Art and Herbaria

For a number of exploratory expeditions, drawings and watercolors were important artifacts produced along with specimens.  One of the most spectacular of these collections contains the drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the new Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816) led by José Celestino Mutis.

Watercolor of Dioscoreas sp., Royal Botanical Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), directed by José Mutis, Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid.

Another notable collection of watercolors were done by Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin during his expedition to the Caribbean (1754-1759), when his efforts to protect specimens from insects, fungi, and other threats failed.  When he returned to Vienna, these drawings were the basis of engravings that were published in a book about his botanical discoveries.

Caesalpinia pulcherrima plate 120 in Jacquin’s Selectarum Stirpium Americanarum Historia, Biodiversity Heritage Library

An alternative to herbarium specimens was to create nature prints.  Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland printed over 400 specimens during their South American expedition when they despaired to preserving plants.  Thomas Horsfield did the same during his travels in Java.

Loranthus nature print from Horsfield #625: Archives and Manuscripts Collection, Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University

Today, botanical illustrations are often based on herbarium specimens, since it is costly to bring an artist along on an expedition.  One of the premier botanical illustrators is Alice R. Tangerini who works at the United States National Herbarium at the Smithsonian.  Now many of her pen-and-ink drawings are available on the web.

Pen and ink illustration by Alice R. Tangerini @Smithsonian Institution, Dept of Botany

There are also artists who are working with herbarium collections and using them as inspiration for their art.  Joanne B. Kaar has mined the collections of the Caithness Horizons museum in Thurso, Scotland during her residencies there.  She was particularly taken with the herbarium of the 19th-century botanist/baker Robert Dick. In response to his work, she created The Portable Museum of Curiosity for which she prepared her own specimen sheets.

The Portable Museum of Curiosity, © 2012, Joanne B. Kaar