Immortalising the ephemeral: The painter, his patrons and their plants


I bet you thought Redoute only painted roses! Cactus grandiflorus from Plantarum historia succulentarum

I wrote recently about the gardens and the greenhouse that Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, created at Malmaison near Paris.   Employing some of the leading botanists and gardeners in France, and never short of a franc or two, the empress was able to give rein to all her wildest horticultural desires.  However she knew that gardens are ephemeral and  she was equally  determined that her collection would not be forgotten.

Talleyrand, the cynical French diplomat who acted, amongst other things, as Napoleon’s foreign minister was asked whether Josephine had intelligence. He  replied that no-one managed as brilliantly without it as she did.  However her way of ensuring that the garden at Malmaison lives on eternally gives the lie to that.

These days her way of capturing her garden and its rare plant collection would  be endless photographs, video clips on YouTube and probably a TV programme or two hosted by a prominent TV celeb gardener.

These were not choices open to Josephine. Instead she had to make do with choosing the best botanical artist then alive to paint them and publish the result. By choosing Pierre-Joseph Redouté the job was done, and Malmaison and its plant collection [not just its roses] are still remembered , even though the gardens really only lasted about 25 years.

If that’s not intelligence I’m not sure what is!


Given that Josephine only bought Malmaison in 1799 it was a sign of how much she had already invested in her garden  when as early as 1803 she commissioned “Le Jardin de la Malmaison” a book which would describe the best plants growing there. To illustrate it she chose Pierre-Joseph Redouté who she had met a couple of years earlier shortly after her marriage to Napoleon.   Born in the Ardennes in what is now Belgium, Pierre-Joseph was taught to paint by his father, who was also an artist. As a young man he travelled around  the Low Countries trying to earn his living as an artist, and during that time discovered the great Dutch  flower painters. This must have stood him in good stead because he was already  painting flowers when, in 1782,  he travelled to work with his brother, a  theatrical scenery painter in Paris.

Once there he managed to sell some of his work to Jean-Louis Chereau, a major Parisian print dealer. Chereau had some of these engraved  and the prints were noticed by two bigwigs involved with the  Jardin du Roi.   One, Gérard van Spaëndonck  was Flower Painter to the King, and the other was Charles Louis L’Héritier,  a senior magistrate, amateur botanist and follower of Linnaeus  who was at the centre of a network of elite scientists and horticulturists.  He would be even better known had he not been murdered in 1800.


The two encouraged Pierre-Joseph, teaching him new painting techniques and plant anatomy, before  L’Heritier commissioned him to produce 50 drawings to illustrate  his book Stirpes Novae (New Plants) which was published in 1784-85.

Through L’Heritier Redouté also met members of the court and finally Marie Antoinette. She didn’t ask for painting lessons but rather a series of paintings of the flowers in her garden to hang in the mock-rustic cottages at Le Hameau, her play village in the grounds of Versailles.  For this Redouté was given the grand title of  “Draughtsman and Painter to the Queen’s Cabinet”.  Of course, on the verge of the Revolution, this wasn’t necessarily a great career move.

 L’Heritier visited England in 1787  and Redouté joined him later to produce drawings for another of his books Sertum Anglicum  (An English Garland) describing  rare plants growing in the royal gardens at Kew which was published in 1788.

Redouté stayed for part of the time with his patron  in an apartment on Broad Street in Soho, an easy walk to the home of Sir Jospeh Banks, President of the Royal Society, and effective overseer of the royal gardens.   He met Banks and his protégé, James Edward Smith, who had, at Banks’ suggestion, four years earlier  managed to buy the library and herbarium of the great Linnaeus and who was to go on and found the Linnaean Society.

L’Heritier also introduced Redouté to James Lee of  the Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith. Apart from being a nurseryman Lee had translated Linnaeus’ work about  the sexual classification of plants from Latin into English.   The  two men obviously got on well  and for the rest of his  time in London Redouté stayed with James Lee  in Hammersmith, which was  conveniently on the way to Kew.

Lee and his business partner John Kennedy were later to supply large quantities of plants to Josephine at Malmaison.

Perhaps equally significantly Redouté met English botanical painters and also London’s leading engraver, Francesco Bartolozzi. Bartolozzi seems to have introduced the young Frenchman  to the “crayon manner” technique of stipple engraving. By using tiny dots to mark the printing plate rather than the more normal lines the artist was allowed more subtle variations in colouring, a greater range of shadow and light, as well as extraordinary luminosity in a printed image.  It was a technique that Redouté was to use later to excellent  effect as some of the details I’ve included show very well, but it becomes  even clearer if you follow the links and enlarge the images even further.

