Whether to celebrate those plants Napoleon brought home from Egypt, or those collected by eminent botanists of the eighteenth century, a florilegium has rarely been a casual endeavor. The illustrated plant books were popular in the seventeenth century; today, those volumes remain important documents of art, science and history. Josephine Bonaparte commissioned a florigelium for her garden at Malmaison, filled with rare flowers acquired around the world. Sir Joseph Banks had one to catalogue the plants collected on Captain Cook's voyage around the globe.
In 17th century Europe, horticulturalists began opening their gardens to plants from around the world. Plant explorers were forging into new botanical territories—inlets in South American waterways, crevasses in China's mountains—and returning with roses and fruits, orchids and lilies. Exotic plants were traded, cultivated, and illustrated. Previously, botanic illustration was largely produced for medical texts and herbals.
When Ellsworth Kelly debuted in the art world in late-1940s Paris, he launched a career that would become synonymous with bold, geometric paintings and abstract sculpture. But while the museum-public was viewing his panels of saturated color, Mr. Kelly, now 89, was pursuing a second, lesser-known study—drawings of plants. An exhibit of this work, spanning six decades, is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Instagram has certainly been in the news lately, having been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. But before there was Instagram, there was the Claude glass—a small, tinted, convex mirror that was popular in the 18th century. Toted in artists' cases and tourists' pockets, the portable mirror offered a transformed view of the scenery. It was a picturesque filter for any landscape, reflecting a vista with pleasant distortion and a subtle color palette.
Some time ago I discovered Rachel Pedder-Smith's Leguminosae (2004), and I fell in love. A seed pod enthusiast myself, I was taken by the meticulous reverence with which she painted various specimens of beans and seeds. And so, I was thrilled to hear about her new undertaking, a magnum opus in collaboration with the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Farm to table and farm to paper—contemporary botanical artist Sally Jacobs finds her subjects at farmers markets in Los Angeles. A celery root with particularly intricate underground latticework, a bunch of radishes with the deepest reds and purples, she selects her vegetables for their model forms, then totes them to her studio—she always paints from life. Her method requires attention to time, in addition to detail—a watercolor portrait becomes a race against the wilting leaf, the fading flower.
Under the direction of the French government, botanists André Michaux and his son, François-André, explored the forests of North America from 1785 to 1796. They were researching new tree species to repopulate the French countryside, whose forests had been depleted by war.
If you're in or around London this weekend, consider a visit to Plants in Peril and Losing Paradise, two exhibitions at Kew Botanical Gardens. Curated from the Shirley Sherwood Collection at Kew, the exhibition emphasizes plants from South Africa, a continent with the greatest diversity of flora and the highest numbers of plants headed for extinction.
Michel Tcherevkoff has imagined a line of shoes that is, quite possibly, perfect: they will never scuff, fade, or wilt; they don't take up any space in the closet; they will fit anyone. It's true, they cannot actually be worn, but the NYC-based photographer has convinced me (in a heavy French accent) that's a trifling technichality. His Shoe Fleurs are fashioned with flowers, leaves, and grasses that he's culled from friends' gardens, local NYC markets, and exotic locations.
Recently unveiled, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new American Wing is a fantastic collection of work that illustrates the influence of natural subjects on American artists. It includes paintings from the Hudson River School—Albert Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountains and Frederic Edwin Church's The Heart of the Andes—a group of landscape painters whose work conveyed the nation's mid-nineteenth century optimism and abundance.