilian Snelling), Lilium taliense, 1939. Digital Commonwealth.

5. Alice Tangerini

While the previous illustrators are no longer with us, Alice Tangerini (b. 1949) is active in the botanical art world. Furthermore, she currently works for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, having been there since 1972.

Alice Tangerini in the illustration process. Smithsonian Magazine, 2020.

Get to know more with Judith Magee, curator of rare books at the Natural History Museum in London:

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