By Hu Walsh, Library Volunteer
Georg Dionysus Ehret was the foremost botanical illustrator
during the middle years of the eighteenth century (2:159) His works,
created for both scientists and connoisseurs, are distinguished by the
"unique viewpoint of one of the greatest artists in the history of
botanical illustration." Having worked as a youth for Linnaeus and
other eminent botanists of time, Ehret had a profound knowledge of plant
structure that he used to create flower paintings in which subject matter
dominated the painting with truly impressive force (9:153).
Johann Weinmann, a German pharmacist and botanist, commissioned Ehret
as an apprentice to create drawings for Phytanthoza Iconogaphica,
and exploited him mercilessly. Not a generous man, it was said he hired
Ehret at shamefully low wage. Worse, he then paid Ehret only half the
amount agreed upon for a yearís work because the illustrator had produced
only 500 illustrations, while Weinmann claimed that he had expected twice
that many. This expectation was unreasonable because to achieve it the
artist would have had to complete three drawings daily, seven days a week
for an entire year(5:358). Ehret left Weinmann and easily found employment
elsewhere under vastly improved conditions.
As a result of family and professional links with the Chelsea Botanical
Garden in London, Georg Dionysus Ehret was in an ideal position to produce
many portraits of its new arrivals and exotics. Approximately 100 of his
best studies, drawn from living plants, appeared in Trew's Plantae
Selectae, including bananas, papaya, night-flowering cereus and the
American Turk's-cap lily (10:73). Trew was so pleased with Ehret that he
became one of the young artistís strongest supporters, and used his
influence to secure important commissions for him.
German by birth, Ehretís beginnings were obscure and humble. His father,
Ferdinand Christian Ehret, was a gardener with a talent for drawing, and he
apparently was his sonís first teacher. His mother was Anna Maria Ehret.
The father died at an early age, whereupon the son was apprenticed to a
disagreeable uncle in a distant city who also was a gardener. These were
years of drudgery for the talented draftsman, but fortunately there were
plenty of flowers available to use in perfecting his drawing skills.
Ehretís gift was that of keen observation, a steady hand, and perseverance
to cultivate his skill at as a draftsman (3:13).
Ehret wrote his autobiography when he was fifty years old, yet he failed
to relate how he mastered his craft. What he does reveal is his nature -
that of an essential student - always learning: how he acquired botanical
knowledge, which books he read, and whose advice he heeded. He demanded
respect for his knowledge, for it would make a difference in his social
standing whether he was recognized as a technician or as a member of the
scientific community, and he much desired the latter.
Ehret spent 1734-35 in France, then left for England where he met Sir
Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society, and Philip Miller, curator
of the Physick Garden in Chelsea. Both men provided the artist with
sufficient commissions to keep him busy for a period of time (3).
Eventually, though, the commissions dwindled and the artist was ready for
new challenges, which he found in the land of masterful artists and
impressive botanical gardens.
In Holland Ehret met Linnaeus, and became the artist most associated
with the distinguished botanist. It was he who contributed the plates
for Hortus Cliffortianus, the account of the rare plants in the
garden of wealthy Amsterdam banker, George Clifford. Linnaeus labored
day and night writing, studying, and classifying specimens according to
his newly developed taxonomy. So much so that his health was jeopardized
at times by this grueling work schedule. At one point, Linnaeus reached
the amazing goal of publishing 14 volumes in three years(3:45). Ehret
seems to have been infected with this rapid pace, for he finished twenty
plant portraits out of the thirty required for Hortus Cliffortianus
in just over a monthís time.
But author and draftsman differed on how some things should be done.
For instance, the botanist criticized the artist for failing to include
items like the stamen, pistil and other small details, which the Ehret
argued, would spoil the illustration. In the end Ehret gave in. In fact
he became so fond of detailing that this viewpoint became a trademark of
his illustrations from then on (10:89).
Artists and botanists joined in praising the quality of Ehretís work,
"If he has not the exquisite sensibility of DŁrer, the enamel-like
finish of Robert, or the poetic charm of Redouté, he has none the
less the quality of his own particular qualities - a sureness of touch,
vigour of handling, and unerring instinct for design ..." (2:163).
Ehret returned to England in 1736, where he became a sought-after
illustrator of botanical books. Patronage by wealthy collectors was
essential to his survival. His most productive period was creating
hundreds of colored drawings in the 1790s (3:66). England was his home
for the rest of his life. He died in London at the age of 62.
September 14, 2002
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