Arts & Tradition

The Raphael of Flowers: Pierre-Joseph Redouté

The pioneering painter who perfected botanical prints
BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEJuly 17, 2023 PRINT

Most of us have seen Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” putti and Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s roses, but maybe not in their original context. They’ve been commercialized—printed on bags, postcards, textiles and the like, so much that some of us may not know the works’ original intent or even who created them. 

Raphael’s art needs no introduction, but Redouté’s might. He drew, painted, engraved, and printed roses and all manner of flora, for science and for the sheer beauty of it. 

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
Pierre-Joseph Redouté pioneered botanical prints. “A Bouquet of Flowers With Insects,” date unknown, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor with gold on vellum; 9 7/8 inches by 6 3/4 inches. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Public Domain)

Pierre-Joseph Redouté (17591840) excelled in the three types of art depicting flora: botanical illustrations, botanical art, and flower paintings. Each type has a distinctive purpose. Botanical art is made with the same accuracy as botanical illustrations but for aesthetics alone. Flower paintings verge on the fantastical with less botanical accuracy. 

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“A Bouquet of Flowers,” 1834, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor on vellum; 27 3/8 inches by 22 inches. Private collection. (Public Domain)

Artists create botanical illustrations for scientific and identification purposes. These accurate and detailed drawings are created from live plants or specimens, and they usually include the life cycle and all the parts of the plant. A good example is Redouté’s delicately rendered watercolor of the heather Erica fulgida, along with the flower’s parts numbered one to five along the bottom. 

Pierre-Jopseh Redoute
A delicate heather: “Erica Fulgida,” 1813, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor and graphite on vellum for “Description des Plantes Rares Cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre” (“Description of the Rare Plants Cultivated at Malmaison and in Navarre.”); 17 3/4 inches by 11 3/4 inches. Gift of Anne H. Bass (2015), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

Botanists today rely on botanical illustrations more than photographs. Alice Tangerini, illustrator in the botany department for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, explained that botanical illustrations “depict what a botanist describes, acting as the proofreader for the scientific description. Digital photography, although increasingly used, cannot make judgments about the intricacies of portraying the plant parts a scientist may wish to emphasize and a camera cannot reconstruct a lifelike botanical specimen from dried, pressed material.”

An Artist for His Era

Growing, studying, and collecting exotic plants and flowers had become popular in the 16th century. Early botanists made illustrations out in the field or hired artists to accompany them rather than risk any damage to specimens in transit. “The purpose of natural history art is to assist the scientist in their work of identifying, describing, classifying, and naming the species,” Judith Magee, curator of rare books, manuscripts, and artwork at The Natural History Museum in London says in a video. A collector would make detailed illustrations of plants and publish them as etchings or engravings in an album called “florilegium,”translated from Latin as “a gathering of flowers.” And in the 18th century, botanists began to use Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus’s new classifications for the natural world (into kingdoms and classes) as stated in his 1735 work “Systema Naturae,” a classification system we use to this day.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Portrait of Pierre-Joseph Redouté,” circa 1800, by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Oil on canvas; 7 inches by 8 5/8 inches. (Public Domain)

During his lifetime (and beyond), the botanical artist Redouté was recognized as the preeminent artist in his field and a favorite of royals and aristocrats alike, most notably Marie Antoinette and Joséphine Bonaparte, both of whom were his patrons and students. 

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s School of Botanical Drawing in the Salle Buffon in the Jardin des Plantes,” 1830, by Julie Ribault. Stylus and watercolor; 10 5/8 inches by 14 inches. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. (Public Domain)

He created over 2,100 botanical paintings—covering more than 1,800 species, some of which had never been recorded before, and others that have since become extinct.  

“I believe I managed to succeed in the triple conjunction of exactitude, composition and colour, the union of which is the only means of bringing vegetal iconography to perfection,” Redouté said of his art in 1817, according to author H. Walter Lack’s Redouté: The Book of Flowers.”

Besides his best-known works “Les Roses” and “Les Liliacées,” Redouté rendered other species of plants. For instance, he painted spectacular succulents and cacti such as Heliocereus speciosus, as seen in full flower in a watercolor preparatory drawing on vellum, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And Redouté created monochrome studies of North American trees, in Andre Michaux’s “Histoire des Chênes de l’Amérique” (1801) (“History of American Oaks”) to highlight trees that might repopulate the French countryside. 

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“A Flowering Cactus: Heliocereus Speciosus,” 1831, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor on vellum; 27 3/4 inches by 22 1/2 inches. Gift of the 2003 Collectors Committee; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Museum Associates/LACMA)

Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Born in St. Hubert, Ardennes, in present-day Belgium, Redouté learned to paint from his father, a family tradition that began with Redouté’s grandfather. At 6 years old, he was creating small paintings, and when he was 13 years old, he left home to earn a living as an itinerant artist. During that time, he studied with Flemish masters in Flanders and the Low Countries, and discovered the works of Dutch flower painters Rachel Ruysch and Jan van Huysum

In Paris, he designed stage sets with his older brother. In his spare time, he learned color printing and went to lectures by Gerard van Spaendonck, a Dutch painter and the official royal professor of painting for the French court. 

He also drew and painted rare plants in the glasshouses (commercial greenhouses) of Le Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales (The Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants). On one trip to the glasshouses, he met the aristocrat, biologist, and avid plant collector Charles L’Héritier, who taught him plant anatomy, dissection, and how to create illustrations for botanists. L’Héritier first commissioned Redouté to create 50 drawings for engravings in his “Stirpes Novae” (“New Plants,” 17841785).

Redouté made a total of 500 drawings for L’Héritier, including rare plants growing in Kew Gardens. These drawings were published in 1788 as “Sertum Anglican” (“An English Garland”). 

