“Stars brought down from heaven": Plants as nature and art
Written with Rob Leopold in mind and originally published as ‘“Stars brought down from heaven”: Plants as nature and art’ in: James D. White and Lugene B. Bruno (eds.), Botanical Watercolors from the Nationaal Herbarium Nederland ( Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania, The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, 2004), 8-13.
Erik A. de Jong
In our modern world of specialization with its specific distinctions between the sciences and the humanities, between nature and art, it is not always possible to return to a mentality that saw both these qualities as intrinsically intertwined. Through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, nature and art were considered to be the prime movers in creation. In things visible and invisible, nature demonstrated artistry, a creative force of Divine origin. Art in its imitation of nature and as a product of human intervention through craft and technology was closely linked to the processes of nature. Nature and art were understood to be in competition or commenting on each other. At other times they were thought of as complementary forces that mixed their distinct characters to become a transformed whole. Metamorphosis was essential for both, since art could take on the role of nature, and nature could be seen, and experienced, as art. As late as 1809, in his novel Die Wahlverwandschaften, Goethe, himself a botanist and scientist of renown, but also a great draughtsman and gardener, termed this process "elective affinity". He took his idea from observing chemical processes where substances are attracted to each other to the exclusion of others, then fuse in such a way that they yield a new substance. The attraction that exists between man and nature may, for example, lead to a change of natural landscape through human art, while art becomes affected through the forces of nature and landscape. In Goethe’s novel, the result of that mutual merging through a process of transformation becomes a landscape garden, where nature has worked with art and art has improved nature, never able to surpass her, yet providing her with specific aesthetic sensibility and experience. With their boundaries effaced, something new has arisen between nature and art — the garden as an original substance, living, vibrant, integral.
Looking at examples of botanical illustration, such as those collected here from the Nationaal Herbarium Nederland we see works of art illustrating nature. We are invited to test our botanical knowledge and curiosity, and if we lack such expertise, we admire the artist and his skill in conveying the essence of a plant. We may be unaware, however, whether we are admiring the beauty of the plant depicted or the technique and talent used to represent: is it nature we see, or art — or perhaps both? It may come to us as a surprise when we realize that such a question arose as soon as a new sensibility towards the natural world came about in the 16th century — an interest in botany developed, the sciences tried to probe the mysteries of nature, and gardens, especially botanical gardens, were seen as collections of both art and nature.
In his colloquium Convivium Religiosum from 1522, Erasmus (1466-1536) unites humanistic friends in the garden of Eusebius. Their dialogue blends classical and Christian themes, involving the significance of nature, who "is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive." In the garden fragrant herbs feast the eyes, refresh the nostrils and restore the soul. Gathered into "companies", they "speak" of their own properties. Around the garden, three galleries are painted, one with a grove of trees and birds, a second with plants, the third with lakes, rivers and seas and their inhabitants. Erasmus confronts living plants and flowers with a painted world of nature. The lesson here is that art may document and improve on nature where she fails and is imperfect, since "a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming." Nor can the garden hold all plants: but they may be depicted and speak that way their language to the eye of the observer. Even more important is Eusebius’ remark that "we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything." It is this purposefulness and ingenuity of both nature and art that is reflected in the garden, too. The geometric design of Eusebius’ garden with its architecture and paintings is as harmonious as the plants assembled with their forms and colors.
Another humanist, Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) from Leiden, more than sixties years later, was struck by the neatness and order in the garden of his friend Langius, combined with the plenty of its living collection of plants. In his On Constancie (a dialogue between Lipsius and Langius, first edition in Latin, 1584), he wrote about the "exquisite neatnesse" of the garden that Langius shows him: "how proportionablie all things [are] disposed in their borders and places, that even checkerworke in tables is not more curious. Againe, what plenty is there of flowers and hearbes? What strangeness and noveltie?" The rare and new specimens of flowers and herbs — the variety of nature — find themselves held together in the firm order of the garden, while the ornamental and curiosity arousing beauty of both is compared with a work of exquisite human workmanship: the inlaid pattern of a wooden tabletop. But this comparison with craft and art is surpassed by another simile, intended to show the artfulness of natural creation. Lipsius calls the garden a heaven and explains: “neither doe the glittering starres shine clearer in a faire night, than your fine flowers glistering and shewing their collours with variety.” The Leiden humanist rephrases here an idea of the Roman garden writer Columella (died around 60 AD), who, in his poem on the garden in the tenth book of his De Re Rustica, wrote that "'tis time to paint the earth with varied flowers, like stars brought down from heaven" (Pingite tunc varios, terrestria sidera flores). Nature is here the true artist: she paints the brilliant, vibrant colors of flowers on the canvas of dark, black earth, just like the Creator as Artifex hung luminous stars on the night’s sky. Lipsius would have been able to verify his ideas on such close connections between nature and art in his own Leiden garden and the botanical garden in that same town, both full of so many new plants. The prefect of the Leiden Botanical Garden, Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), used observation as his method to lay the foundation for the botanical sciences. Describing plants and other naturalia in his Exoticorum Libri Decem (1605), he regularly took recourse to the words pulcher (beautiful), elegans (elegant) and venustas (gracefulness) to write about the objects in front of him. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, new plant introductions, as part of the rising botanical sciences, combined with the making of gardens and collections, continued to be seen in this framework where art and nature were considered close allies.
