H. Walter Lack, in his Garden of Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration, states clearly and simply the basic premise on which successful botanical illustration must rest. He writes “The purpose of every botanical illustration is to give an exact picture of a plant or of parts of a plant. It is essential to capture the often short-lived and fragile structure of a plant so precisely that the observer is able to identify and recognize the plant.”1 William Stern agrees: “Botanical illustration is the portrayal of plants with enough accuracy and relevant detail for a particular kind to be recognized thereby and distinguished from other kinds.”2
We should point out that the requirement that the plant in a botanical illustration be recognizable is a premise of the Western thought, traceable to the Greece of late classical antiquity. Lack tells us. “This requirement is unknown to Eastern traditions, although the subject of a few Asian plant illustrations can nonetheless still be identified.” 3 There are many ways that plants are visually interpreted throughout the world, interesting and varied, but for the purposes of this program we will deal only with botanical illustration as it is found in the Western tradition.
A dilemma for the botanical artist immediately becomes apparent. Since accuracy - scientific accuracy - is so basic to the art of botanical illustration, where is there room for art? Can art and science be combined? Or must we choose between these two disciplines? Wilfrid Blunt, in his definitive study The Art of Botanical Illustration, has this to say about the problems of choice between science and art that faces the botanical artist: “The botanical artist finds himself at once and always in a dilemma: Is he the servant of Science, or of Art? There can, I think, be no doubt that he must learn to serve both masters.”4 For some scholars and interpreters of the art of botanical illustration, the dilemma is not so severe: “there are those who believe that aesthetic considerations are inappropriate and beauty is rather an irrelevant side effect, that botanical illustration belongs only to the scientist, and without this scientific accuracy we have only flower pieces of pleasing aesthetic effect.5
The Minnesota School of Botanical Art has been designed to reach the ideal goal of serving both science and art. Courses are offered in how to observe, how to reproduce, how to paint, all based on a firm understanding of the life and limb of the living object, its structure, its place in the plant kingdom, its place in the larger environmental scene. Thus, botanical illustration offers the opportunity to enjoy a true union of two great disciplines. The greatest masters have met the needs of science but also produced aesthetic masterpieces. As Wilfrid Blunt concludes, “The greatest of flower painters are those who have understood plants scientifically, but have yet seen and described them with the eyes and the hand of the artist.”6
1 H. Walter Lack, Garden Eden: Masterpieces of botanical illustration. Tashen, Koln, Germany, 2001, p. 14
2 William T. Stearn, Botanical Masters. Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1990, p. 7.
3 H. Walter Lack, op. cit., p. 14
4 Wilfrid Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1951, p. 3-4.
5 H Walter Lack, op. cit., p. 14.
6 Wilfrid Blunt, op. cit., p. 3-4