Well, had you (assuming, of course, that you are not an expert in eighteenth-century French flower paintings) heard of Gerard van Spaendonck? You will gather from his name that he was not French – he was born in 1746, in Tilburg now ‘wool capital of the Netherlands’, but then part of the Duchy of Brabant, the debatable land tussled over by for two centuries by France, Spain and the Dutch Republic. As with tapestry weaving, flower painting in France was boosted by talent from further north: in 1769 Spaendock arrived in Paris, and within five years had become miniature painter to Louis XVI.
On her death in 1780 he succeeded the remarkable 79-year-old Madeleine Françoise Basseporte, who for forty years had been professor of floral painting at the Jardin Royal, later the Jardin des Plantes (a post which required knowledge of botany and plant taxonomy as well as the ability to paint). She had been a pupil of Claude Aubriet (as in the Aubrietia) whose talent had been noticed by Tournefort, who commissioned drawings from him for his Eléments de botanique, ou Méthode pour reconnaître les plantes (1694). In due course Aubriet become professor: what is more surprising is that a female pupil was able to succeed him, though the fact that she had been appointed tutor in flower painting to the daughters of Louis XV may have helped.
Spaendonck painted both botanical subjects – usually single specimens, showing their structure – and floral still lives which drew upon the Dutch tradition. Some of the former were engraved and published in 24 plates of Fleurs dessinées d’après nature between 1799 and 1801, but he also contributed at least 50 works to the royal collection of botanical watercolours.
He was joined in Paris by his younger brother Cornelis, who later (1795–1800) became director of the Sèvres porcelain factory, and until 1808 contributed many floral designs for its wares. Both brothers survived the Revolution unscathed, and Gerard became a founding member of the Institut de France in 1795 (the various royal institutions for the promotion of the arts and sciences having been suppressed on 8 August 1793 as being ‘gangrenées [yum!] d’une incurable aristocratie’). He was apparently ennobled by Buonaparte, which I assume is an offer one couldn’t refuse. More redounding to his credit is that Cuvier gave his éloge in 1822 (although he did perform the same service for almost every savant of his time, including Banks).
Spaendonck’s most famous pupil was undoubtedly Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1750–1840), another emigrant from what is now Belgium. First taken up for his painting skills by the botanist Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle, he managed to move from draughtsman and painter to Marie Antoinette in 1786 to official artist to the Empress Joséphine in 1805. After her death in 1814, he fell somewhat from favour, but eventually found a post teaching at the Jardin des Plantes.
(Among his pupils was Adélaïde d’Orléans, sister of Louis-Philippe, King of the French, who seems to have been remarkably talented.) Redouté’s subsequent reputation has of course hugely overshadowed that of his former teacher.
Gerard and Cornelis seem to have introduced into France the idea of a miniature ‘portrait’ of flowers. (The dating of these is sufficiently vague for me to wonder whether they started the genre because the aristocratic market for large paintings had dried up after the Revolution, but I know nothing.)
Examples include paintings in small round or oval frames not unlike those of portrait miniatures and silhouettes, but they are also found inserted into boxes and even to etuis and jewellery.
I would really love to know how long each of these delicate works (the detail of which really needs a magnifying glass to be appreciated properly) took to create.
My belated discovery of the Spaendoncks came from the current exhibition, Floral Fantasies, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which draws mostly, but not exclusively, from the gifts and then bequest in 1973 of over 100 flower drawings and paintings, as well as many albums, by the 2nd Lord Fairhaven. It follows the floral art tradition not only in France but also in Britain, and slips into the twentieth century with examples of the work of illustrator Walter Crane and the extraordinary Clarence Bicknell, the centenary of whose death falls this month.
My favourite painting in the display is not by a Spaendonck, nor even by Redouté, but by Lucy Cust (1784–1856) of whom, as they say, very little is known (so I have slightly more excuse in never having heard of her than I do with Spaendonck). She was a daughter of the first Baron Brownlow of Belton House in Lincolnshire (now in the care of the National Trust, who do not mention her among their ‘Creative Women‘), where her memorial (along with many others of the family) can be seen in the church of St Peter and Paul.
Extraordinarily, her wonderful depiction of Paeonia suffruticosa, in the Fairhaven collection, is the only image by her that you get if you Google – and the effusive memorial does not mention any artistic talent (unless it is hinted at by the butterfly at the top, and the cypress foliage and passion flowers – all of which however are regular Christian symbols, and so may not be significant).
Do get to this exhibition if you can – the watercolours, because of conservation issues, are very rarely on show, and the Cust by itself (in my opinion, at any rate) is definitely worth the detour!