Collection de botanique
Balthasar Cattrani began his career illustrating plants in the Botanical Garden of Padua, and the style of the paintings he produced there is similar to those found in the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi has demonstrated, however, that the paintings at Dumbarton Oaks were made for Eugène de Beauharnais, son of Joséphine Bonaparte, and were most likely painted at the family’s estate, Malmaison. Dumbarton Oaks has two series of paintings, acquired separately and totaling over 450 images. Further items from the same group are now in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Others still occasionally appear for sale.
Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi writes in An Oak Spring Herbaria, “The artist shows his innate talent for the composition of large and airy pictures. The plants . . . are portrayed in a frontal view and enhanced by the addition of such significant elements as the seeds or flowers in enlarged detail.” They resemble herbarium specimens affixed to a page, although of course they have been elevated and abstracted in the process of being painted on vellum.
Collections such as this one can be categorized as imperial in scope. The collection of paintings originally numbered 1,640 in 24 volumes, encompassing plants both new and common to Europe. Perhaps this broad scope is also what makes this sort of collection most botanical; inasmuch as it was an effort to document a particular collection comprehensively, the artist was doing a service to science, especially in the case of plants recently introduced to Europe. Although some illustrations include morphological details, the paintings have been separated from whatever text may have originally accompanied them, and so it is impossible to say whether they were intended to be supplemented by information on taxonomy and habitat.
The similarities to Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who also documented Malmaison, are apparent in everything from the double-ruled black border to the confident use of space on the page. Pancrace Bessa, Redouté, and Cattrani are all examples of the fine botanical illustrations executed for wealthy (often royal) French patrons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This particular group of Cattrani paintings, never adapted into a printed edition, has received less scholarly attention than similar works by Redouté. But it is part of the same tradition of prestigious botanical illustrations that glorified the owners of important gardens while documenting the successful cultivation of a wide variety of plants.
Tongiorgi Tomasi, Lucia, and Tony Willis. An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries: A Selection of the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Works of Art in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon. Edited by Mark Argetsinger. Translated by Lisa Chien. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library, 2009.
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