Exhibition: Gardens in Perpetual Bloom

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on February 26, 2011

From the Ringling Museum:

Gardens in Perpetual Bloom: Botanical Illustration in Europe and America from 1600-1850
Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Nagoya, Japan, 12 December 2009 — 4 April 2010
John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 29 January — 24 April 2011
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1 May 2011 — 1 May 2012

Until the mid-nineteenth century, gardening was not the popular pastime of the average person that it is today. It was the occupation of the professional employed by royalty and the wealthy, the horticulturist who bred and cultivated new plants, and the botanist whose concern was the scientific classification of plant life. In this exhibition it will be possible to trace the transition of the study and appreciation of flowers and their cultivation from the world of monks and princes to the everyday gardener.

The earliest books depicting flowers were herbals, first illuminated manuscripts, then printed with woodcuts, dedicated to the medicinal, therapeutic properties of plants. In the early seventeenth-century, illustrated books were published to describe the contents of the gardens of the well-to-do. When Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, published his Systema naturae in 1735, which classified and gave order to our knowledge of the plant kingdom, the botanical book often took on a new purpose. Botanists endeavored to accurately illustrate all the varieties according to the new sexual system, whereby plants were organized and given nomenclature according to their numbers of stamens and pistils.

Explorers to the Americas, Asia, and Africa observed the native vegetation and brought back cuttings, seedlings, and bulbs to be cultivated, named, described and elaborately illustrated. The nursery business thrived. By the nineteenth century, as a result of this efflorescence of botanical publication, horticulture and gardening became a readily accessible hobby for the amateur. Artists and decorators were provided with immense new visual resources. Apart from their botanical interest, flower prints possess great variety and a visual appeal that can be bold and vibrant or delicate and refined. These plates almost always reveal the artist’s eye and hand in the rhythmic and graceful placement of the flower and its parts elegantly spread gracefully across the page. One of the earliest examples represented in this exhibition is the strikingly dramatic and monumental Large Sunflower, taken from Basil Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis…a florilegium (book describing a garden or flower collection), first published in 1613, which illustrated plants and flowers in the garden of the Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. Besler, an apothecary and gardener for the Bishop, drew the flowers over many years and employed engravers to follow his designs and other artists to color them by hand.

Comprised of more than 100 flower prints, Gardens in Perpetual Bloom features the products of a fruitful collaboration of botanists, horticulturists, painters, and printmakers from the 17th to 19th centuries. Requiring technical virtuosity and complex techniques to achieve an amazing range of line and tone, these colorful works reveal the detail, structure, texture, tone, and lifelike appearance of a magnificent iris, an exotic lily, or a single elegant rose executed with an originality of design and composition.

Exhibition Catalogue: Nancy Keeler, Gardens in Perpetual Bloom: Botanical Illustration in Europe and America 1600-1850 (Boston: MFA, 2010), 136 pages, ISBN: 9780878467495, $24.95.

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