Though the history of botanical engraving is rooted in science, botanical prints have been treasured as fine art throughout the ages. The art of botanical illustration has origins dating back some two thousand years to the time of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who used botanical motifs in most of their decorative arts.
Until the end of the 16th century, botanical illustration was primarily concerned with the identification of medicinal plants or simples. The beginning of the 17th century saw an aesthetic revolution. Botanical gardens were created for the newly imported tulips, hyacinth, and lilacs from the Turkish Empire, together with the newly introduced lilies, narcissus and anemones. Flowers became appreciated for their ornamental virtues rather than their medicinal value and the flower garden became an area for enjoyment. The expansion of trade and empire resulted in the importation of exotic species which became conspicuous luxury items.
The documentation of these new plants gave birth both to the science of plant classification and the sumptuously produced botanical text books that celebrated these new private gardens and their treasures. Collections of flower paintings in books were known as florilegiums and were published for the first time in the early 1600s. These books were luxurious expressions of privilege serving as “indoor gardens,” preserving for all time and season the fragile beauty of the botanical subjects.
Certainly the most famous illustrated natural history work of the early 18th century was created by Maria Sybilla Merian who devoted herself to the study of European insects and their metamorphoses. A wealth of tropical insects had been brought to Amsterdam from South America and the Caribbean by the Dutch West Indies Company. The fifty-two year old Maria Sybilla decided to travel to the colonial outpost of Surinam ( Dutch Guiana ) in 1699 to study and paint the insect life there. Although this was quite revolutionary, Maria and her daughter Dorothea, spent two years studying, drawing, and recording plants and insects under decidedly difficult conditions. They returned to Amsterdam with finished drawings, sketches and specimens from which they published Metamorphoses Insectorum Surinamensium, easily the most magnificent work on insects ever produced. Merian is always included in discussions of botanical art, as her contribution is the rare combination of both science and art. With a minuteness of observation and an artistic sensibility, her detailed drawings are charming, as popular today as they were when first issued in 1726.