Collection: The Royal Treatment: PIERRE-JOSEPH REDOUTÉ (BELGIAN, 1759-1840)


Pierre-Joseph Redouté is unquestionably the best-known botanical illustrator of any era. His work seems to demand the invention of lofty praise. A critic, writing of the 1804 Salon exhibition, noted that Redouté’s “six paintings of flowers executed in watercolor for H. M. the empress ... are realistic and beautifully painted, ... perfectly imitating nature.” He concluded, “The delicacy, exactitude, and elegance of the brushwork gives them great merit.” Vivant Denon, Director of Museums under the Empire, stated that Redouté’s gouaches were “masterpieces,” and the artist was similarly described both as the “Rembrandt” and the “Raphael” of flowers by nineteenth-century writers. It is thus unsurprising that Redouté occupies a central position in the development of European floral art, contributing to both the artistry and scientific advancement of botanical study.

Born into a family of artists in the Belgian Ardennes, Redouté’s talents were recognized and encouraged from an early age. His Flemish origins were significant to his development as a botanical painter, for it was in the Netherlands that the genre truly flourished. The eventual recognition of still life painting in France was primarily due to the arrival of Dutch artists, such as Gerard van Spaendonck and Redouté, who popularized the field.

In 1782, Redouté arrived in Paris; his entrée eased by his brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, who had already established himself in the city and had achieved some success as a decorative painter. Redouté was quickly attracted to the greenhouses of the royal Jardin des Plantes, and it was during a drawing expedition to the Jardin that he enjoyed a chance meeting with the noted amateur botanist and collector of rare plants, L’Héritier de Broutelle. L’Héritier taught Redouté about the dissection of flowers and their scientific representation and commissioned him to participate in the illustration of his Stirpes novae. This was a crucial turning point in Redouté’s career, increasing the young artist’s interest in the science of floral painting and leading to his involvement as a founding member of the Linnean Society of Paris. His institutional affiliation brought him the position of the painter to the Cabinet of Marie-Antoinette, allowing him access to the Trianon gardens and providing an introduction to Gerard van Spaendonck, Flower Painter to the King. This master was to teach Redouté the technique of painting on vellum, and in ca. 1875, he produced several works for the famous Vélins du Roi under Spaendonck’s direction. By his own account, his student’s work was more exceptional than his own.

Redouté had, as pupils or patrons, five queens and empresses of France, from Marie-Antoinette to Joséphine’s successor, the Empress Marie-Louise. His devotion to botanical illustration was secured during the French Revolution when the competition of 1793 determined that he would continue the botanical illustrations for the Vélins, thus succeeding Spaendonck. Despite many changes of regime in this turbulent epoch, he worked without interruption, eventually contributing to over fifty books on natural history and archeology. However, his masterpieces were those completed at Malmaison for the Empress Joséphine.

Joséphine turned to Pierre-Joseph Redouté to record the unique specimens at Malmaison.He supplied 120 plates for Ventenat’s two-volume Jardin de la Malmaison, published between 1803 and 1805, a further 52 plates for Aimé Bonpland’s 1812 Description des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison, among other illustrated botanical publications. However, his masterpieces were Les Liliacées and Les Roses.


Provenance: Acquired from the artist by the Empress Joséphine; Prince Eugène de Beauharnais; by descent through the Dukes of Leuchtenberg; Bibliothèque Eugène de Beauharnais; Braus-Riggenbach and Ulrico Hoepli sale, Zurich, 23 May 1935 (Lot 82); Erhard Wehye; Private trust; Sotheby’s sale, New York, 20 November, 1985; and W. Graham Arader III.

Literature: Peter & Frances Mallary, A Redouté Treasury: 468 Watercolors from Les Liliacées of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, New York, 1986; William P. Watson, “Il Raffaello dei fiori” in KOS (March, 1986), 3:10-23.

Les Liliacées recorded 486 plants from the gardens at Malmaison. This ambitious task was published in eight folio volumes, taking fourteen years to complete and requiring the assistance of three botanists and eighteen engravers. Some of the watercolors for this landmark work presented here.