Returning from London  in 1788 Redouté was appointed to the staff of the Jardin du Roi as a painter for the King’s Library.  He carried on  working with L’Heritier, illustrating 4 more of his books. At the same time he studied with van Spaendonck, in particular learning how, rather than painting with gouache on  parchment, to  paint in pure watercolour on vellum, which was the traditional way that plants in the royal garden were captured – as Velins du Roi -for the archives.  This, according to Wilfred Blunt allowed him to use “pure water colour, gradated with infinite subtlety and very occasionally touched with body-colour to suggest sheen” (The Art of Botanical Illustration, 1967).  Redouté also learned  the principles of plant  dissections, and how to draw every part of the plant so that his work was of value scientifically as well as aesthetically.

Sempervivum arachnoidium from Plantarum historia succulentarum

Spaendonck soon acknowledged that Redouté’s   work was better than his own.

Redouté survived the upheavals of the Revolution  working at the Museum of Natural History and  the Academy of Sciences, before meeting Josephine in 1798, the year before she bought Malmaison. Throughout all this time  Redouté was working on the illustrations for other  books by prominent botanists.

Perhaps the most significant botanically was one that his patron  L’Héritier had long wanted to publish: a book on succulent plants.   Unfortunately the Revolution destroyed L’Heretier’s  fortune and he was unable to  proceed. However an enterprising publisher  stepped in. Another of L’Heritier’s protégés  Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, was asked to write the text while Redouté provided the images. The first section of Plantarum historia succulentarum  was published in 1799, with publication continuing intermittently until 1837. This was the first botanical publication for which Redouté was the sole artist and the first to utilise stipple-engraved plates.

Other books Redouté illustrated during the revolutionary period included one on forestry and trees by Henry Louis Duhamel du Monceau; : Traité des Arbres et des Arbustes qui se cultivent [en Pleine Terre] en France. This came out in 44 parts between 1800—1819 illustrated with colour plates by Redouté,  including 42 of Australian trees and shrubs.

Another about American oak trees  by Andre Michaeux, a pioneer plant hunter in the Americas,  came out in 1801 with fine black and white illustrations.

As an interesting aside you might have thought that all these contributions would have been recognised by his publishers but in fact Redouté’s name rarely appears on the title pages of any of these books. Perhaps a side-effect of the lack of value attached to botanical art – or an imbalance between author and artist.

Elite horticultural circles were quite small and it can’t have been long before Redouté met Etienne Pierre Ventenat who was also a friend of L’Héritier. Ventenat was an up-and-coming botanist and member of the Académie des sciences,  but he was also to become an advisor to Josephine at Malmaison. The two men worked together on a description of the plants growing in the garden of Jacques-Martin Cels an amateur botanist and plant collector.  Ventenat wrote the text for    Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues, which was published in 1799 and had  84 black and white plates by Redouté.   They  later  worked together on a follow-up:  Choix de plantes don’t la plupart sont cultivées dans le jardin de Cels published in 10 parts between 1803 and 1808.

Ventenat’s brother Louis, another botanist, had been chaplain to the pioneering French expedition to Australia in 1791, led by Entrecasteaux, which also included the naturalist Jacques Labillardière and the gardener Félix Delahaye.   Delahaye became Josephine’s  head gardener at Malmaison and she also sponsored the publication of the report of expedition which  had bought back  the kangaroos and black swans  as well as the seeds of many Australian plants which found their way to  Malmaison.

These formed the focus for the book she commissioned from Ventenat [who was appointed  ‘Botanist to Her Majesty’]  and Redouté [who was  appointed  ‘Painter to Josephine, Empress of the French] ’  in which her   ‘best plants were to be described’.  Of the 120 plates, all drawn by Redouté, 46 are of Australian species.  The choice must have been difficult because in some cases the gardeners didn’t even know when the plant might flower and if it did what to expect in terms of colour, shape or fragrance.

Eventually  about 150 copies of “Le Jardin de la Malmaison” were published in 20 groups each of 6 plates between 1803 and 1805. Josephine was so pleased that when the final set of plates was published she had her portrait painted with the completed and bound volume.

detail of Pngamia glabra from Le Jardin de la Malmaison



The success of “Le Jardin de la Malmaison”  led to Josephine commissioning a second volume from the two authors, although Ventenat died in 1808 probably of overwork.

His place as author was taken by another great botanist who was also advising at Malmaison: Aimé Bonpland.  He had just returned to France having spent 5 years or so travelling in the Americas with Alexander von Humboldt [and ought to be the subject of a blog of his own..maybe one day]

As is often the way in gardens politics and events intervened.

In 1809 Napoleon divorced Josephine – he needed an heir –  and by way of compensation,  apart from Malmaison gave her another great estate at Navarre near Evreux. Although she never spent much time there she did  begin to reorganise its grounds and lay out more grand gardens a l’anglaise.

