EHRET, Georg Dionysius (1708-1770). Gloriosa Superba. Watercolor on vellum. (1762).
Signed and dated: Ehret Pinxt/1762. 18 11/16 x 13 1/4 inches. This exquisite watercolor of the gorgeous gloriosa superba is by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), one of the eighteenth century's finest, most skilled painters of flowers, whose mastery of the genre is such that his works continue to be highly sought after even today.
The gloriosa superba has a remarkably unique beauty matched only by Ehret’s incredibly refined artistry. Native to tropical Africa and Asia, it has been widely sought after and cultivated abroad, and now grows in many types of habitats, from tropical jungles to forests and woodlands, and even sand dunes. A climbing perennial herb, its stem reaches 4 meters long, and with its long, undulating petals, the gloriosa superba has become variously known as the flame or fire lily, glory lily, superb lily, climbing lily, and creeping lily. Indeed, Ehret seems fascinated by the picturesque possibilities afforded by such a vast plant and he keenly spreads its arabesques across the breadth of the picture space. The gloriosa’s flower is showy, characterized by long stamen and six tepals, generally reaching 5 to 7 centimeters; Ehret captures its fiery character in a dense mass of highly articulated, almost tortuous bright red “flames,” tracing the turns and twists of each edge in a vibrant yellow ochre that knowingly emphasizes their ribbon-like quality. It is, however, the gloriosa’s glorious foliage that most captivates Ehret, and the artist carefully paints the precise linearity and gentle gradations of its smooth, lance-shaped leaves as well as the delicate convolutions of their tendril tips. Across the length of the slender, vine-like stem, Ehret employs beautiful chiaroscuro, using light and shade to emphasize the turns of the leaves and creating a suite of rhythmic juxtapositions that make the plant seem to dance across the vellum.
Ehret, the son of a market gardener, was born in Heidelburg, Germany in 1708. After the death of his father, Ehret was apprenticed to another gardener for three years and worked at a local castle, where he acquired the skills necessary for him to eventually obtain the position of chief gardener for the Elector of Heidelburg and the Margrave of Baden. Ehret's artistic interests developed during his time working for the Margrave, whose prize tulips and hyacinths provided inspiration for his first botanical sketches. Ehret also developed his skills by drawing medicinal plants for the local apothecary. In the early 1730s, Ehret left Germany and moved throughout Europe, making important friends and patrons who helped further his artistic career. He spent two years in France at the Jardin des Plantes, where he met the King's popular and celebrated painter Claude Aubriet. Ehret carefully studied Aubriet's work, and his observations inspired him to begin painting with opaque bodycolor pigments on both paper and vellum.
Among Ehret's other admirers were the Parisian naturalist Bernard de Jussieu and the famed Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whom he met on his travels to Holland. Linnaeus's system of classification is still used in modern taxonomy, and Ehret's works are some of the first drawings to put Linnaeus's classification to use. Ehret and Linnaeus's shared botanical interest sparked a great friendship, and the two worked together to produce Hortus cliffortianus in 1738, a milestone in early botanical literature. Dr. Christoph Trew, a wealthy Nuremburg physician and celebrated natural history enthusiast, was also one of Ehret's closest friends and principal benefactors. Trew became Ehret's greatest patron and most notable collaborator. From 1750 until Ehret's death in 1770, Ehret and Trew worked together on several illustrated volumes, most significantly of Plantae Selectae and Hortus Nitidissimus.
Ehret's works are best known because of his collaborations with Trew, but these engravings do not do justice to Ehret's original paintings, which are extremely vibrant, sensitively colored, and accurately detailed. Indeed, Ehret's original watercolor paintings on both paper and vellum show his unique style of draftsmanship, which simultaneously provides a wealth of scientific information while illustrating the natural beauty of his subjects with delicacy and subtlety. In fact, Ehret became such a skilled and precise draftsman that his friend and colleague Mark Catesby, the famed artist and naturalist, used several of his botanical illustrations for his influential work Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Catesby was inspired by Ehret's distinctive style, his remarkable representation of three-dimensionality, and his ability to depict his flowers with both realism and vitality. In turn, Ehret used some of Catesby's discoveries and observations in his own work. Ehret's work is also highly esteemed because he was one of the first European flower painters to represent exotic flora from the Americas. Although he never did have the opportunity to travel to America, he was captivated by the beautiful, fascinating species of flowers from across the Atlantic which he had seen in natural history collections in England, including that of Peter Collison.
Living and working during the "golden age of botanical art," Ehret's work as a flower painter is truly unparalleled in terms of his representation of scientific detail and his keen sensitivity to the natural beauty of his floral subjects. His distinctive style, exemplified here in his glorious Gloriosa, transcends scientific illustration, achieving a level of beauty that has rarely been equaled in the history of botanical art.
Description provided by Julia Stimac, a specialist in 19th-century art. Julia received her BA from Cornell University and MA from University of Manchester, and she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Please contact Julia at 212-628-7625 to arrange a viewing of this work, or visit Arader Galleries at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York.