The title of Les Liliacées is deceptive as it was a work of much broader scope than merely the Liliaceae family, which accounts for approximately half of the illustrations. What unites all the plant images, and what was of unimaginable importance to botanists, was their inability to be preserved and dried in herbaria. Redoute’s work was the first to provide accurate and detailed drawings of a group of plants that would not otherwise be easily obtainable for study. Redouté’s pencil studies, placed at the bottom of the main illustrations, record the anatomical features of each species so that each flower can be identified with precision and cultivated to perfection. It should be stressed that Redouté was not a botanist. He did not create a written plant description of the main illustrations, record the anatomical features of each species so that each flower can be identified with precision and cultivated to perfection. The accompanying commentary was by noted botanists: Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle, François de la Roche, and Alire Raffenau-Delile. Nevertheless, his watercolors were so detailed that they were invaluable sources of study.

While the published stipple engravings for Les Liliacées are stunning works in their own right, they cannot capture the great and subtle beauty of his original watercolors for Les Liliacées. Redouté created these watercolors as models for the stipple engravings in his landmark work on lilies. However, the delicate and richly colored watercolors have clarity of line and modulation of tone that even the beautiful stipple engravings could not attain. Mostly renowned for his engraved works on paper, only in the watercolors is the full extent of Redouté’s mastery and sensitivity clear.

He chose to work on vellum, a high-quality parchment made from calf’s skin, with a somewhat grainy surface that has to be ‘pounced’ before painting to make it smooth. Vellum must also be stretched on a piece of cardboard while working, for it is susceptible to humidity and creases easily. While more challenging to prepare than paper, its whiteness and its matt appearance gives vellum its reputation and aided Redouté in his manipulation of light and shade to provide such volume and immediacy to the plants that they seem to bloom right before our eyes. Moreover, he makes full use of the whiteness of the vellum material to create classical “portraits,” which lack backgrounds or settings, the majestic simplicity of the compositions allowing the viewer to focus without distraction on the beauty and delicate complexity of the plants themselves.

What remains remarkable about Redouté’s watercolors for Les Liliacées is that they have remained clean and fresh, particularly when it is considered that they were used as models by the engravers and the colorists. Extra care was likely taken because their ultimate destination was the collection of the Empress Joséphine. It is also probable that the mirror system used by the engraver to transfer the image also aided in their salvation from exposure to dirty thumbprints or paint splashes. Unlike other engraved publications that show the artist’s original studies in reverse, Redouté insisted that each plant represent precisely what was observed. Thus, the engraver’s studio was equipped with an elaborate system of mirrors, to permit each craftsman to view the artist’s drawing in reverse. The technique had the added advantage of separating the vellum from continuous workshop handling.


These exceptional watercolors are notable examples of Redouté’s achievements as a botanical painter relating to one of his most celebrated projects, Les Roses.

The rose-mania in France in the early years of the nineteenth century is far less known than the tulip-mania of the seventeenth century. The French aristocratic association with this flower began with Madame de Pompadour, and after the revolution, the Napoleonic dynasty and subsequent royal families devoted themselves to the rose. As a result, rose gardens and rose decorative motifs became very popular, appearing on furniture and porcelain, woven into fabrics, women wore roses in their hair or garlands of roses in their hands; roses seemed everywhere.

Empress Josephine acted as a catalyst for the development and introduction of new roses at her estate Malmaison. Josephine introduced roses into the garden collection in 1804, many of which were wild varieties. Empress did not arrange her roses formally but instead grew them in pots in glasshouses or spread in loose collections throughout the garden. This manner reflected a nineteenth-century trend away from formal gardens toward a more English style of gardening.

Although Joséphine died three years before the publication of Les Roses, it was the unparalleled collection of roses on her estate at Malmaison that provided the artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté with inspiration. The watercolor paintings and stipple-engraved plates prepared for Les Roses have been the most recognized aspect of the series, but the text remains valuable as well. The text accompanying each image was written by Claude Antoine Thory (French, 1759-1827). Thory was an ardent botanist who shared with Redouté a great love of roses; the two had neighboring estates around 1814. One of the aims of Les Roses was to highlight unique cultivars of roses. Other botanists are mentioned in Thory’s text but often as a way to disparage their research or surpass their variety. This was a two-prong effort in that both botanists and artists could set Les Roses apart as outdoing competing publications while also bolstering the importance of the gardens from which each specimen was procured. Specimen roses were procured from the gardens at Malmaison, collections of Thory, and other collections around Paris. The scientific details provided by Thory remain of great importance to art historians and botanists alike.


The Royal Treatment


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