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Radiant Redouté

Botanical Artwork of 'the Raphael of Flowers'


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Nicknamed “the Raphael of Flowers,” Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840) is widely considered one of the greatest botanical artists of all time. During his long life, he produced more than 2,000 botanical paintings of more than 1,800 plant species. Some of these had not been depicted for publication before, and many were published in volumes as copper stipple engravings. Redouté was one of the few botanical artists at the time to work independently of botanists, yet his work is highly faithful to nature.1,2

Unlike some of his colleagues, who at least sometimes worked from dried, pressed herbarium specimens, Redouté depicted mainly live plants from gardens around Paris, which allowed him to achieve a remarkable level of refinement. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries who often worked on an individual commission basis, Redouté had a studio with employees and numerous pupils, both young men and women, some from upper-class Parisian society.1

Partly due to his pleasing personality, Redouté had rich and influential patrons from both the ancien and nouveau régimes who were willing to pay high prices for his artwork. These included Queen Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), wife of King Louis XVI (1754–1793); Empress Joséphine Bonaparte (1763–1814), first wife of Napoleon I (1769–1821); Empress Marie Louise (1791–1847), second wife of Napoleon I; and Queen Maria Amalia (1782–1866), wife of Louis Philippe (1773–1850), the last king of France.1,2 Redouté was highly influenced by the Dutch painters Jan van Huysum (1682–1749) and Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750).3

In 2019, Taschen, an art book publisher based in Cologne, Germany, published Pierre-Joseph Redouté: The Book of Flowers. This beautiful, 608-page catalog includes a selection of some of the finest engravings from Redouté’s Les Liliacées (The Lilies),4 all 169 engravings from his Les Roses (The Roses), and all 144 engravings from his Choix des plus belles fleurs et des plus beaux fruits (Selection of the Most Beautiful Flowers and the Most Beautiful Fruits),5 or “Choix” for short. Published in Redouté’s later years, between 1827 and 1833, Choix mainly contains works that were selected to appeal to viewers and often printed from reworked plates from his earlier publications.1

Taschen’s book provides a glimpse into the gardens and greenhouses of a bygone Paris. The text (in English, French, and German) includes biographical information about Redouté and was written by H. Walter Lack, DPhil, a professor at the Free University of Berlin and former director at the Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin.1 Some of the depicted plants in the book have ethnobotanical (including medicinal) uses, and 11 of these prints are featured here. HerbalGram is grateful to Taschen for generously providing these beautiful, historical engravings.

Redouté was born on July 10, 1759, at Saint-Hubert, a village in the Ardennes (then part of the Austrian Netherlands but now in the province of Luxembourg, Belgium, which borders the present-day country of Luxembourg). His father was a painter, and eventually so were his two brothers. He spoke Walloon, a Romance language spoken in the Wallonia region of Belgium, and he had little formal education. At age 13, he left home with his paintbox to explore Flanders and other parts of the Low Countries (including present-day Belgium and the Netherlands). For the next decade, he was a wayfaring artist, gained some training in Liège (in present-day Belgium) and discovered the work of van Huysum in Amsterdam.1,2,6

In 1782, he joined his older brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, in Paris, designing scenery for theaters. He began painting flowers at the Jardin du Roi, which was created by King Louis XIII (1601–1643) in 1626 as a royal garden of medicinal plants and is now called the Jardin des Plantes (part of the French National Museum of Natural History).7 Redouté’s artwork apparently caught the attention of Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746–1800), a wealthy official and botanist who took Redouté under his wing, taught him about botany and botanical illustration, gave him access to his large botanical library, and commissioned some of Redouté’s works. Redouté also met and befriended Dutch painter Gerard van Spaendonck (1746–1822), professor of flower painting at the Jardin du Roi, who had a large influence on Redouté and taught him about watercolor technique.1,2,6

In 1787, Redouté went to London, where he depicted plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and learned about intaglio printing and how to create stipple engravings based on his paintings.1,2,6 With intaglio printing, the image is incised into the plate, and these incisions hold the ink (the opposite of relief printing, in which the raised areas of the plate are inked and printed). Stipple engraving uses dots instead of lines and allows for subtle nuances and elegant shading. This involves a roulette, a tool with a revolving textured wheel on a shaft with a handle. By carefully rolling the roulette over the copper plate in different directions, many dot-like depressions are created. The density of the dots determines the relative lightness or darkness of specific areas of the print.1,2,8

