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Monday, November 21, 2011

Offering of the day: A Lovely Study of a Single Red Rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840)

Study of a Red Rose
Vellum size: 8 x 10 1/8 inches
Framed size: 18 1/2 x 20 3/4 inches
Graphite and watercolor on vellum
Signed lower right: P. J. Redoute

Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) is unquestionably the best-known botanical illustrator of any era.  His work seems to demand the invention of lofty praise.  A critic, writing of the 1804 Salon exhibition, noted that Redouté’s “six paintings of flowers executed in watercolor for H. M. the empress ... are realistic and beautifully painted, ... perfectly imitating nature.”  He concluded, “The delicacy, exactitude, and elegance of the brushwork gives them great merit.” Vivant Denon, Director of Museums under the Empire, stated that Redouté’s gouaches were “masterpieces,” and the artist was similarly described both as the "Rembrandt" and the "Raphael" of flowers by nineteenth-century writers.  It is thus unsurprising that Redouté occupies a central position in the development of European floral art, contributing to both the artistry and scientific advancement of botanical study. 

                Redouté had, as pupils or patrons, five queens and empresses of France, from Marie-Antoinette to Joséphine's successor, the Empress Marie-Louise.  His devotion to botanical illustration was secured during the French Revolution when the competition of 1793 determined that he would continue the botanical illustrations for the Vélins, thus succeeding Spaendonck. Despite many changes of regime in this turbulent epoch, he worked without interruption, eventually contributing to over fifty books on natural history and archeology. However, his masterpieces were those completed at Malmaison for the Empress Joséphine.

                While Les Liliacées was undoubtedly Redouté’s masterpiece it was Les Roses that brought him fame and recognition. His work on roses was inspired by the Empress Joséphine who developed such a fondness for the bloom that her goal became the obtainment of every species of rose known for her elaborate garden at Malmaison.  In a bid to achieve this, Napoleon instructed the French Navy to seize any plants or rose seeds they found when searching ships at sea.  Moreover, in 1810 the British Admiralty granted safe passage to John Kennedy of the Vineyard Nursery,  Hammersmith, London, to deliver the new China Rose, Rosa indica 'Fragans', also known as Hume's Blush Tea-scented China, from England to Malmaison (Redouté illustrated it in 1817).  In addition, Kennedy was employed by the Empress to assist in the laying out of her rose garden.  Her rose expenditure for 1811 amounted to over 700 British Pounds and during this period, Joséphine spent so much on her rose garden that she was forced to request additional funds from Napoleon.

                The Empress Joséphine established the standard for rose gardening and the rose became the most fashionable flower among France’s elite.  The Countess of Bougainville tried, in vain, to match Malmaison’s impressive collection and, economically, the rose became the most important flower in France.  In 1814, the writer, De Pronville, stated that there were only about 182 varieties of roses, but by mid-century hybridization and cross-pollination had created 6,000 strains.  For the first time, and following the lead of Malmaison, gardens were created using just one species, the rose, so that it could be admired in all its permutations. 

                Joséphine died in 1814, just three years prior to the publishing of Redouté’s first installment of Les Roses. Due to the lack of maintenance her once pristine garden became unsuitable for Redouté to paint, prompting him and the writer of his text Claude-Antoine Thory to travel throughout Paris and its surrounding areas. After gathering countless new specimens and adding them to Les Roses, the publication became a third larger than the artist had originally set out to produce. Redouté had hoped to keep his watercolor studies for his own collection and reference, however, as a result of his lavish lifestyle and the expense of book publishing, he eventually sold them to Charles X, Kind of France and Navarre in 1828 for a negotiated price of 30,000 francs, 20,000 frans less than Redouté wanted to sell them for. Since, the group of watercolors had been purchased and kept predominantly in the collection of Royal European families.

                Though largely exact botanically, the paintings possess an almost stylized elegance to them, a feature absent from the watercolors for Les Liliacées and perhaps reflecting the beginning of a return to Redouté’s Flemish roots.  As was the case with his earlier masterpiece, Redouté chose to work on vellum and thus, achieves the same luminous quality and intense clarity of tone and detail that have become hallmarks of this great artist’s work.

                On December 7th, Sotheby's London held a sale titled Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick 2nd Lord Hesketh which included an extremely fine collection of Redouté watercolors (lots 51-91). They fetched incredibly strong prices. Lot 84, titled Rosa Bifera Officinalis, sold for 265,250 pounds.

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