The history of botanical illustration is marked by the movement from a domestic and practical focus on medicinal herbs to a wide-ranging interest, both aesthetic and scientific, in plant species from all over the world. Herbals produced nearly two thousand years ago featured highly realistic illustrations. In succeeding centuries, however, unintelligent copying gradually led to debased and stylized figures which were decorative rather than informative. During the Renaissance, naturalism revived, and the works of sixteenth-century herbalists such as Brunfels, Fuchs, and Gesner are notable for their splendid naturalistic woodcuts of plants.
The seventeenth century brought a revolutionary change in the focus of botanical illustration, from an emphasis on plants' medicinal uses to intense admiration of their beauty. Instead of depicting common species, artists were now set to work recording the rare flowers grown in the gardens of the wealthy. France and Holland dominated in the botanical art of this century, as Germany had in the previous one. Artists in both countries fully explored the potential of etching and engraving for plant illustration, and produced magnificent hand-painted florilegia.
The eighteenth century saw both a continued demand for bright flower books and the rise of botany as a science, spurred by the publication of Carl Linnaeus's watershed work, Systema naturae, in 1735. Over the next hundred years, the artist and the scientific illustrator were seldom short of work. Botanical illustration reached a spectacular high point in the early nineteenth century in the work of Redouté. At the same time, the expansion of European colonial empires stimulated the production of works depicting exotic species of plants from the remotest parts of the globe. By 1840, the great age of flower painting was drawing rapidly to a close, and the Victorian era was dominated by English and French scientific illustration. In our own century, the photographer has largely taken over the function of the botanical artist; happily, however, there are still occasions when the camera is no match for a skillfully wielded pencil.
Cornell University Library's holdings are particularly strong in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botany, including highlights of the period such as Thornton's Temple of Flora and Redouté's Lilies; but sixteenth-century herbals also make a strong showing in the collection. The size of these imposing volumes makes it possible to show only a limited sample of them in this exhibition, drawn mainly from the History of Science Collection in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Arnold '44 and Gloria Tofias Fund.
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