A visual collection

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

“Portraits of a Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium” offers a whole garden's worth of beautiful plants and flowers to discover.

Not literal plants, mind you, but there are nearly 50 specimens in the form of original works of art by 48 American botanical artists, who are members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society. The works are on display at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation” in Oakland.

Founded in 2000, the society follows in the centuries-old artistic practice of recording in painting and drawing the many splendid specimens in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is situated on 52 acres in the heart of Brooklyn. It is home to more than 12,000 types of plants and hosts more than 725,000 visitors annually.

“These 48 artists have so far represented 250 plants in the collection,” says Lugene Bruno, curator at the Hunt Institute. “They work with the curators at the garden to select a plant to paint. And an herbarium specimen is collected at the same time. So, there is a visual record, an artistic record and a dried plant specimen record.”

Bruno says that, in effect, they are revitalizing the centuries-old tradition of the florilegium, which began in the 17th century. “A florilegium is a visual collection of plants from a specific garden, a specific exploration or a collection of beautiful and unusual plants that are currently grown in one place.”

A collection of books illustrating various florilegium from 17th through 19th centuries are on display at the entrance to give some context to the exhibition. Here, visitors will find early examples of botanical illustrations by some of the more famous botanical artists throughout history, such as an engraving from “Hortus Eystettensis” (1713) of a narcissus and hyacinth after an original watercolor by Basilius Besler (1561-1629), a German apothecary who was also in charge of the pleasure garden of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen (1561-1612), Prince Bishop of Eichstatt.

Also on display is a hand-finished color stipple engraving of a sweet pepper bush by L. J. Allias (birth and death unknown) after an original by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) for Étienne-Pierre Ventenat's (1757-1808) “Jardin de la Malmaison,” published in Paris, 1803-1804.

Published in two volumes, this engraving was one of 120 illustrating plants in Josephine Bonaparte's famous garden at Malmaison, near Paris. The extensive grounds included ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees acquired from the South American expeditions of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858); the Australia trek of Nichols Baudin (1754-1803); collections made during Napoléon's Egyptian campaign; and plants from nurserymen with contacts in North America and Europe.

By creating a lasting archive of watercolors and drawings of the plants growing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the contemporary artists whose works are on display are immortalizing the plants of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden just as Redouté has done.

For example, a watecolor by John Cody of a cola plant contained in the garden's Tropical pavilion — the largest pavilion of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's conservatories, spanning 6,000 square feet — presents the cola tree as if flowering and fruiting simultaneously.

“He liked the compositional possibilities of the flower cluster, the pod (intact and opened) and the large, simple leaves,” Bruno says, adding that Cody, who is also known for his fascination with moths, “added a nice moth endemic to the same part of Africa as the tree.”

Carol Woodin's artwork also represents a plant in the Tropical Pavilion. A watercolor of an Indian clock vine, it is a real standout because it was painted on calfskin vellum.

The Indian clock vine is a woody-stemmed, evergreen, climbing plant found in the south of Spain and in southern tropical India, says Bruno. “It's cultivated as a popular ornamental plant, grown in tropical and subtropical gardens and in conservatories and greenhouses,” she says. “It often reaches 20 feet tall, and its large, trumpet-shaped flowers bloom from spring to autumn.”

Another standout piece is Gertrude Hamilton's watercolor of ‘Basye's Purple Rose' because the painting includes a realistic portrayal of a rabbit for scale. Often featured in mixed borders and foliage gardens, Bruno says the purple rose is contained in the Cranford Rose Garden.

This spectacular rose garden is one of the largest and most diverse collections of its kind in the United States. “It contains over 1,000 varieties of roses, including wild species, old garden roses, climbers, hybrids and miniatures,” Bruno says. “Many of the original roses planted when the garden opened in 1927 are still present.”

Almost one-third of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's 52 acres is comprised of a vast collection of trees, shrubs and herbaceous ferns. Thus, several examples of leafing trees, conifers and ferns are on display, such as Alice Tangerini's pen-and-ink drawing of an ostrich fern. It hangs not far from Jean Emmons watercolor painting of a flowering stem from an aromatic, flowering shrub called “Hartlage Wine,” otherwise known as “Raulston allspice.”

A new hybrid, Bruno says the “Hartlage Wine” is an “intergeneric hybrid” of the Chinese wax plant.

“This plant was developed by Richard Hartlage while a student at North Carolina University in the early 1990s,” she says. “The plant's unusual name reflects the plant's genetic parentage and the influence of the late horticulture professor J. C. Raulston on Hartlage's work.”

“Raulston allspice, as the plant is known, is an ornamental plant that is well suited for use in borders and hedges and can provide a pop of color to a fall garden.”

The remaining works on display offer just as much insight into the unique florilegium that is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, making for an enlightening exhibit that is as close as possible to visiting the garden itself.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for the Trib Total Media.

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