In the few months that have passed since we published the famous flowers of Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), I’ve enjoyed showing this unbound book to customers and friends, untying the crème ribbon and folding open the linen panels, then asking what they imagined it cost. Their estimates are always higher—sometimes way higher—than our price, which makes me happy that such a beautiful work of art is also such a great value.
Few things are more beautiful, or fleeting, or appreciated, than fresh flowers. What human who has witnessed their beauty hasn’t wanted them to last—hasn’t wanted them to stay as dewy fresh and magical as they are at their glory?
Redouté may be the closest yet to answering that wish—despite being 150+ years old. In our Redouté collection, we publish 128 of his flowers, gathering them loosely, like a magnificent Valentine’s bouquet, into a portfolio.
Donald Rakow, the executive director of Cornell Plantations, wrote one of the introductory essays that accompany the portfolio. When Don told us he was coming to Florida to speak at the Green Cay Nature Center just a few miles from Levenger, we welcomed the chance for another conversation.
On a gloriously warm and sunny January day, Don and Mim Harrison, the editor of Levenger Press, sat on a bench overlooking the preserve and talked about the everlasting love of a Redouté rose.
Levenger Press: At Levenger we refer to Redouté as the Audubon of botanical art, since Audubon was not only a contemporary but also an admirer. As a scientist, do you find that Redouté was as rigorous as Audubon in terms of accurate portrayals?
Donald Rakow: There are three qualities that both Redouté and Audubon exhibited that unite them. The first is that they were both absolutely dedicated to anatomical accuracy. Up until this point, objects in nature were not accurately portrayed. Before Gutenberg ushered in the era of multiple copies of the same page, one monk would copy a drawing of a flower specimen, another would copy the first monk’s drawing, and so on—much like that telephone game where the message the last player hears barely resembles the message the first player sent.
Also, throughout much of the Middle Ages it was considered sacrilegious to accurately portray one of God’s objects. The botanical artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reversed this. Artists like Redouté were committed to dissecting flowers, understanding their parts, then reconstructing them on canvas.
LP: So anatomical accuracy was the first quality Redouté and Audubon shared. What was the second?
Don: They were enamored of their subjects and dedicated to depicting them in artistically beautiful ways. Audubon would place a bird in a tree, even though he would be working with a stuffed specimen. Redouté would often combine different flowers in one illustration.
LP: They were, in fact, equally artist and scientist.
Don: Yes, and maybe a bit of alchemist as well. Because the third quality that united them is the most inscrutable component of all: each was able to animate his subjects so that they looked fully alive. Light, color, texture—they used all these to bring the animus to the drawing. Redouté would place dew drops on a petal, or have a butterfly alighting on the flower. Subtle elements like these were part of their magic.
LP: As a botanist, what do you find the most striking about the Redouté prints?
LP: Even with the growth of photography, Redouté’s illustrations never seem to have lost their appeal—or value. Why do you think this is?
Don: Redouté’s pieces are so artistically beautiful that no photographer or engraver has ever been able to re-create them. Even today, in an age of computer graphics, we still value Leonardo’s hand drawings. There is an intellectual brilliance to art like this.
LP: Do botanists still hand-draw?
Don: Yes. There is an American Society of Botanical Illustrators, which recently held its national meetings at Cornell. The members are hired to illustrate scientific texts and journals. They also exhibit their work as art.
LP: Why would there still be a demand for hand-drawn illustrations?
Don: In a photograph, you’re capturing an instant. An illustration can capture the essence of that flower or fruit over the course of its life. It can show that flower in all its stages—as a bud, in full flower, in its post-flowering state.
Don: I think we as humans are more interested in looking at flowers than fruits. Many fruits are rather similar looking. Flowers are complex, and phenomenally varied—in their petals, their pistils, their stamens. And there is a sexual nature to flowers.
LP: How about the rose, which Redouté is so famous for: what is its enduring appeal?
Don: In part it’s the rose’s role in Victorian society, and the language the Victorians assigned to it. Many flowers were the Victorian equivalent of an emoticon. The small bouquet known as a tussy-mussy that Victorians would often give would basically tell the recipient a story, based on what flowers had been gathered. The rose always held particular meaning, with different colors signifying different emotions. A red rose signaled deep passion; a pink, less so, but still affection. A burgundy rose spoke of unconscious beauty. A lavender rose was a declaration of love at first sight.
Don: It speaks to how easily we can anthropomorphize flowers because of our deep affection for and connection to them. Consider the number of women’s names that are based on flowers. Besides Rose, there’s Daisy, Tulip, Iris, Lily and, of course, Blossom.
Now to you, dear reader: We’ve found that many of our customers have had a passion for the flowers of Redouté. Are there other artists whose works draw you irresistibly? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments). And Happy Valentine’s Day!