by Hu Walsh, Library Volunteer
Pierre Joseph Redouté was among the greatest -- perhaps
the greatest floral illustrator of all time. He contributed over
fifty illustrations to Bonpland’s. Description des plantes rares
cultivées á Malmaison et á Navarre. That artists of
the age linked with prominent botanists is no surprise, and "Thus
Redouté drew under the eyes of L’ Héritier, Desfontains, de Candolle,
Vetenanat, Bonpland and Kunth." (2:291)
Redouté used various techniques to produce magnificent works:
applying colors to engraving plates separately by hand for superior
printed illustrations; brushing each printed illustration with final
touches of color for vibrancy; and using subtle graduations of color
with occasional strokes of stronger body color in paintings. Rembrandt’s
use of enlightened tonal subtleties in portraiture was caught by Redouté
in floral illustration.
Pierre was born in 1759, into a family of church artists in the small
Belgian village of St. Hubert. They had a hard time of it financially,
so to reduce his parent’s burden and seek his fortune as a painter, Pierre
left the nest at the tender age of 13. For the next decade the young
itinerant artist took to the road, following in his father’s footsteps,
decorating churches and occasionally painting an aristocrat’s portrait.
This man who loved flowers had dreamed of life in Paris. When a letter
arrived from his brother inviting Pierre to join him in the "City of
Lights," his dream came true. Antoine-Ferdinand wanted Pierre’s
assistance in decorating a new theatre. Now Pierre could concentrate on
flowers, spending practically all his spare time painting blooms in the
King’s Garden. One day Pierre met Charles L’Héritier, prominent magistrate
and botanist who became his teacher, benefactor, and friend. It was
L’Héritier who taught him to balance artistry with scientific reality,
and first published his illustrations.
His reputation as a gifted painter grew, eventually attracting the
attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who chose him to decorate the walls
of her own small palace with his exceptionally beautiful floral pictures.
But these were tumultuous times, and soon France was overtaken by
Revolutionaries who put the regents in prison to await the guillotine.
Then a curious thing happened. Late one night, Pierre was summoned to
Marie’s cell. She asked him to do a painting of her favorite cactus plant
due to flower on the stroke of twelve. Pierre captured the lovely bloom
in watercolor and departed, having seen Marie for the last time.
While painting for Les Liliacées, one of his most famous
works, the Empress Josephine invited Pierre to paint pictures for
Malmaison, the Bonaparte’s country palace. Impressed with his artistry,
she designated him "Painter to the Empress," and attached to
it a generous annual retainer. Redouté was now among France’s top
artists. The first installment of Les Liliacées was a
financial and artistic success. He purchased a country home, and moved
his wife, Marie-Martha and their daughter Josephine into a tasteful city
apartment with a well-lit studio for the artist and spacious rooms for
Wealthy ladies flocked to the studio for lessons from the master to
enhance their refinement, if not their artistic gifts. There was plenty
of money, and despite Marie-Martha’s protests, he spent lavishly. Pierre
also was generous, perhaps to a fault, but nothing was put aside for a
rainy day. Unwittingly the seeds of financial disaster were being sewn,
as Redouté became the victim of shifting political scenes, his
unfailing generosity, and especially his naïveté in money
management. The family would pay heavily for this.
Pierre began work on Les Roses. It was destined to be his premier
achievement--a collection of gorgeous illustrations of his favorite flower.
The project reunited Pierre and Josephine through his frequent visits to
the rose gardens at Malmaison. A rose lover like Pierre, Josephine delighted
in adding new plants that became available. On a visit to the garden one
day, he was devastated to learn of Josephine’s death the previous evening.
Although her heirs invited Pierre to remian official painter at Malmaison,
they were forced to cancel his annual retainer.
Redouté was plagued with money problems: the ministry grant for the
final installment of Les Liliacées was cut by half; financing
Les Roses by himself was too expensive, forcing him to contract with
a professional publisher and give up some of his rights; and, the family’s
unpaid bills were mounting. To get the ready cash he needed, Pierre
mortgaged the country home. But this was not the end of it. There also were
problems with Les Roses. The large-format edition was an artistic
triumph, but a dismal financial failure. So high were production costs that
even the nobility could not afford to purchase it. Later, a small-format
edition followed which was popular and affordable, but paradoxically only
around 250 sets were published. Pierre then discovered that the wrong names
for new plants were used in the first installments of the book, and botanists
criticized him for this blatant mistake.
The situation went from bad to worse. He was forced to sell some
prized-pieces from his furniture collection; and worse, he had to part with
some of his original paintings, including those for Les Roses.
Unfortunately this yielded only enough income to pay the Redouté’s most
When things were darkest, two distinguished honors were bestowed on
Redouté. King Charles X awarded him the French Medal of Honor in 1825,
and later at age 74, Pierre received the Distinguished Order from King
Leopold of Belgium. Coming from his native land, this must have touched
At 81, Pierre was still in his studio painting flowers and tutoring
students, but late one evening in 1840, his life ended as he was correcting
a student’s painting. And so this humble, gifted man, who wanted nothing
more from life than to paint flowers, was laid to rest.
October 23, 2003
- Barnhart, John Hendley [comp.]. Biographical Notes Upon Botanists.
Volume 3. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1965.
- Blunt, Wilfrid, and William A. Stearn. The Art of Botanical Illustration.
New Edition revised and enlarged. New York: The Antique Collector’s Club
in Association with The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, 1994.
- Ridge, Antonia. The man who painted roses: the story of Pierre-Joseph
Redouté. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.
- Sanders, Gill. Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical
Illustration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
- 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.
- 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: Sotheby’s, 1976.
- _________. Catalog for Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Lilacées.
New York: Sotheby’s, 1985.
- _________. A Magnificent Collection of Botanical Books Being The Finest
Colour-Plate Books from the Celebrated Library of Robert De Belder. London:
- Stevenson, Allan, [comp.] Catalog of Botanical Books in the collection
of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt: Volume II, part II. Printed Books 1701-1800.
Pittsburgh, PA: The Hunt Botanical Library, 1961.
- Tomasi, Lucia Tongiorgi. An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustration from the
Fifteenth Century to the Present Time. Upperville, Virginia: Oak Spring Garden