This particular fascination for rare and unknown plants becomes clear when we realize how their introduction rose formidably through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It is thought that at the beginning of the 16th century roughly a thousand plants were known. At the end of that century the number had increased to around 6,000. In the Netherlands, travel, trade and an increasing scientific and artistic curiosity — part of an international network — were responsible for the introduction of plants from the Mediterranean and Turkey, then America, Asia and Africa. The United Dutch East India Company (founded 1602) was the primary vehicle for plant importation, bringing in plants from Japan, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, North and Central America, South Africa and especially the Cape of Good Hope. The Botanical Garden in Leiden (founded in 1590) saw its collection of plants rising from 1,060 species in 1594 to 1,100 in 1600, 1,500 in 1675, 3,000 in 1685 and 7,000 plants in 1740. Later in the 17th century the Hortus Botanicus of Amsterdam (laid out from 1683 onwards) became another center for the study and diffusion of these new species. Around these two gardens evolved a closely knit network of collectors, which included the princes of Orange, members of the court, as well as rich merchants and administrators. They all used the garden, often accompanied by larger collections of naturalia and artificialia, as an archive, a museum or microcosm of the world of nature and art. Among such collectors we find important women like Agneta Block (1629-1704). She avidly exchanged seeds, roots and plants with botanical gardens and collectors in Holland and Europe and had four hundred plants from her collections at her villa Vijverhof on the river Vecht drawn by such artists as Herman Saftleven ( 1609-1685), Mattias (1627–1703) and his daughter Alida Withoos (1659 or 1660–1715), Willem de Heer (17th c.), Otto Marseus van Schriek (1619–1678), Maria Sibylle Merian (1647–1717) and her daughter Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff (1668–died after 1711). "Fert Arsque Laborque Quod Natura Negat" (Art and labor will achieve where nature is unable to perform), says the inscription on a medal struck in 1700 in Agneta Block’s honor. With her portrait on one side, and Flora on the other, standing in a garden with a tulip in her right hand and surrounded by exotic plants raised by Block in her greenhouse, the medal conveys the message that nature and art are inextricably linked. It is a message that lies also embedded in the botanic drawings of the rare and exotic plant species she had drawn. This was a practice shared by many other amateur and institutional collectors (sometimes draughtsmen themselves) before and after her, like Adriaan van Royen (1705-1779), Abraham Munting (1626-1683), and Nicolaas Meerburgh (1734-1814) at the botanical gardens in Leiden and Groningen and important private garden owners like Simon van Beaumont (1640-1726) and Hans Willem Bentinck (1649-1709), all names we encounter in this exhibition as former owners of the botanical drawings on exhibit.
Describing, recording and documenting species from the natural world by means of art, these drawings promised an accurate depiction of the original, done ad vivum or naer het leven ("after life", as the Dutch terminology had it at the time). Such images were read as an iconic correspondence to the original, ephemeral plant. The great 16th century Italian collector Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) saw scientific illustration as a specialized genre of painting, provided it had been done through close study of the appearance of the living, or freshly cut, specimen. We often speak in this context as art serving science. From the long tradition that postulates an intimate relation between art and nature, we might also interpret this practice as human art in the service of the art of nature, embodying in the artful image all the natural properties of the original. Aldrovandi wrote: "There is nothing on earth that seems to me to give more pleasure and utility to man than painting, and above all paintings of natural things: because it is through these things, painted by an excellent painter, that we acquire knowledge of foreign species." His insight shows that the image was looked at as a true substitute for the original, for reasons of observation, study and identification. Perhaps even more than nomenclature, the image represented the living thing itself, with its medicinal or botanical properties. Agneta Block, as we know, knew no Latin and had thus no access to much of contemporary botanical science, but as an amateur she could, very much in Clusius’ vein, understand the appearance of her plants through the close study of their beauty, elegance and gracefulness in both reality and art. We may now also understand why collections of such images formed an integral part with the living collections in a garden, whether private or a university garden used for teaching. They served as study material and documentation, when rare seeds had only flowered once. Agneta Block refers repeatedly in her letters to her cumbersome, often failing greenhouse experiments, losing carefully raised exotic plants, which but through art could be kept alive in their rarity and splendor. Drawings were studied in winter, as part of the university’s curriculum, when living plants could not be observed in the garden. It is the reason why such collections of drawings were formed by a university like Leiden, as this catalogue testifies. Carefully kept and handed over to next generations, these drawn collections of plants are archival gardens growing over time, documenting years of collecting and study, perhaps in an even more lasting way than collections of living plants that were passed down from generation to generation. Each paper leaf demonstrates that nature and art blend both in the natural original and in the artful nature of its image. Once part of an earth painted with flowers by nature herself, these drawn plants still shine forth "like stars brought down from heaven."