Pierre-Joseph Redouté, History’s Greatest Painter of Flowers

“Amaryllis Josephinae” (Josephine’s Lily) from Les liliacées v.7 (1802-1815). From New York Public Library/rawpixel.

I recently stumbled upon a striking collection of antique flower paintings on rawpixel from Belgian painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté. I was vaguely familiar with Redouté’s work–I remembered that John Audubon met him once in Paris–so I decided to investigate. This is what I learned.

Botanical Illustration flourished in the 19th century and nobody dominated the genre in the early decades like Pierre-Joseph Redouté. A gifted watercolorist and careful observer of flora, he also benefited from mastering new printing techniques like stipple engraving. Besides art, his greatest talent may have been an uncanny ability to impress powerful people.

Born in 1759, Redouté was painting by age six. He set out across Belgium at 13 to make his way painting and ended up in Paris in 1782. Over the next few years, he befriended several people invaluable to his future success.

“Still Life with Flowers and Fruit” by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682-1749). The wandering Redouté admired the floral paintings of Huysum and his compatriots Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) and John Davidszoon de Heem (1606-1684) while traveling through the Dutch Republic. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

One person he met was Dutch painter Gerard van Spaendonck, in charge of painting and teaching at the Jardin du Roi. Redouté would go often to the King’s garden to sketch. Spaendonck became his mentor, tutoring him in new techniques in watercolor painting.

The Jardin du Roi is where Redouté also met wealthy botanist Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle. The two hit it off and L’Héritier instructed the younger man in the anatomy of plants and flowers, and how best to draw them for scientific value. Redouté contributed more than 50 drawings for a work by L’Héritier in 1784. When L’Héritier traveled to London two years later to study rare plants, he took Redouté along as illustrator. In 1788, L’Héritier published Sertum Anglicum, which included 500 of Redouté’s drawings.

Through the influence of L’Héritier, Redouté came to the attention of Marie Antoinette. The Queen employed him as her personal painter and draftsman. Redouté contributed to Les Vélins du Roi, the royal collection of plant and animal paintings started in 1631 and that eventually grew to almost 7,000 works.

“Salvia formosa L’ Herit,” Redouté’s illustration of a type of mint from Peru that L’Héritier was the first to describe in Sertum Anglicum. Image from Missouri Botanical Garden/flickr.

Even as revolution engulfed France after 1789, Redouté’s career moved quickly. He had learned copperplate stipple engraving in England and from the French King’s own engraver, Gilles Demarteau, and he used the new technique to great advantage. Stipple engraving involves etching a copper plate with acid to create tiny holes, or stipples, of various sizes, depths, and densities. By concentrating the stipples in certain spots, Redouté was able to manipulate the lightness and darkness, or tone, of each color of the finished print.

In 1799, L’Héritier released Histoire des Plantes Grasses, illustrated solely by Redouté. By this time, he’d come to the attention of Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon. She commissioned Redouté to paint the flowers of the Chateau de Malmaison, which she had filled with flora from around the world. Redouté contributed several hundred watercolor paintings for Jardin de la Malmaison in 1803-1805 and its sequel a decade later, Description des plantes rares cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre (1812-1817).

Josephine also funded Redouté’s greatest works, Les Liliacées in eight volumes from 1802-1816 and the three-volume Les Roses released from 1817 to 1824. Historians consider both of these among the best, if not the greatest, examples of botanical illustration. In 1819, the Louvre displayed Redouté’s works. King Charles X of France awarded the painter the Legion of Honor, the highest award for civil and military deeds, in 1825. The king of Belgium, Leopold I, awarded Redouté his nation’s highest honor in 1834. Redouté’s fame was official.

John James Audubon, early examples from The Birds of America in hand, visited the famous painter in his Paris studio in 1828. Redouté admired Audubon’s work and helped the American secure orders for Birds from the royal family, including from the king himself. Pierre-Joseph Redouté died at age 80 on June 19, 1840.

“Cactus Opuntia Polyanthos” (Prickly Pear Cactus) from Histoire des Plantes Grasses (1799). From Biodiversity Heritage Library/rawpixel.
“Clethra arborea” (Lily-of-the-valley-tree) from Jardin de la Malmaison (1803-1804). Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library/flickr.

“Dracaena terminalis” (Palm Lilly) from Les Liliacées. Image from New York Public Library/rawpixel.
“Tulipa gesneriana” (Didier’s tulip) from Les Liliacées. Image from New York Public Library/rawpixel.
“Rosa gallica” (French Rose) from Les Roses (1817–1824). Image from Library of Congress/rawpixel.

Pierre-Joseph Redouté in 1800 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Image from Wiki Commons.

I must add a final note for connoisseurs. I’m not trained as an artist, so my particular selection of Redouté’s work likely leaves much to be desired from a technical standpoint. Please leave a comment about how I can improve this post. Thanks for reading.

Works Cited

“The Botanical Art of Redouté.” Biodiversity Heritage Library Blog.

“Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle.” Wikipedia.

Fiffas, Lou M. “Stipple Engraving.” Harvard University.

“Les Vélins du Roi.” Wikipedia.

“Pierre-Joseph Redouté.” Wikipedia.

“Pierre-Joseph Redouté, 1759-1840.” Cincinnati History Library and Archives.

Schmidt, Alesandra M. and Trudy B. Jacoby. “Herbs to Orchids: Botanical Illustration in the
Nineteenth Century.” Trinity College. Spring 1996. [Note: Includes a gallery of illustrations.]

“Stipple Engraving.” Wikipedia.

Tyrrell, Katherine. “About Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840).” Botanical Art & Artists. [Note: Outstanding artist-produced resource with a wealth of information about the painter, his techniques, and sources for his works.]

–“Botanical Artist-Pierre-Joseph Redouté.” Making a Mark. 23 Mar 2009.

Categories: people, plants

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