For printing, the various colors of ink are applied by hand into the recessions of the plate, and the excess ink is wiped, often with tarlatan fabric, so ink is left only in the recessions. The plate is then put on the printing press with a sheet of dampened paper over it, and the immense pressure from the rollers presses the paper into the recessions, pulling the ink into the paper. The paper is then carefully and evenly peeled off to reveal the print. Each plate is printed (or “pulled” in printmaking terms) just once before it needs to be cleaned and re-inked for the next pull.1,8 Redouté mainly used this method for publishing his work. The process is time-consuming and therefore costly, so patrons had to be wealthy, and publication was by subscription.1 According to Lack, the copper plates, as a rule, were melted down after use.

In the late 1780s, probably at L’Héritier’s suggestion, Redouté was named draftsman to the cabinet of Marie Antoinette.2,6 He was then asked to assist van Spaendonck in contributing paintings to the Collection des Vélins (“the Parchment Collection”), which included depictions of plants from the Jardin du Roi and animals from the Ménagerie du Roi, the royal zoo in Versailles. After the French Revolution, commissions remained high, as members of the nouveau régime took over the gardens of the ancien régime and wanted their plants captured for posterity. Around that time, Redouté collaborated on Plantarum historia succulentarum, a work on succulent plants, with text by Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778–1841). This included more than 170 copper engravings of Redouté’s work and was published in installments between 1799 and 1837.1,2

Between 1802 and 1815, Les Liliacées, with 486 engravings of Redouté’s work, was published in many installments. Despite the title, it contains, in addition to lilies (Liliaceae), other plants found around Paris at the time, including irises (Iridaceae) and exotics like bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) and orchids (Orchidaceae). The texts were provided by de Candolle, Swiss botanist François Delaroche (1781–1813), and French botanist Alire Raffeneau Delile (1778–1850). Eighteen engravers contributed. Showing the significance of the work, Napoleon reportedly ordered two of his ministers to each subscribe to 80 copies of Les Liliacées and give them as diplomatic gifts of state.1,2,9

In 1799, Joséphine purchased Château de Malmaison, an estate near the left bank of the Seine in Rueil near Paris. For her lavish gardens and greenhouses at Malmaison, Joséphine spent huge sums on the procurement and cultivation of rare, novel, and exotic plants from around the world and hired Redouté to depict them in watercolors. This resulted in Jardin de la Malmaison, which was published in installments between 1803 and 1805. It contains 120 engravings of Redouté’s work and text by French botanist Étienne Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808). Like Les Liliacées, this work was used as official diplomatic gifts. Joséphine paid Redouté a lavish salary of 18,000 francs per year, which allowed him to buy a small estate at Fleury in 1804.1,2

Recording of plants at Malmaison continued with Description des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre (Description of Rare Plants Cultivated in Malmaison and Navarre), for which Redouté painted 55 watercolors. French botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773–1858), who had traveled with Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) through South America, provided the text. After Joséphine’s death in 1814, Redouté would never have another patron who paid so well.1,2

Between 1817 and 1824, Redouté’s most famous work, Les Roses, was published in installments. It includes 169 stipple engravings of roses (Rosa spp., Rosaceae) from Malmaison and other gardens around Paris. Claude Antoine Thory (1759–1827), a wealthy botanist and Redouté’s friend, provided the text. Some of the depicted rose cultivars reportedly no longer exist. The popularity of Les Roses may partly be explained by its pleasing style, which largely avoided overly detailed botanical representation. The work became a symbol of the Restauration, the peaceful period after the French Revolution, Reign of Terror, and Napoleonic Wars.1,2,9

In 1825, Charles X (1757–1836), king of France, made Redouté a member of the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit. Later, Leopold I (1790–1865), the king of the Belgians, made him a knight of the Order of Leopold. Despite his notoriety, however, Redouté spent his later life in debt and thus worked right until his death. In June 1840, at age 80, he died from a stroke at his Paris studio. In 1985, almost 150 years later, 468 of his watercolors sold at auction for $5 million, demonstrating the longevity of his work. As no buyer would acquire the entire collection, it was scattered.1,2,9 Now, Taschen’s book makes available a large sample of Redouté’s work, so what originally only the wealthy could enjoy can now be enjoyed by many.


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