The Science of Looking: The Vast World of Botanical Art

Science and the arts are often treated like totally separate worlds, but the two are not incompatible. They have more in common than meets the eye.

Science and art are really intertwined,” says Nezka Pfeifer, Museum Curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum. “They’re not these two separate specializations like we sometimes treat them.” The world of botanical art reveals that overlap with vibrant detail.

Artworks featured in Botanical Art Worldwide: America’s Flora | Photo by Kristina Schall DeYong

What Is Botanical Art?

Currently, the Sachs Museum is featuring Botanical Art Worldwide: America’s Flora, a traveling exhibit of modern-day artworks co-curated by the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) and the US Botanic Garden. Botanical artwork is usually divided into two major categories: botanical art and botanical illustration. Botanical art refers to representations whose primary purpose is to show the plant in a way that is visually appealing; botanical illustration refers to artworks that are created for scientific use.

Clematis glaucophyllaJPEG
Artwork by Sadie Price depicting Clematis glaucophylla.

Pfeifer explains that the line between the two categories can be blurred: “It’s two sides of the same coin. I don’t think that scientists would ever necessarily see the work [from Botanical Art Worldwide: America’s Flora] as scientific, yet the artists are displaying the plant in such a way that a scientist could easily identify what the plant is.”

Doug Holland, the manager of the Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library collection, has spent a lot of time considering the distinction as well. “Botanical illustration to me is technical drawing,” Holland says. “It’s almost like draftsmanship, maybe with an artistic bend to it sometimes. Botanical art is work that is not coming from a scientific point of view.” Distinguishing between the two isn’t always obvious. The two can run into each other sometimes: Botanical illustration might incorporate artistic elements, and botanical art might portray plants with careful accuracy. The work of Sadie Price is a good example of art that walks this line. There isn’t necessarily a clear-cut answer for every piece.

A Brief History of Botanical Art

In the beginning, botanical art came about for practical purposes. The genre was born in the first century when the Romans were putting together beautifully illustrated medical textbooks, most notably De Materia Medica. Illustrations of plants appeared in these pages for medicinal use. As time went on, scientists became more interested in understanding and recording the plants from a botanical point of view, so illustrators made more of an effort to capture their particular details. At the same time, artists were becoming more interested in the creative elements of botanical art.

This example shows a Soup Plate in the Sachs Museum’s display “Botanical Art on Plates.” This is Transferware pottery made by Copeland in Stoke, England, United Kingdom circa 1879. Courtesy the Collection of Jeanne Zarucchi | Photo by Tom Incrocci

The use of plant imagery in decoration and architecture was present cross-culturally, but it was especially popular in cultures where images of deities or the human form were forbidden. For example, In the 17th and 18th century, the Dutch Protestants did not believe in producing images of Jesus. Instead, many religious painters took to producing artworks that combined images of life and beauty (like flowers) with images of death (like skulls). The aim of these artists was to remind the viewer of the transience of life on Earth so that they would consider the afterlife. These pieces were known as “Vanitas” paintings, and they were meant to challenge the vanity of believing that humans are the center of the universe and the sense that we will live forever.

Botanical art was not limited to any particular time or place. Large-scale prints and decorative plates became so popular in France that a botanical artist and illustrator, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, became the court artist for Marie Antoinette. The Chinese were responsible for some of the earliest landscape paintings. Decorative floral detailing was extremely popular in the Ottoman and Persian empires.

Blue Oak Branch with Lichens. Artwork by Lucy Martin | Photo by Tom Incrocci

Today, the genre spans from creative art to technical illustrations. The intentional beauty and detail of the more artistic work has a special ability to connect people with the plant world—and oftentimes this connection is the goal of the artist. Pfeifer speaks to this notion, explaining that to her, “art in general–and it’s kind of true with scientific illustration as well–is there to make you look. The artist is conveying something they have seen in their eye or in their mind’s eye and they want to set it apart so that you pay attention. And maybe if you pay attention to their artwork, exactly the way that they wanted you to, you’ll be interested and excited about that thing, too.”

Desert Bluebells | Artwork by Gillian Rice | Photo by Tom Incrocci

Botanical art and other representations of the natural world have become more common in recent years. “The contemporary art world is looking more to natural subjects for inspiration,” Pfeifer says. “I think that artists are trying to make sense of the world around them. We’re very technology based, very industry based, so we’re not spending as much time in nature. I have seen over the last 15 to 20 years that artists will use flowers, insects, and animals in their art in a way where they’re not there to be scientific; they’re there for people to see and come face to face with these creatures once again.” Art has the power to make us encounter things that are easily forgotten in our daily lives, things like the other living creatures with whom we share our Earth.

Botanical Illustration in the Modern World 

The restoration of The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guetemala | Photo by Tom Incrocci

It isn’t just in the art world that botanical art and illustration are still relevant. It might come as a surprise in the age of photographs and digital modeling, but hand-drawn botanical illustrations are still essential in the scientific world. At the Peter H. Raven Library, a large collection of botanical illustrations is used by Garden staff. One of the library’s current projects is the restoration of The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, a vast book of descriptions and botanical illustrations of orchids. 

Doug Holland shows off one of the Library’s many botanical illustrations. | Photo by Kristina Schall DeYong

The library also has a huge part in putting together “floras”, published works that feature detailed descriptions and illustrations of all the plants in a given region. One of their most recent projects was Flora of North America, a massive reference for all the plants in North America. “When a flora is being done, one of the tools that is really helpful in identifying a plant is the drawing,” Holland says. “A photo, too, possibly—but if you want more precision, and especially if you’re talking about the professional level, people expect line drawings.” The library has only a small collection of what might be considered botanical art, but they have thousands of botanical illustrations. 


Unlike a photographer, an illustrator has the ability to exaggerate detail in a way that wouldn’t be possible in real life. The action of drawing forces the illustrator to take the time to pay careful attention to every characteristic of the specimen. “I think the purpose of any art, even scientific illustration, is the art of looking, and the science of looking, to stop paying attention to everything else around you and focus in on one thing,” Pfeifer says. “In life, people think ‘You’re an artist,’ or ‘You’re a scientist,’ but, no, you can be both.” In one image, a botanical illustrator has the unique ability to show every part of the plant, at every phase of its life, in all four seasons. In this way, a drawing, though it may not be “real life,” is able to show a more wholistic truth than a photograph.

Botanical Art Worldwide: America’s Flora is viewable at the Sachs Museum 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through May 5, 2019.

Kristina Schall DeYong
Digital Media Specialist

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