Linnaeus described plants expertly. But could he draw?
Independent scholar, museum consultant and exhibition curator, Karen Reeds, takes a look at how Linnaeus described plants in When the Botanist Can’t Draw: The Case of Linnaeus.
Linnaeus studied botany during a time when botany instruction, as Reeds (2004) puts it, was very “show and tell.” A time when students had to compare a plant specimen to several illustrations to identify it because the written descriptions of plants were so unorganized (Reeds, 2010).
Linnaeus put an end to the cumbersome search for descriptive text when he created his classification system. He spent years writing descriptions of plants, documenting what he saw and then organizing this information in a systematic way. He valued descriptive text over illustrations (Reeds, 2004) and interestingly enough, this preference has put him in the hot seat, at least where his drawing abilities are concerned.
Linnaeus’ own sketches have received mixed reviews over the years. Some reviews have been more critical than others. According to Reeds (2004), Wilfrid Blunt (The Art of Botanical Illustration) has been very critical of Linnaeus’ drawings stating:
Matisse once said that his ambition was to draw like his little girl of five; Linnaeus achieved this effortlessly.
Other Linnaean scholars have been less critical.
Reeds (2004) suggests Linnaeus’ preference for words over illustrations was a combination of being on the receiving end of “show and tell” botany instruction as a student (after all, she says, he was a “pre-Linnaean” student of botany), his natural “strengths as a scientist”, and his personal struggles with drawing. Struggles that Reeds (2004) says are easy to see in his work.
Reeds (2004) says you can see “how well a drawing succeeds as description of an unfamiliar object” by copying it. When Reeds tried to copy some of Linnaeus’ drawings without referring to his written words, she found she often questioned the purpose of Linnaeus’ lines and couldn’t tell if a line was intended to show “volume, perspective, shading or texture” (Reeds, 2004).
Linneaus’ preference for descriptive text over illustrations is clear in Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), a book about the plant collection of George Clifford, a Dutch banker and director of the Dutch East India company. Clifford hired Linnaeus and artists to document his plants. Linnaeus’ descriptive text is the heart and soul of this book, while the plant portraits created by none other than botanical artist Georg Ehret and engraver Jan Vandelaar, were placed at the end of the book without an effective index linking the text to the engravings (Reeds, 2004). While Linnaeus admired the illustrations of his counterparts, he held firm in his opinion that pictures could never offer the level of information achievable with the written word stating, “I do not recommend drawings ….. for determining genera – in fact, I absolutely reject them” (Reeds, 2004). Linnaeus felt words were much more effective at describing plants and their unique qualities than illustrations.
What do you think?
For a more thorough analysis of Linnaeus’ notebooks and his thoughts about illustrations, see Reed (2004).
Blunt, Wilfrid. 1993. The Art of Botanical Illustration. Antique Collectors Club. Revised and enlarged edition. (9781851491773)
Reeds, Karen. 2004. When the botanist can’t draw: the case of Linnaeus. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 29(3): 248-258. Web. [accessed 8 June 2011] <http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/isr/2004/00000029/00000003/art00005>