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Redouté: Rose Gardens and Refinement?

Generally speaking, shopping is a dreaded chore. But this week, a treasure appeared on an outing for used books. It was an unexpected bargain. The area I wished to browse at the used bookstore held a crowd of people taking their time looking through the rows of books. There was no way I wanted to cozy up with so many strangers and try to concentrate on book titles. So I ended up one aisle over, looking at cookbooks and gardening manuals.

The very bottom shelf in the gardening section contained a selection of coffee-table books about roses. I sat on the floor and started to read the spines, thinking that maybe a few books about roses might be helpful references for my studio. Then I spotted a copy of Redouté’s Fairest Flowers, an out-of-print collection of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s flower plates. The reproductions in the book are directly from the actual etchings and of high quality. This particular copy was in excellent condition and priced very low. It felt like a rare artifact found on an archeological dig. The bookstore clerks had mistakenly shelved this art book in the garden section, much to my benefit.

I like Redouté’s slightly stylized botanical art. It embodies a sense of order and refinement accurately. At the same time, it is unlike the natural world. The flowers appear perfectly posed and poised. They seem to be smiling for the artist. There are no ragged edges, dying blooms, or wayward petals. He employed an interesting etching technique with hand-laid colors. The results are soft and neat. It is unlike the work of many other botanical artists of the time. I always thought that Redouté was a pampered member of French society, spending his days among royal gardens and drinking tea with ladies. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Art books are good for more than just images. They often give the history behind the art. This printing of Redouté’s Fairest Flowers opens with an introduction by William T. Stearn. Stearn was both a botanist and a literature enthusiast. His biography of Redouté in the introduction is entertaining and informative. I learned that Redouté illustrated the gardens and plant collections of French royalty. However, financial insecurity was ever-present in his life. He depended upon his benefactors to support his art. Unfortunately, this was a difficult time to find art patrons in France.

Like many artists, Redouté did not become rich from his beautiful flower illustrations. In his case, the French Revolution was much to blame. He painted for Queen Marie-Antoinette as her official artist. Then when she died by the guillotine, he gained the favor of Empress Josephine. Josephine was a patron of the arts and particularly interested in funding Redouté. During her patronage, he prospered, buying a country house and garden. When Josephine died, Redouté found himself in debt. Queen Marie-Amelie became interested in his work in 1830. She also funded his art, but the income did not cover his many debts.

Redouté’s biography makes the refinement of his art appear even more remarkable. It also makes it understandable. He painted these perfect, serene flowers during a turbulent time in history. Whether his patrons were dethroned, exiled, or executed, he calmly continued painting flowers. The quiet order of his botanical plates defies the violence of his time. His art underscores the importance of creating when it feels like art has no purpose. It is intriguing to look at the images in the book and consider the conditions under which they evolved.

This book, a bottom-shelf treasure, is a gift for me. It is a reminder of the importance to continue painting, almost as an act of rebellion. It motivates me to persevere and to make art regardless of finances, politics, and acceptance. Art history does that. It connects us to a thread of other artists who bothered with beauty when it did not appear relevant or easy. Finding this book also reminds me to go slowly. Take the time to look in unexpected places for guidance and meaning. Explore the recesses and histories because things are never what they seem.

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