Most of the time, I suggest that museum visitors go to a show armed with whatever knowledge they care to bring and to see and enjoy it in the mood they're in. For "Gardens in Eternal Bloom" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, I encourage you to bring more.
It's a scholarly show.
Before you dismiss it as too wonky for you, though, know that it's a beautiful one and worth a trip. The collection of 100 prints from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at first will seem like an eye-blurring procession of flowers, fruits and vegetables that at quick glance might seem repetitive.
Not at all.
It's a visual account of the dawn of a modern science, botany, and the development of an art genre, botanical illustration. As you walk through the galleries you will witness both, bursting into full bloom.
The study of plants is an ancient one, as are depictions of them. Those with medicinal qualities were of greatest interest, and drawings of them were kept in the libraries of religious and noble houses. The Age of Exploration began in Europe in the 15th century and brought broader knowledge of the existing world and the discovery of a new one, the Americas. Returning ships' cargoes included unknown plant specimens, of course.
Coinciding with, but unrelated to, these international geographics was the development of new artistic mediums, engraving and etching, that made possible the reproduction in large numbers of original works.
So by the 17th century, when this show begins, a lot of new information and the means to share it broadly were in play. One manifestation was the illustration of new plant specimens being imported from the Far East and the New World for study. Botanical gardens were also being created, usually by wealthy landowners, to nurture these exotics, and illustrations became a point of pride for the owners. They had to be more than accurate; they also had to be beautiful.
Large Sunflower, a hand-colored engraving from 1613, makes clear that the dual directive posed no challenge to its unknown artist (probably two artists, the engraver and colorer). The subject matter of botanical illustrations would always be beautiful. The only challenge would be how best to capture that beauty.
The grand gardeners collected plants as they did paintings and objets d'art. Their names are on the books they commissioned, and the artists who captured a flower's transitory life were often anonymous.
It was common for several artists to work on these tomes over many years, their stylistic uniformity established by the owner's vision. Abraham Munting, a Dutch doctor and botany professor, and Johann Cristoph Volckamer, a wealthy Nuremberg merchant, established legendary gardens in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Neither was an artist, but both contributed conceptual ideas to the illustrations of the books they underwrote. Each directed that his flowers, whatever their origin, be drawn in a local landscape. What makes that idea so startling is that in order to see it in proper detail, the flower springs from the ground in Godzilla proportions, towering over trees and people like a science experiment gone wrong.
Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), who like many of his contemporaries benefited from the rise in botanical illustrations' popularity by the mid 18th century, broke out of the anonymous pool of painters and engravers, gaining a reputation as one of the great botanical artists of the century. His illustrations brim with life. Included with a papaya plant are closeups of its fruit, other plants that one might find growing near it and butterflies that would be attracted to its blooms.
Sometimes scientific veracity was bent under the weight of decorative imperative as seen in a whimsical print of a lotus, its stem curving under the burden of its lush flower and its leaves shading a fat frog. It's Asian in style, a nod to the plant's origin, and lacks the earnestness of an education objective.
By the 19th century, gardening had become a widespread hobby. Popular books and, increasingly, magazines were published to introduce this growing demographic to new plants or offer practical tips. The exhibition includes several that have remained bound (many through the years were taken apart so the prints could be sold individually) and one, George Brookshaw's Pomona Britannica of 1812, for example, informs us that "cantlope" aren't very good and candia melons are.
Not surprisingly, women flourished in botanic illustration. They didn't have to be taken seriously as great artists, merely appreciated as fine drawers. Mrs. Edward Bury was a wealthy woman of leisure who turned her free time into a passionate self-education as an artist and botanist whose drawings were translated into engravings by the same printer who worked with John James Audubon.
The scholarly nature of "Gardens in Perpetual Bloom" is clear and made clearer by lots of wall texts (and a nice catalog available in the museum's shop), but I found myself stopping frequently just to admire an especially lovely floral rendering. The one I lingered with the longest was a poppy by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the premier flower painter of his time, maybe all time. He shows us the back of the bloom, its fully opened petals a pinky peach that yields to blue near its stem. For whatever reason, I thought of a child bending so that her hair falls forward, exposing the back of her neck. It's a tender, intimate work. We see the fragile leaves of a fully realized flower, the young bud and the configuration of the leaves. Redouté gives us everything we need to know about it botanically.
Is that why I look at it?
What do you think?
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.