Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The Daily Plant : Thursday, March 11, 2004


Before the days of digital cameras, National Geographic, and the Nature Channel, the botanical world was recorded by professional illustrators. Trained to reproduce plants and flowers with perfect accuracy, botanical artists created drawings that were both informative and beautiful, a fruitful combination of science and art. Parks & Recreation’s Arsenal Gallery is currently displaying "Portraits of a Garden," an exhibition of botanical drawings created by members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Florilegium Society, a group of botanical artists devoted to recording the Garden’s plants. The exhibition, which includes 49 drawings and paintings, features work by some of the country’s most accomplished botanical artists and showcases the diversity of the Garden’s plants in glorious detail.

Typically, botanical drawings are made with pen and ink, watercolor, or gouache, and depict one species on a plain white background. Plants in botanical illustrations do not seem alive; like pinned insects, they appear frozen in perfect detail. In previous centuries, when botanical artists accompanied explorers and scientists on expeditions, botanical drawings were the lay person’s first glimpse at newly discovered plants and flowers. As a result, botanical illustrations became a popular art form. Middle class families decorated their homes with monographs of famous botanical drawings, while aristocratic families commissioned artists to document their collections, forming the first florilegium societies.

Founded in 2000, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Florilegium Society is part of a contemporary renaissance in botanical art. Already nationally known, the Garden’s Florilegium Society boasts over 40 members and joins other prominent botanical art organizations such as the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, the Society of Botanical Artists, and the American Society of Botanical Artists. Thirty-one Society artists are featured in the Arsenal Gallery exhibit. "Portraits of a Garden" is part of the Society’s multi-year effort to create a complete record of all plants grown in the Garden.

Botanical artists join the Garden’s Florilegium Society by donating three "portraits" of Garden specimens to the Society’s permanent collection of botanical drawings. Because Florilegium Society members live all over the world, specimen collectors at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden mail plants and flowers to artists to use as models for their work. Artists collaborate with the specimen collectors to find plants best suited to their artistic styles and interests.

"It’s terrific for both the artists and the Garden," said Pat Jonas, Director of Library Services at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, who keeps track of the Florilegium Society’s artwork and helps assign new subject matter. "Artists get to paint the things they have always wanted to paint, while the Garden gets a beautiful record of its plants."

"Portraits of a Garden" is a beautiful match for Parks & Recreation’s Arsenal Gallery. Not only does it anticipate the many flowers that will soon bloom in City parks, it also encourages visitors to look more closely at plants. A visit to "Portraits of a Garden" will likely inspire many walks in the park, perhaps with a pencil and paper in hand. The exhibit is on view until April 8, after which it will be stored in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Rare Books Room. The entire exhibit can also be viewed online at

                                                                  Written by Hannah Gersen


But under the fake windsounds of the open lanes,
in the abandoned lots below, new grasses sprout,
wild mustard remembers, old gardens
come back stronger than they were,
trees have been left standing in their yards.
Albaricoqueros, cerezos, nogales . . .

Lorna Dee Cervantes,
"Freeway 280," 1981


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