EHRET, Georg Dionysius. Swallowtail Butterflies. Watercolor on vellum. 1751.
This subtly splendid watercolor of swallowtail butterflies is by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), one of the finest natural history painters of 18th-century Europe. Ehret's work stands as a preeminent accomplishment of European natural history art, and the reasons for this acclaim are immediately evident in the virtuoso draftsmanship and nuanced coloring of this work. Among fine, almost lace-like leaves and branches, four swallowtail butterflies dance about, parading their remarkable features for all to see. Their delicate stage of branches and leaves is modulated with the most economically placed strokes—just enough to suggest form and no more—allowing the full effect of the butterflies’ beauty to come to the fore.
Each butterfly is a dazzling display of scientific accuracy and highly developed artistic sensibility. With a very fine brush, Ehret carefully traces the body and antennae of each one, as well as the dainty, lattice-like veins of their wings. The wings themselves are achieved through the artist’s remarkable mastery over his medium. Unlike paper, vellum is not porous, and the watercolor sits on top of its support rather than seeping in. Ehret exploits this aspect to develop the rich, ink-like quality of the blacks and browns, but he also shows off the fluidity of his medium in his magnificent handling of color, as with the striking cyan that gently morphs into a brilliant royal blue. As though calling attention to this remarkable display of technical facility, Ehret deftly articulates the supple, undulating edges of the butterflies’ wings, stressing the uniquely forked appearance of the hindwings which gives the swallowtail butterfly its name.
Born in Heidelburg to a market gardener, Ehret began his working life as a gardener's apprentice, eventually becoming a chief gardener for the Elector of Heidelburg and the Margrave of Baden, whose prize tulips and hyacinths he painted. Ehret soon moved on to a number of cities across Europe, collecting eminent friends and important patrons as he traveled. His list of benefactors included the most brilliant and celebrated natural history enthusiasts of his day, among whom was Dr. Christopher Trew, a wealthy Nuremberg physician who became his lifelong patron, friend and collaborator. From 1750 until Ehret’s death in 1770, he and Trew collaborated on the publication of the important illustrated volumes “Plantae Selectae” and “Hortus Nitidissimus,” both of which added to the rising acclaim for the artist's considerable talents as a botanical painter. Also among Ehret's admirers were the Parisian naturalist Bernard de Jussieu and the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, and Ehret's illustrations are some of the first works to reflect the Linnaean system of classification.In England, where he eventually settled, Ehret became the only foreigner to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Though Ehret's work is best known through printed illustrations done in collaboration with Trew, even his impressive engravings cannot compare with the vibrancy, color, and detail of the original paintings. Only in his remarkably sensuous and accurate watercolors is the full extent of his mastery and sensitivity clear. Ehret's delicate modulations of tone and shadow bring a vitality to this exquisite original watercolor, belying its ostensibly documentary purpose. His distinctive style transcends scientific illustration, achieving a level of beauty that has rarely been equaled in the history of botanical art. This watercolor is further distinguished for being in exceptional condition, untrimmed, with vivid, bright color. Ehret’s flawless depiction of swallowtail butterflies represents an opportunity to obtain an incomparably beautiful original work by one of the central figures of European natural history painting. Signed and dated lower right: G. D. Ehret. Pinxit. 1751. 201/2 x 141/2 inches. Framed: 32 x 25 ¾ inches. Watercolor on vellum.