In the hands of a gifted painter, the slender tulip or frilly orchid comes alive in its studied glory. Scientific inquiry morphs into fine art.
Except most old pictures of flowers are prints. A collector might buy a beautifully framed and matted picture, but it is still a print and one of many, even if it was removed from the pages of an antique book. Prices typically range from $300 or $400 to as much as $2,000 for an oversize and exquisitely mounted example.
The paintings that inspired these prints are worth far more and are in the hands of wealthy collectors or institutions. Hidden and protected from damaging sunlight, these originals represent a lost art. Or do they?
Not if you talk to Jessica Tcherepnine or Michele Meyer or Sheila Siegerman, three of the dozens of top botanical illustrators who have quietly kept this ancient art form alive in the electronic age and are now enjoying its revival.
They are among 800 members of the American Society of Botanical Artists, formed just five years ago as a focal point for artists who specialize in horticultural subjects. (Not all are painters; members include collectors and sellers.) Until the society was formed, "there were people who didn't realize others were doing the same thing," said Tcherepnine of New York City. "And it's absolutely fascinating to see how different people paint the same flower."
The artists gathered last month for the society's main show of the year, in the conservatory complex at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. It featured 60 works by more than 40 artists.
Meyer painted an ethereal orchid with the complicated name of Laeliocattleya Blue Kahili 'Sea God.' Its sky-blue petals are unusual for the species, which caught the eye of its breeder, the late Raymond Burr. Burr is best known as the actor who played Perry Mason, but he was also a serious orchid grower and hybridizer. Meyer, of San Francisco, went to Burr's greenhouse in Healdsburg, Calif., to paint the flower.
Tcherepnine displayed a large watercolor of asparagus, not the clean spears of spring, but a whole clump, with fresh spears growing around the dead growth of the year before, all emerging from a ball of soil worming with roots. Toronto artist Siegerman's tour de force was a litchi: a cluster of fruits, a leafy twig and a fruit opened, like an egg, to show the edible, mahogany brown nut from east Asia.
Botanical painters' tools include magnifying glasses; fine, sable-haired brushes with as few as 11 hairs; and lots of patience. An artist will spend, typically, 40 hours to produce one painting. Some works can take 60, even 80 hours, depending on the level of detail and paint layers.
Prices for modern botanical paintings have climbed in recent years but are still enough of a bargain to keep the artists in day jobs. "Paintings that would sell for $400 five years ago are going now for $1,000 to $1,500, the best of the botanical art," said Meyer.
What makes a good botanical? As with all art, you look for good technique: Does the painting look real? Does it have depth? But a botanical must also be scientifically accurate and impart some knowledge about a given plant, be it the arrangement of the roots or the relative position of one blossom to the next.
Hence, botanical painters tend to be longtime, passionate observers of plants. "If the accuracy isn't there, it's a flower painting, but it's not botanical painting," said Meyer.
And if you think modern cameras or computer graphics can do a better job, think again. "A photograph has limitations in depth of focus, light and shadow. In a painting, you can display the complete information about a plant, even a tree," said Meyer.
Today, a botanical must also have wall appeal. For Pat Kay, an art instructor who judged the best-in-show category, the botanical must have originality in the way it is presented. "Does it have some kind of rhythm? Does it hang together?"
Kay, of Monmouth Junction, N.J., selected a common garden plant--stinking hellebore--as the best in show. In spite of its name, it is a beautiful cold-weather perennial, now growing and readying to flower.