I keep a set of treasured post cards in my desk drawer, and occasionally spread them out across the table to admire their beauty. Purchased from the Queensland State Art Gallery, they feature the exquisite botanical paintings of Pierre-Joseph Redoute. His art works made him famous during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when he became known throughout Europe as, ‘The Raphael of Roses.’
Redoute was born into a family of illustrious painters, in the Belgian town of Saint- Hubert. He left home when he was only thirteen, determined to make a living as an itinerant interior decorator and portrait painter. On his travels, Redoute regularly visited museums to study the paintings of the great Flemish and Dutch artists. At age 23 he made his way to Paris where he joined his elder brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, now a successful interior decorator and scenery designer. During the next few years he worked in his brother’s studio to fulfil new commissions and other creative projects.
Visiting the public gardens in Paris to study and sketch flowers, Redoute attracted the attention of the famous botanist, Charles L’Heritier de Brutelle. Recognizing Redoute’s talent, L’Heritier became the young artist’s mentor, teaching him the fundamentals of flower structure through the dissection and depiction of plant anatomy, so necessary for botanical illustration. Drawn enthusiastically into this rapidly growing discipline, Redoute now began to embark on his career in the employ of Charles L’Heritier as an illustrator and flower painter
The Dutch painter, Gerard van Spaendonck, was also interested in Redoute’s talent. He held the Professorship of Botanic Painting at the French National Museum of Natural History. Here in the Royal Paris Botannical Garden, Redoute was introduced to a world of new and exotic plants and to the art of scientific botanical illustration through his new Dutch mentor.
Spaendonck’s technique of painting pure watercolours directly onto a translucent background of vellum produced flower paintings with a clear, bright transparency. This technique was further refined and perfected by Redoute. At the same time L’Heritier commissioned three paintings from him to the Stirpes novae, a publication with illustrations and descriptions of little-known plants. It would mark the first of many publications filled with the coloured prints of Redoute’s paintings.
In the eighteenth century, coloured prints suitable for publication were painstakingly engraved onto a metal plate—a mirror image likeness of the original painting. The engraving process consisted of building graduations of tone and shadow by massing lines together. In 1787, during a visit to London, Redoute was introduced to the process of stipple-engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi. This new technique used dots and lines, rather than simply lines, to build the graduations from light to darker colours. Compared to line engraving, the dots produced more delicate and realistic results. Bartolozzi also demonstrated the process of single-print colour printing. This method made it possible to add multiple colours to the plate so it passed through the printing press only once. Occasionally special copies had their final colouring touched up by hand. Redoute brought these new techniques back to Paris, greatly enhancing his personal art of print-making. This earned him a royal medal for his achievements from King Louis XVI in 1796.
Once again L’Heritiere’s connection to the French Royal Court introduced Redoute to its inner circle and to Queen Marie Antoinette. Soon after, he became her personal teacher, her chief flower painter and tutor to the royal children.
After the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte’s military successes brought him to power and Redoute soon gained the patronage of his wife, Empress Josephine. Her acquisition in western Paris of the Chateau Malmaison, resulted in the creation of her magnificent gardens of exotic plants. These existed not only to present a beautiful space, but to document every plant scientifically. Redoute flourished here after completing a series of watercolours on vellum for Empress Josephine’s bedroom. His brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, was also called upon to use his set-designing arts to decorate the room’s interior. Under her patronage Redoute began to work on his most beautiful and widely reprinted book, Les Roses, which was published to critical acclaim. In the years that followed several additional volumes of prints were also produced. Among these are: Jardins de Malmaison and Les Lilacees, a comprehensive work on the lilac flower, complete with 486 colour plates.
Redoute had proved his capacity to survive in France’s changing fortunes: designer and painter to the cabinet of Queen Marie-Antoinette, designer from the French Academy of Sciences, flower painter to the Empress Marie-Josephine and teacher of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. At eighty years of age, Redoute conceived plans for a new project—a huge floral tribute requiring the contribution of a number of specialized artists. One evening as he studied a white lily flower, this task was ended by a massive stroke. He died on June 20, 1840 and was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. One of his biographers, Roger Madol, noted that Redoute’s immortality rested on the fact that throughout the years he remained faithful to one queen who never went out of fashion: the rose.
Pierre-Joseph Redoute, (1759 – 1840)
Portrait by Baron Francoise Gerard
Floral images, details from Les Roses, courtesy of Benedikt Taschen Verlag
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