Botanica Collected

Hunt Institute’s 18th-century Exploring Expedition Illustrations

By Lugene B. Bruno, Curator of Art, Hunt Institute

Originally appeared  in The Botanical Artist – Volume 17, Issue 3


The Hunt Institute’s Torner Collection of Sessé & Mociño Biological Illustrations contains 1,989 watercolor drawings from the Spanish Royal Expedition to New Spain (1787–1803). About 1,800 are of botanical subjects and the remainder of various animal species. In 1981 the Hunt Foundation purchased the drawings for the Institute from the Torner brothers of Barcelona. Of utmost importance to the Torners was that the collection be catalogued, curated and made accessible to scholars throughout the world. Through this accessibility, in the past 30 years progress has been made in understanding the history of the expedition and in determining the current nomenclature of the collected specimens represented in the drawings. 

Carlos III of Spain (1716–1788) authorized the expedition to discover the potential resources of New Spain. Under the directorship of Martin de Sessé y Lacasta (1751– 1808), the team included leading botanists and pharmacists selected by the director of the botanical garden in Madrid. José Mariano Mociño (1757–1820), a physician and student of botany at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Mexico, was appointed to the expedition in 1790. The group explored rural Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Central America and made forays along the Pacific Coast as far north as southern Alaska, recording the distribution of the plants and animals. 

The principal artists of the expedition, Juan Vincente de la Cerda (b.–d. unknown) and Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy (ca.1773?–?), were recommended by the director of the Royal Art Academy, San Carlos, Mexico. Students at the academy, founded in 1782 by natural history illustrators, were instructed in the accurate portrayal of their subjects to facilitate the needs of a botanist. Both artists were hired to travel with the botanists to make watercolor field-studies of specimens collected each day. Due to the limited time that each specimen retained its true color, the artists emphasized the elements essential for classification in color and used either a monochromatic wash (grisaille) or a line drawing for the remainder of the plant portrait. They often made copies of a study for later distribution to the botanic gardens in Mexico and Madrid, and sometimes copies were made to emphasize different details. Many of the earlier drawings of the expedition were created using a standard format, fitting the image within a rectangular frame. As the expedition continued, Echeverría’s precise, yet sinuous, line drawing and watercolor technique became more refined, displaying his extraordinary talent. Cerda’s technique, while more than competent and graphically bold, never achieved comparable subtlety in the line work and watercolor application. 

Of the watercolors in the Torner collection, Echeverría signed one, Cerda eight. Some of the other paintings can be attributed in connection to specific “excursions” in which each was the sole artist, while others are stylistically apparent. Both artists participated in the first three excursions: August 1787–1788; March–December 1789; May 1790–early 1792. After the Third Excursion broke up in the latter part of 1791, Cerda and Echeverría were never in the field together for any length of time. For the next seven years the work of the expedition continued with individual botanists exploring different areas accompanied by only one artist. This expedition was well organized, documented and, at least until 1800, funded. The specimens, illustrations and manuscripts arrived in Madrid by 1804. Although the intent of the expedition was to collect materials and information for a published Flora Méxicana, the monarch did not support such a project. 

The unedited, unillustrated, manuscripts of Sessé and Mociño were not published until the late 19th century when much of the identification was obsolete. Plantae Novae Hispaniae (1887– 1891; ed. 2, 1893) covered the first 3 years of the expedition, and Flora Mexicana (1891–1897; ed. 2, 1894) summarized the expedition. 

By 1805 Mociño found lowpaying government work in the natural history museum in Madrid and lived with Sessé, who was in poor health and his family until the latter’s death in 1808. Mociño became director in 1808 under Joseph Bonaparte’s reign and was president of the Academy of Medicine (1808– 1812). When the Spanish returned in 1812, Mociño was considered a traitor and fled for Montpellier with the drawings and manuscripts in a cart. Arriving in poor health, he soon met the Swiss botanist and systematist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778–1841). Mociño lent the drawings to de Candolle to study extensively for the next 5 years, during which de Candolle moved to the botanic garden in Geneva. In 1817, when Mociño was granted permission to safely return to Spain, he requested that de Candolle return the drawings. Concerned for their future, de Candolle had approximately 1,200 copied in 10 days by over 120 Genevans of various skills. These drawings and duplicates from the expedition that Mociño had given to de Candolle remain in Geneva. 

Mociño died in Barcelona in 1820, and it is assumed that the doctor who cared for him was left with the drawings. They disappeared until 1900 when they resurfaced in a private library in Barcelona, but their historical import was unknown. For three decades now, the Hunt Institute has received numerous requests for information and photographs of drawings from the Torner Collection by researchers and historians. Botanist Rogers McVaugh (1909–2009), an authority on the flora of Mexico and this collection, wrote a history of the expedition for the Institute’s CD-ROM (White, et al. 1998). McVaugh’s Botanical Results of the Sessé & Mociño Expedition (1787– 1803) VII. A Guide to Relevant Scientific Names of Plants (2000) was an annotated list of the plant names generated in the last 200 years. A McVaugh essay was included in the fully illustrated La Real Expedición Botánica a Nueva España (Mociño et al. 2010). Through the contributions of over 70 researchers, these volumes update the nomenclature of the plants and animals represented in these drawings and place this collection and the expedition in its historical context. Thumbnails of the illustrations also may be viewed on the Institute’s Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection database ( by entering Sessé in the Name field. This collection continues to be a valuable resource for the history of botanical exploration, the 18th-century distribution of American tropical plants and animals and the impact of urban development and agriculture, the economic value of tropical flora, and for the study of some of the finest field illustrations in botanical art history. 

Selected references Engstrand, I. 2007. Mexico’s pioneer naturalist and the Spanish Enlightenment. Historian 53(1). McVaugh, R. 2000. Botanical Results of the Sessé & Mociño Expedition (1787–1803) VII. A Guide to Relevant Scientific Names of Plants. Pittsburgh: Hunt Institute. Standley, P. C. 1920. Trees and Shrubs of Mexico, Part 1, Gleicheniaceae–Betulaceae. 5 vols. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. [Contr. U.S. Natl. Herb. 23] Mociño, J. M. and M. Sessé. 2010. La Real Expedición Botánica a Nueva España. 12 vols. Mexico, D. F.: Siglo XXI Editores and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. White, J. J., R. McVaugh and R. Kiger, comp. 1998. The Torner Collection of Sessé & Mociño Biological Illustrations. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie Mellon CD Press for Hunt Institute and The Universal Library [CD-ROM]. 

  • Cheirostemon platanoides,” Chiranthodendron pentadactylon Larreat., Malvaceae, watercolor on paper, attributed to Juan Vincente de la Cerda, HI Art accession no. 6331.0172, 34.5x43 cm
  • “Erythrina divaricata,” Erythrina variegata L. var. orientalis (L.) Merr., Fabaceae, watercolor on paper, attributed to Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy, HI Art accession no. 6631.1596, 35x24 cm.
  • “Woodvillea gracilis,” Tagetes persicaefolius (Benth.) B. L. Turner, Asteraceae, watercolor on paper, unattributed, HI Art accession no. 6631.0133, 35x24 cm.