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  Georg Dionysus Ehret
1708 - 1770

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.

By Hu Walsh, Library Volunteer
September 14, 2002



  1. Barnhart, John Hendley [comp.]. Biographical Notes Upon Botanists. Volume 3. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1965.
  2. Blunt, Wilfrid, and William A. Stearn. The Art of Botanical Illustration. New Edition revised and enlarged. New York: The Antique Collectorís Club in Association with The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, 1994.
  3. Calmann, Gerta. Ehret, Flower Painter Extraordinary. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977.
  4. Henry, Blanche. British Botanical and Horticultural Literature Before 1800. Part II The Eighteenth Century History. London: Oxford University Press, 1975. Johnson, Stanley H. Jr. [comp.]. The Cleveland Herbal, Botanical, and Horticultural Collections. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1992.
  5. Sitwell, S., and Wilfrid Blunt. Great Flower Books 1700-1900 A Bibliographical Record of Two Centuries of Finely Illustrated Flower Books. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
  6. Sotheby, Parke, Bernet, and CO. Catalog of the Magnificent Botanical Library of the Stiftung fur Botanik Vaduz Leichtenstein, Collected by the late Arjpad Plesch. Part 3 q-z. London: Sothebyís, 1976.
  7. ________. A Magnificent Collection of Botanical Books Being The Finest Colour-Plate Books from the Celebrated Library of Robert De Belder. London: Sothebyís, 1987.
  8. Stevenson, Allan, [comp.] Catalog of Botanical Books in the collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt. Volume II, parts II. Printed Books 1701-1800. Pittsburgh, PA: The Hunt Botanical Library, 1961.
  9. Blunt, Wilfrid. Linnaeus: The Complete Naturalist. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. 103-105.
  10. Tomasi, Lucia Tongiorgi. An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time. Upperville, Virginia: Oak Spring Garden Library, 1997.
  11. Sanders, Gill. Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Digitized Works:
Plantae selectae quarum imaginesillustrator
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