Botanica Collected

The Genius of Georg Ehret: His Art and Influence 

 

By Susan Fraser,
Director, LuEsther T. Mertz Library,
The New York Botanical Garden 

 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume  15, Issue 1

 

As the eighteenth century saw an increase in plant exploration and the popularity of gardening and natural history collecting, most expeditions took a plant illustrator along to document the specimens collected. A large number of botanical works were published during this age of enlightenment that required illustrators skilled in creating precise plant drawings. One of the greatest illustrators was Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770). Born in Heidelberg, to a family of gardeners Ehret is considered one of the greatest botanical artists of all time. His father was a draughtsman who taught him the art of drawing. Although Ehret apprenticed and was trained as a gardener, his artistic interests led him to begin sketching the flowers in his care. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ehret did not travel to exotic lands but traveled widely throughout Europe. He associated with many outstanding scientists and artists of his day – among them Carolus Linnaeus, Hans Sloane, Patrick Browne and Mark Catesby - and they commissioned works created by Ehret. Although he is known as great flower painter, he was commissioned to illustrate zoological works as well. 

While working in Heidelburg, a young Ehret met the artist August Wilhelm Sievert. Sievert had him grind his colors, which gave Ehret the opportunity to observe the artist’s technique. Ehret quickly began to execute paintings of tulips and hyacinths, soon developing a collection of flower paintings. The apothecary, Johann Wilhelm Weinmann commissioned the young Ehret to draw 1,000 figures of plants. Over the next few years he would execute hundreds of drawings of plants for Weinmann’s Phytanthoza Iconographia as well as color the plates for Henricus van Rheede van tot Draakestein’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. Despite an unhappy relationship with Weinmann, Ehret learned a great deal of botany while in his employ which would serve him well for the rest of his career. In 1737 Ehret met Linneaus while working in Leiden for Dr. George Clifford, a wealthy Dutch- Anglo financier and one of the directors of the Dutch East India Company. He was hired by Clifford to illustrate the Hortus Cliffortianus, plants in his extensive gardens and hothouses, and the first published work based on the Linnaean system of plant classification. Linneaus recognized the artist’s keen eye, steady hand and remarkable ability to interpret the plants. Traveling on to France, Ehret met and was greatly influenced by the work of the royal miniature painter Claude Aubriet. It was at the Jardin Royal des Plantes that he learned the skill of painting watercolor on vellum that from then on would be the hallmark of his finest compositions.

His botanical education continued through his relationship with his greatest patron, Nurenberg physician Dr. Christoph Jacob Trew. Trew encouraged him to use large sheets of fine paper to execute his drawings of exotic plants, and taught him which parts of the flower and fruit should be represented to show the different sexes. Although a constant supporter and lifelong friend, when Trew informed Ehret of his intent to publish a book based on his substantial collection of Ehret’s drawings and paintings, Ehret was unwilling to wait and set about publishing his work on his own. In an era subject to guild restrictions it was a highly unusual practice for an artist to make the drawings, engrave the plates, print and color the images, yet this is how Ehret proceeded to produce his work Plantae et Papiliones Rariores, published in London between 1748 and 1759. Trew went on to publish two of the most sumptuous hand colored 18th century natural history folios, illustrated by Ehret, entitled Plantae Selectae and Hortus Nitidissimus

Ehret would eventually settle in England. The apothecary Isaac Rand was the first director of the Physic Garden in Chelsea, founded in 1673. Rand furthered the appreciation of the rare and beautiful plants grown at the garden by promoting the work of botanical artists. He supported Jacob Van Huysum, Elizabeth Blackwell and Georg Dionysius Ehret by encouraging them to paint plants in the garden and by subscribing to the publications in which their work appeared. As word of Ehret’s talent spread, he was increasingly employed as an instructor in aristocratic circles. Among the most interesting was the Duchess of Portland, the richest woman of her day, who set about to collect and record every known species of the natural world. Ehret was retained as a drawing instructor by the Duchess who eventually purchased 300 of Ehret’s paintings on vellum. 

To celebrate the work of one of the finest botanical artists the world has ever seen, The New York Botanical Garden will mount an exhibit of Ehret’s work and explore the artists relationship with the botanical, horticultural, medical and social elite of the eighteenth century. The exhibit Georg Ehret: The Greatest Botanical Artist of the 1700’s will be on view in the Rondina and LoFaro Gallery of the Mertz Library, April 18-July 19, 2009. The paintings, books and engravings from various collections will play a prominent role in interpreting Ehret’s illustrious career. In addition to the published work held by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, institutions and private collections loaning artworks to this exhibit include the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the Pierpont Morgan Library, Graham Arader Gallery and the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon, Oak Spring Garden Library. The exhibit will showcase many of Ehret’s original watercolor drawings including those on vellum that emphasize his technique of botanical dissection and the precise rendering which imbued his compositions with an astonishing beauty and accuracy. 

  • Cnicus Caritnae Folio [Thistle], bodycolor on vellum, Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon, Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Virginia, 9.36x14” with gilt border, mounted (no date was given).
  • Sarracenia, body colour on vellum, from Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon, Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Virginia.
  • Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770)