Protea radiata from A Description of rare plants

325 copies of Description des plantes rares cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre were finally printed in 11 parts between 1812 and 1817.

The 64 colour plates included many Australian plants but, interestingly, a larger number of South African specimens.






Josephine also encouraged and supported Redouté in another of his projects,  an account of the  Lily family [in its widest sense]  which stretched to about 500 colour plates, all stipple-engraved and  then hand-finished.  It covered not just just lilies but many other monocots such as Iris and Amaryllis which were then thought all to be in the same plant family, and most of which were growing  at Malmaison.  Les Liliacées was published in stages between 1802 and 1816 with text mostly  by Candolle.


Interestingly by this point Redouté was important [or bossy] enough to insist that only his name should go on the title page rather than sharing the honour with the authors of the descriptions. Maybe that was to make up for his omission in earlier publications?

Most famously of course Josephine and Malmaison are associated with roses.  The gardens there contained more than 500 varieties,  including some tender ones which were cultivated in pots and overwintered in the greenhouses. The empress commissioned Redouté to draw these too and about half  were immortalised  in Les Roses,  although Josephine died before the first part, with text by Claude Thory  appeared in 1817.  Les Roses went through 3 editions before 1828.

  If you were judging a book by its cover you probably wouldn’t have opened any of them because they are without exception plain and dull. That’s becasue they were issued in parts, with an almost plain wrapper, designed to be finished and bound to suit the buyers taste and library style. If and  when you do, and you then  examine the images closely its impossible not to gasp in admiration because although Redoute is not a flamboyant illustrator his work shows  extreme accuracy, delicate detailing and a real understanding of not just the drawing but the engarving and printing techniques involved.


Publishing  on such a lavish scale – with coloured prints that were  then individually hand finished – would, however, have been virtually impossible without Josephine’s backing.

By way of comparison SirJospeh Banks had intended to publish a grand illustrated collection of the plants found on his Australian expedition with Cook. He had the plates engraved but, wealthy though he was, even he couldn’t afford to print them, and gave up the attempt.  His project did not see the light of day until the 1980s.  Banks  must have been green with envy when copies of Josephine’s commissions arrived from France as gifts to both him and James Edward Smith.

But it was not just the empress. Napoleon too used Redouté’s work as a diplomatic gesture.  They both subscribed to the grand folio editions, buying copies for themselves and for sending to scientific institutions and other governments in Europe.  Talleyrand the French foreign minister also bought  eighty volumes of Les Liliacées  as gifts to promote French culture abroad. Without this level of patronage Redouté’s work would probably have remained largely confined to black and white plates which would now be languishing in drawers and on library shelves rather than being constantly reproduced and found everywhere.

After Josephines death in 1814 and Napoleon’s fall in 1815 one might have expected Redoutés career to decline,  but far from it. The restored Bourbon monarchy adopted him as their own – as they did with many others who had served the Empire. In 1825 Charles X created him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur so perhaps its not surprising that  his next publication was dedicated to the king’s nieces, the Princesses Louise and Marie d’Orleans, who were the daughters of the future King Louis Phillipe. Redouté also gave painting lessons to Louise  who went on to be  the Queen of Belgium and in 1834 was awarded the Ordre de Leopold of Belgium.

This was Choix des plus belles fleurs et des plus beaux fruits which comprised 144 plates published between 1827 and 1833.  It is much more conventional than his earlier work, including paintings of ordinary garden flowers and even bouquets, with little of scientific  or serious horticultural interest.  Like several other books he illustrated in later life it was a  money-spinner at a time when he was short of cash.

This was necessary because Redouté appears to have been disorganised and poor with money.  He had a live/work appartment in Paris which he kept on even when  in 1804 he bought  a  property at  Meudon, which had formerly been part of the Marquis de Mirabeau’s estate, including the former orangery, a house and a gardener’s cottage.    It cost an entire years-worth of his salary from Josephine – 18,000 francs.  When he moved in Josephine gave him a seedling  from her Marengo cedar for his new garden and  he remained there until his death. However despite his fame – or perhaps because of it – his spending habits led him to financial embarrassment, and he was forced to  sell silverware and furniture as well as paintings to pay his debts.  As a result he was still working when at the age of eighty he suffered a stroke and died.  Luckily his work lives on in well over 2000 images and apart from the endless prints, calendars, notelets, tea-towels, mugs and jigsaws most of it is freely available to look at and even download from the internet.   You might have thought you knew his work but I hope you enjoy finding some new  favourites.

For more information on Redoute and his connections with Josephine a good place to start is Jill, Duchess of  Hamilton’s book Napoleon, the Empress and the Artist which is available for free on-line. For more on Ventenat  I’d suggest “Etienne-Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808) and the Gardens of Cels and Empress Joséphine” by Martin Callmander et al.

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