I’ve always been in awe of botanical artists. Leafing through old taxonomy books yields a treasure trove of immensely skilled sketches and watercolours. I take for granted the ease with which anyone can photograph a plant, highlighting tiny details of the plant’s structure with even the more basic digital cameras. And yet, these photographs, while serving their purpose, seem to lack that delicate, fragile feeling that I always find in botanical drawings and paintings.
A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted one of the most interesting and enigmatic of the early botanical artists, Maria Sibylla Merian, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in the Dutch Republic. Not only was she a woman, which alone marks her out amongst other early artists and scientists, but she was arguably one of the first people to conduct ecological surveys, over a hundred years before the word “ecology” was even coined. Focusing principally on insects, the drawings she made from her youth onwards show a remarkable understanding of the web of interactions that binds insects to the flora that surrounds them. Even a cursory glance at her paintings makes clear the skill and attention to detail that was required to do justice to the plants and animals which she depicted.
The need for such great artistic skill in accurately depicting plants perhaps makes it less surprising that many of the early botanical artists were predominantly artists, rather than scientists, by trade. Yet some combined their art with an appreciation of science and nature, none more famous than the great Leonardo da Vinci himself. Many know of da Vinci’s work with the human body—his studies of musculature and tendons are almost as well known as his art. Da Vinci used these studies to inform his art, believing that an understanding of the human form required knowledge of the structure beneath the skin.
This attention to details also carried over into the rest of the natural world, with sketches of herbs and flowers found amongst da Vinci’s papers. In one of his paintings, “The Virgin of the Rocks”, held at the Louvre, the plants growing in the grotto surrounding the Virgin are so detailed and accurate that botanists can identify each plant depicted. This remarkable feat becomes even more so when it was used to suggest that a copy of the painting held at the National Gallery in London was in fact an inferior replicate. Unlike the copy in the Louvre, the British copy of the painting depicted plants that weren’t found in nature, or which have the wrong number of petals. On the other hand, the plants in the copy form the Louvre are species that would grow in such a damp, rocky grotto in nature.
This remarkable attention to details may have been a unique hallmark of da Vinci’s work in the early Renaissance, but later botanical artists shared such a goal. Before the advent of photography, it was drawings and paintings of plants that were crucial in identifying new species and beginning to establish taxonomic databases. Many plants new to Europeans could not be successfully transported back from the far-flung locations in which they were found. As a result, these drawings provided a more sturdy and permanent impression of the exotic plants.
Today, many biology students are expected to show a cursory attempt at sketching, whether of cells when looking down a microscope in early biology labs or of the occasional organism. But to most, this is little more than a break from “real” science, with little attention paid to detail or skill. Yet the botanical artist is hardly an extinct species. While photography may have usurped much of their role, the art continues both as a creative pursuit and as a complement to current scientific work. The oldest journal of botanical art, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, is still published by Kew Gardens, over 200 years since its inception in 1787. And botanical artists, such as those in the Current Society of Botanical Artists continue to exhibit their artwork and promote it to students of both art and science.
We’ve certainly come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci painted delicate plants around the Virgin, and Maria Sibylla Merian voyaged to Suriname to capture the intricate ecosystem of insects and plants. And yet, the beauty and skill of botanical art is still as striking as it first was so many hundreds of years ago.