Rare Book of the Month: Redouté’s Royal Roses

(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.)

Frontispiece portrait of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, (1759-1840) from "Les Roses." Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Frontispiece portrait of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, (1759-1840) from “Les Roses.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

When Pierre-Joseph Redouté put together his three-installment publication (1817-1824) “Les Roses” in Paris, he created a thing of great beauty as well as a scientific compendium on the botany of roses. Commissioned by the Empress Josephine, this work is a reflection of what was considered fashionable and visually appealing in royal circles at the time. Redouté was even the court artist for Marie Antoinette and other royalty.

Making use of an understanding of botany and a painterly eye, Redouté created a work that chronicles an interesting time in history – when art and science intersected to produce a work that was both educational and attractive.

Dutch in origin, Redouté (1759-1840) was a product of the Flemish school of still-life painting. This style required an eye trained and focused on depicting botanicals in what was considered their most true and beautiful form. Redouté conferred with the most learned of botanists of his day to accurately depict the various components of the rose. Botanical illustration strove to document in a photographic manner but through the lens of romantic notion. The results record gentle beauty in great detail.

Redouté used Empress Josephine’s own garden at Malmaison for inspiration to create “Les Roses,” and the result is more than 250 beautiful illustrations of a variety of roses. The Empress was an avid gardener and wished to transform Malmaison into a sanctuary for study of the rose, along with other flowering plants. She purchased countless rose varieties and contributed to the popularity of the rose, as well as to the propagation of varieties of roses that make up many roses gardens to this day.

Rose illustration from "Les Roses":  Rosa Gallica Officinalis. Rosier de Provins ordinaire. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Rose illustration from “Les Roses”: Rosa Gallica Officinalis. Rosier de Provins ordinaire. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

When Redouté was finished with his rose watercolors, he had the paintings transferred into engravings. In all, 170 prints were produced, accompanied by the commentary of botanist Antoine-Claude Thory, who attempted to describe the genus and variety of all roses contained in the work.

“Les Roses” is still referenced to identify-lesser known antique varieties of roses, as it is nearly exhaustive in its catalogue. However, “Les Roses” is primarily lauded as one of the masterpieces of botanical illustration. The beauty, delicacy and accuracy of each flower portrayed is unsurpassed by any other botanical illustrator.

“Les Roses” was quite expensive to produce and because of this, not many copies were made. Only the very wealthy would have the means to acquire a copy of the work. Thanks to the collector Lessing J. Rosenwald, the Library of Congress has a copy of this incredible work to offer. “Les Roses” has been fully digitized and is available for all to appreciate. Like the rose itself, it is not only for the eye of aristocracy but is available to all who wish to behold the visions of beauty that Redouté created.

Rose illustration for "Les Roses": Rosa Sulfurea. Rosier jaune de souffre. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Rose illustration for “Les Roses”: Rosa Sulfurea. Rosier jaune de souffre. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Library offers several resources related to botany and botany illustration through the Science, Technology and Business Division, including selected Internet resources on the topic of botanyEconomic Botany: Useful Plants and ProductsPlant Exploration and Introduction and this video on plant hunters.

The Library’s collection of Garden and Forest: A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art, and Forestry (1888-1897) offers digital copies of a weekly periodical. In total, the full 10-volume run of Garden and Forest contains approximately 8,400 pages, including more than 1,000 illustrations and 2,000 pages of advertisements.

To preview a listing of some the Library’s other images of botanical illustration, search for “botanical illustration.” Many of the supplied images are from the Prints and Photographs Division and are of individual prints or were captured from pages of books on the topic of botany.

(Every month, the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division will highlight a unique book from its collections, and the Library of Congress blog will take an in-depth look at the historical volume. Make sure to check back again next month!)

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