300-Year-Old Botanical Illustrations and the Art They Inspire Today

Botanical Illustration

Photo: Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY 2.0)

Prior to the invention of photography, botanical illustration was the only way of visually recording the world’s many species of plant life. Today, science books are full of highly detailed photographs—often taken with a macro lens or even a microscope—allowing us to discover the fascinating forms of flora and fauna. However, before these advances in technology, it was artists and illustrators who were depended on to share the beauty of botany with the world. The job requires great artistic skill, attention to fine detail, and technical horticultural knowledge.

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In the past, illustrations of plant life were used by physicians, pharmacists, botanical scientists, and gardeners for identification, analysis, and classification. While these works are not as relevant to researchers today, they have become an inspiration for artists who are paying homage to plant life in contemporary ways.

What is botanical illustration?

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant life. The practice can be traced back to sometime between 50 and 70 CE, when an illustrated book titled De Materia Medica was created by Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes. The eighteenth century saw many advances in the printing processes, allowing colors and details of drawings to appear even more accurate on paper. As interest in botanical publications increased, the role of botanical illustrator came to be considered a respected profession.

Botanical Illustration

“De Materia Medica.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Famous Botanical Artists of the Past

There are many artists and illustrators from around the world who made significant contributions to scientific publications on plant life. Read on to discover some of the most famous ones throughout history.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717)

Botanical Illustration

Illuminated Copper-engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate VI. 1705 by Maria Sibylla Merian. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Regarded as one of the greatest ever botanical artists, German artist Maria Sibylla Merian created stunning natural history paintings in her own distinct style. She’s best known for illustrating the life cycle of an insect against the background of its host plant.

Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1766 – 1854)

Botanical Illustration

“Rosa centifolia foliacea,” 1824 by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Employed as a royal flower painter by both Marie Antoinette (the last Queen of France) and the Empress Josephine Bonaparte, French artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté is renowned for his paintings of roses, lilies, and other flowers—many of which remain popular today.

The Bauer Brothers

Botanical Illustration

“Erica massonii” by Franz Bauer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Franz and Ferdinand Bauer both made an enormous contribution to the “golden century” of natural history illustration between 1750 and 1850.

Franz worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for over 50 years and was later employed as “Botanick Painter to his Majesty.” He drew all the new flowering plants at Kew and specialized in painting orchids. His brother Ferdinand traveled with botanists and explorers to map and record the natural flora and fauna of Greece and Australia.

Anne Pratt (1806 – 1893)

Botanical Illustration

Plate 213 from “The Flowering Plants of Great Britain” by Anne Pratt, showing Scotch Pine, Juniper and Yew. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Anne Pratt is one of the best known English botanical illustrators of the Victorian age. She contributed to the popularization of botany by writing and illustrating more than 20 books.

Marianne North (1830 – 1890)

Botanical Illustration

“Nepenthes northiana” by Marianne North. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Self-taught British artist Marianne North traveled the world painting plants and flowers. She produced 833 paintings from 17 countries in 14 years, depicting more than 900 species of plants. Her paintings are now housed in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, London.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)

Botanical Illustration

“Ascidiae” by Ernst Haeckel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Germany in 1834, Ernst Haeckel spent his life researching flora and fauna “from the highest mountaintops to the deepest ocean.” A biologist, naturalist, philosopher, and artist, his incredible drawings helped to educate the world about microscopic organisms that were previously unseen. His work has left a lasting legacy both in the scientific and artistic worlds and have even inspired the work of artists today.

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Next: Contemporary Botanical Artists

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