On a number of occasions in this blog I’ve written on the subject of art and botany in relation to herbaria, primarily because the topic interests me and I think it has a number of interesting facets. Apparently some people agree, since I’ve received positive comments about such posts. I see this as an excuse to tackle the topic again. This time I am going to focus on specific articles that deal with the subject in a variety of ways, beginning with a piece by Marianne Klemun (2009), a professor of history at the University of Vienna. She writes about a collection of specimens found by Bruno Wallnöfer (2002) at Vienna’s Natural History Museum. They belonged to the German botanist, ornithologist, and physician H.G. Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879), who became director of the natural history museum in Dresden.
In 1834, Reichenbach began a project that was completed in 1909, 30 years after his death. It was an illustrated guide to the plants of Germany and Switzerland. His aim was to create a reference that could be used by a broad audience. As natural history was gaining attention, there was a need for publications that making it easier for non-specialists to learn about plants, particularly the plants found growing around them. Illustrations would not only make a guide more visually appealing, but would aid in identifying plants the user encountered.
Reichenbach had clear ideas about what such illustrations should look like to do the job. That’s where the Vienna specimens come into the picture. The collection Klemun analyzes was presumably kept separate because the sheets were different from the usual ones in terms of their composition, recorded information, and purpose. The specimen sheets have little written information on them, just the names of the species and the number of the plate illustrating them. This is strong evidence that the collection was made specifically for the purpose of being used as models for botanical art. Another indication is that there are usually added pencil drawings of flowers and fruits, when the specimens lacked them; these additions also appear on the plates. The sheets and the plates are the same size, so there would be no need to enlarge or reduce the drawings. Also, against what was becoming standard practice by this time, there were often several species, or at least several varieties or subspecies, on a single sheet. This allowed for comparison among similar plants and reduced the number of plates, though there were ultimately over 1,000 in the 24 volumes published.
Wallnöfer and Klemun both discuss the processes involved in converting what appears on the sheets into finished drawings for use in engraving the plates. While Reichenbach was assisted by artists, he was himself an excellent artist so he added to and corrected the pencil drawings. Many of the drawn additions were not taken from life but from other illustrations; copying was a common practice at the time, inherited from earlier generations of botanists (Nickelsen, 2006). The composition of a plate was based on a tracing of the specimen, creating an outline that could be filled in. Klemun compared the plant material with the plates and found that the illustrations were frequently simpler than the herbarium sheets. Leaves might be removed, branches cut down, or elements more widely spaced. The flower parts and other additions were carefully placed to avoid clutter, but essentially it was easy to match the illustrations to sheets, and having the plate numbers on the sheets corroborated the comparisons.
Reichenbach saw aesthetic appeal as important to his mission of making botany attractive both as an intellectual pursuit and a pleasant one. In terms of accuracy, Klemun compares his method to that recorded by the botanist Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), who was also an accomplished artist, and worked with, among others, the incomparable Georg Ehret. Trew had the painter make an outline, and Trew compared it to the specimen. He did this again with the completed drawing, and along with the artist, made the comparison yet again with the plate image. This routine is something that is not often recorded but it has been repeated numberless times by botanists and artists in a process that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) call “four-eyed sight,” which I think is a great name for it. Accuracy is the goal, and at each step vigilance is needed to ensure that nothing becomes less clear, less understandable.
Klemun notes that Reichenbach’s ideas about plant morphology were influenced by those of Goethe, who saw the great variety of plant forms as related to an idealized plant form. With this viewpoint, it was important to show not only the form of each species, but how they were related to each other, another reason species were placed next to each other. She also makes the point that Reichenbach used herbarium sheets as “epistemic things,” in the sense that, the 20th-century German molecular biologist and philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997) uses the term. In other words, the specimen is not simply an organism, but one that has been flattened and dried, so in that sense is human-made. It has become a representation of knowledge and a tool for learning more about plants. I find this an interesting idea that links to work by others on the material culture of specimens as human-made artifacts (Pedder-Smith, 2011).
Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.
Klemun, M. (2009). Refined concentration of botanical expert knowledge and images for gaining passions for plants: From the Herbarium to the engraving via tracing. In S. Brauckmann, C. Brandt, D. Thieffry, & G. Müller (Eds.), Graphing Genes, Cells, and Embryos: Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond (pp. 41–55). Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Dordrecht, Springer.
Pedder-Smith, R. (2011). The Glow of Significance: Narrating stories using natural history specimens [Thesis, Royal College of Art]. https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/430/
Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Wallnöfer, B. (2002). Über die Abbildungsvorlagen zu den Kupferstichen von Ludwig Reichenbachs “Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae.” Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie B Für Botanik Und Zoologie, 104, 553–562.