The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until December 3) is The Temple of Flora. The show features fifteen large-scale color prints from the illustrated book The Temple of Flora. They reflect the true passion of English doctor John Robert Thornton: botany. In honor of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), Thornton hired eminent artists to produce the engravings, envisioning a series of seventy plates. The extreme cost of hiring top artists to create such labor-intensive prints, however, resulted in the creation of only thirty-three plates, which he released individually between 1799 and 1812. Learn more about what makes these prints so unique with today’s post.
Giving a bouquet of flowers to your sweetheart? You’d probably agree, that’s very romantic!
It makes sense, then, that the prints of flowers from the series known as The Temple of Flora would be Romantic, too, right? Well, kind of.
Notice that I wrote Romantic, with a capital “R”. What does that mean?
Romanticism is one of those “isms” that art historians like to use. These terms provide general information about the style and context of an artwork. They offer guidelines for further exploration. For example, in an earlier post, we learned about the style called Mannerism. Romanticism, like Mannerism, is more complicated than a single term suggests but provides a good starting point.
So, let’s take a closer look at The Temple of Flora and see how these flower prints are Romantic.
Botanical illustrations have a history dating back to the late Middle Ages, when herbalists included hand-drawn pictures of plants next to their medicinal uses. With the introduction of printing in the fifteenth century, artists could easily reproduce their drawings of plants, sometimes hand-coloring the prints.
By the eighteenth century, botanical prints had become standardized: artists showed plants against a plain background, mimicking how actual specimens were stored, on a blank piece of paper.
But this isn’t like the prints from The Temple of Flora at all!
Just compare the botanical print at left with the one above. They are both from the same general time period (the 1790’s), but they look totally different.
The plants from The Temple of Flora are set within colorful and theatrical landscapes rather than against a plain background.
This illustrates how Romanticism contrasts with what came before: the Enlightenment.
During the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reason ruled intellectual inquiry. Knowledge was king. By the second half of the 1700’s, this rational world-view went hand-in-hand with the cool, balanced, and formal style of Neoclassicism, which looked back at the ancient past for inspiration.
By the end of the 1700’s, thinkers, writers, poets, and artists were looking for something new. In contrast to the Enlightenment, Romanticism sees humans as emotional and intuitive beings rather than rational creatures. It was the individual that was important, not enduring truths. Instead of searching the ancient past for artistic insight, Romantics looked for inspiration inside their own minds and outside at nature.
Just look at some of the prints from The Temple of Flora:
Talk about a celebration of the emotional!
Nature is in charge here!
The plants are alive and exciting.
For example, take Tulips above—the way the blooms sit at the front of the picture plane and nod on individual stems resembles a group of people standing around chatting.
The subjects of these prints aren’t specimens pinned to a board for human analysis but are protagonists who interact with the viewer.
Although The Temple of Flora adapts the Romantic style to flower prints, the scientific content is still important. After all, the sponsor of the project, Robert John Thornton, envisioned the series as an ode to the botanist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus himself was an Enlightenment thinker.
Make sure you take some time to look at the prints in The Temple of Flora in person. Their scale, detail, and color will draw you in!
Note: except for Chinese roos, the prints in this post are from The Temple of Flora, or Garden Of Nature, Being Picturesque Botanical Plates of the New Illustration of the Sexual System Of Linnaeus, by Dr. Robert John Thornton.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.