Redouté learned to paint watercolor on vellum from the king’s flower painter, van Spaendonck, who oversaw Redouté’s works for “Les Vélins du Roi” (“The King’s Vellums), a document of nearly 7,000 paintings that recorded the royal flora and fauna collection. The royal engraver, Gilles Demarteau, taught Redouté stipple engraving, and in 1790 Redouté learned color stipple engraving from the Italian engraver Francesco Bartolozzi at Kew Gardens in England. Artists make stipple engraving plates by incising dots, rather than lines, of varying densities into the copperplate to convey tone and shading.

When Marie Antoinette commissioned Redouté, he had at his disposal the whole of her new Petit Trianon and its gardens, which King Louis XVI had famously gifted to his queen by saying, “To you who love flowers so, I present this bouquet.”

Pioneering Botanical Prints

Redouté painted watercolor on parchment, and later on vellum, for his prints. In his early works, he used line engraving, later perfecting color stipple engraving, which afforded subtler tones and shades. He introduced stipple engraving to France and botanical art.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina Corymbosa),” 1817–1824, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor on vellum. Gift in the name of Warren H. Corning from his wife and children, The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Redouté printed stipple engravings by first printing a number of impressions in black ink on the new plates. This took the sharpness off the prints made by the pristine plates. He chose yellow-ocher tinted paper for the black prints to highlight the subtle tones of the stipple engravings, which stark white paper wouldn’t complement. He published these monochrome prints in special editions of the books.

The time-consuming technique that Redouté employed to depict color plants required adding all the colors of ink at once. This involved using a tiny chamois leather or cotton mop, to a stipple-engraved plate, allowing delicate soft tones, and the flowing plant contours to emerge from the impressions. After printing, Redouté hand-colored the prints and then destroyed the copperplates to prevent further prints from being produced. 

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Ornithogalum Longibracteatum,” 1802–1816, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Stipple and line engraving, with hand coloring for “Les Liliacées.” Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland in honor of Arnold M. Davis, The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Roses and Lilies

In 1798, Napoleon’s wife, Empress Joséphine, first commissioned Redouté to paint botanical watercolors for her bedroom at Château de Malmaison, around 9 miles from the center of Paris. Subsequent commissions were published in botanist Étienne Pierre Ventenat’s “Jardin de la Malmaison” and botanist Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland’sDescription des Plantes Rares Cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre” (“Description of the Rare Plants Cultivated at Malmaison and in Navarre.”)

As an ardent flower collector, Joséphine had every known species of rose in her gardens at Malmaison. War didn’t stop her gardens from expanding as Napoleon ordered his naval commanders to search every ship for plants for her garden. Even when France and England were at war, Joséphine imported roses from her English nurseryman. And Sir Joseph Banks, the director of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, sent her roses.

In the foreword to “Jardin de la Malmaison (1803),” Ventenat addressed Joséphine and her passion for flower collecting. Hers were “the rarest plants of the French soil [and] the sweetest souvenir of the conquests of your illustrious consort.” 

Redouté carried out his best-known works under Joséphine’s patronage: “Les Roses” and “Les Liliacées.” He created the three volumes of “Les Roses” between 1817 and 1824, publishing the 168 plates in 30 installments. Botanist Claude Antoine Thory wrote scientific descriptions to accompany each specimen. 

Pierre-Jospeh Redoute
“Cabbage Rose (Rosa Centifolia Simplex),” 1817–1824, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor on vellum. Gift in the name of Warren H. Corning from his wife and children, The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Experts believe that the plates in “Les Roses” have artistic, botanical, and documentary value, both for the species and cultivars still surviving and for those that have disappeared. Joséphine never saw Redouté’s “Les Roses” bloom, as she died before he completed the work.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Empress Josephine or Frankfort Rose (Rosa turbinata),” 1817–1824, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Colored stipple engraving for “Les Roses”; 13 3/4 inches by 9 7/8 inches. Gift of Kathy and Michael Mouron, in honor of W. Graham Arader III (2018), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

“Les Liliacées” was Redouté’s largest work, with eight volumes and 503 plates, published in 80 installments between 1802 and 1816. The works contain not only lilies but also flowers outside the lily family, such as irises, orchids, heliconias, agaves, amaryllis, and bromeliads, including the pineapple and banana. Redouté hand-colored 18 large paper copies of “Les Lilacées.” 

Pierre-Jopseh Redoute
“Limodorum Purpureum,” 1802–1816, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Stipple and line engraving, with hand coloring for “Les Liliacées.” Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland in honor of Arnold M. Davis, The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Scilla Amaena,” 1802–1816, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Stipple and line engraving, with hand coloring for “Les Liliacées.” Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland in honor of Arnold M. Davis, The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

He renamed a lily in Joséphine’s honor. Brunsvigia josephinae, commonly known as Joséphine’s lily or candelabra lily, takes over a decade to settle before flowering. Joséphine acquired a bulb in Holland after it had bloomed for the first time in 20 years. Redouté noted that in Joséphine’s care, it had already bloomed twice, so he renamed it.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute
“Amaryllis Josephinae” (also known as “Brunsvigia Josephinae” or “Josephine’s Lily”), circa 1809–1812, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Watercolor over graphite on vellum; 19 3/4 inches by 28 1/4 inches. Gift of Ira Brind, in memory of Myrna Brind, and in honor of David Brind (2012), Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

After Redouté’s death, his journalist friend wrote of “Les Liliacées”:

“This sparkling and elegant family of the Liliaceae, with such a difficult genealogy and with its various races that mingle and merge so wellit took a man of genius to describe them.”

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Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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