EHRET, Georg Dionysius (1708-1770). Hibiscus Study. Watercolor on paper. (ca. 1750-1770).
Inscribed lower left with title. Inscribed lower center: Musk Seed. Inscribed lower right: GD Ehret. 6 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches. Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) counts among history’s finest, most skilled painters of flowers, and his mastery of the genre is such that his works continue to be highly sought after to this day. What sets Ehret’s work apart is his incredible ability to unite meticulous detail with aesthetic sensitivity and brilliant composition, exemplified here in this beautiful botanical watercolor.
Although titled “Habiscus Study,” the work does not actually portray a hibiscus flower, but rather the musk seed, a common name for the flowering shrub Abelmoschus moschatus¸ variously known as musk mallow, annual hibiscus, or tropical jewel hibiscus, to give but a few examples. The genus Abelmoschus consists of flowering plant species native to tropical Africa, Asia, and northern Australia, and was indeed formerly included in the genus Hibiscus, although is now considered distinct. As suggested by the name, which Ehret inscribes under three small brown curlicue seeds, the latter are particularly important for understanding the beauty of this plant, as they emit a flowery, sweet, and heavy scent similar to musk; indeed, the seeds, which can be eaten on their own, have historically been used to flavor foods and coffee, and in perfumes as a substitute for musk itself. Ehret seems to have had the full, potent scent in mind as he went about the composition of this work, for the plant here seems almost to erupt in its frame, its exotic beauty permeating through the picture plane.
Native to India, the Abelmoschus moschatus is a very large plant, growing 2 to 6 feet tall, with showy yellow flowers; Ehret captures the delicacy of its petals by tracing the thin lines of its veins and juxtaposing gentle gradations of cream and light ochre with the deep red-violet that characterizes the center. The wild, deep-green leaves are rendered with a masterful hand adept at developing subtle chiaroscuro, modulating light and shade to evoke gentle undulations upon their slightly waxy surface. The same precision is used for the closed bud, carefully included to frame the flower while elevating the scientific quality of the work, representing as it does the remaining phase of the plant’s life cycle.
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.