From the Library: Cross-Pollination: Flowers in 18th-Century European Porcelain and Textiles

A new exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum combines 18th-century textiles and porcelain with several objects from the collections of the Missouri Botanical Garden—two books and a herbarium (dried plant) specimen. Dr Wyse Jackson, Garden President, has also generously loaned the exhibit a book from his personal library: The Florist by Augustin Heckle, a floral pattern book from the mid-18th century. The show runs from May 26 to November 26, 2017 in Gallery 100.


For thousands of years, from the stylized pomegranate vessels of ancient Egypt to Cy Twombly’s roses, plants have provided artists with subject matter and design ideas. But the meaning and purpose of these depictions have naturally changed over time to reflect their creators’ cultural preoccupations.


During the European Middle Ages, for example, the lily appears in sculpture, stained glass and painting as a religious symbol. To serve this function, the lily only needed to be recognizable and its symbolic attributes (especially the white trumpet) visible. Little more was necessary and seldom shown, giving lilies in much medieval art an abstract, simple appearance.


The emergence of scientific botany in the 17th century changed the function of plant depiction. This was a period of accelerated change in Europe—changes in food, government, religion, and ideologies. Many people began looking at the world around them with new eyes, a situation made more complex by the discovery of new worlds with new people, animals and plants. For some, the material world lost its symbolic function and became an increasingly vast universe that required new tools if it was to be understood.

As new plant species entered Europe from Australia, Asia, Africa and America, efforts began to be made to organize them and more familiar native plants into systems related to their morphology or structures. The various forms of leaf, flower, root, seed, stem, etc could determine whether or not plants were classified together. Plant collectors and gardeners who wanted to be able to tell one plant from another needed visually accurate, detailed images that included these distinguishing features. A further incentive to detail and accuracy was the spread of botanical gardens and the growth of a leisure class to enjoy them. People in early modern Europe had opportunities to see many more plants than their medieval ancestors, including recent introductions from abroad. This late 17th century botanical image from Hortus Indicus Malabaricus by Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein illustrates an Asian hibiscus.


This new verisimilitude in plant depiction became widespread in the 1600s. Illustrations in books written for botanists, gardeners and herbalists exemplified this new precision, but it also affected the fine arts, as this still life painting by Maria van Oosterwyck shows.


Applied arts did not follow this trend until the 18th century, when more accurate, complex images of plants began to appear on textiles and porcelain.


It is interesting to note that this fashion did not last long and was on the wane by the end of the 1700s, though naturalistic plants would reappear in the 19th century in even more lavish guise.

Less subject to the vicissitudes of fashion, scientific publications have never ceased in their efforts to provide, detailed, accurate images of plants.


Leave a Reply