About the Redoutés
Today, the fame of the Redouté brothers, and of Pierre-Joseph in particular, reaches far beyond the borders of Europe. How did this child of Saint-Hubert become one of the most famous watercolour artists in the world?
In the Redouté family, the artist’s profession was passed on from father to son. This started with Charles-Joseph Redouté, the great-grandfather of Pierre-Joseph, who produced paintings for the Princes-Bishop of Liège, and culminated in the work of P.J. Redouté. And so the cultural and pictorial history behind the Prince des roses becomes clear.
The Benedictine abbey
Besides the family, the famous abbey of Saint-Hubert also had an important influence.
Dom Clément Lefèbvre, abbot of Saint-Hubert (1686-1727) and a native of Ciney, who was active with major decoration work in the abbey church, called on the services of painter Jean-Jacques Redouté, a native of the same region. Pierre-Joseph’s grandfather collaborated on the works in the abbey in the years 1720-1730.
Dom Lefèbvre's successor, Dom Célestin De Jong (1727-1760), who undertook the construction of the abbot’s lodgings (1729), provided another opportunity for painter Charles-Joseph Redouté, father of Pierre-Joseph, who in turn settled in Saint-Hubert and married in 1750 a daughter from the locality, Marguerite-Josèphe Chalon.
In 1782, Pierre-Joseph, now aged 23, travelled to Paris on the invitation of his brother Antoine-Ferdinand. His brother decorated theatres, like the ‘Théâtre Italien’ in Paris, and castles, such as Malmaison and the ‘Salon des fleurs’ or Compiègne and the ‘Salon impérial’. Pierre-Joseph was to accompany his brother for two years. And then, for the next 50 years and more, Pierre-Joseph was to dedicate his proven talent for painting to the service of botanists.
Charles-Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle, a magistrate who received his education during the reign of Louis XVI, has a passion for botany. He opens the doors to celebrity to Pierre-Joseph and teaches him the basics of the study of plants and the art of drawing them with the rigour and accuracy of a scientist.
Bowled over by the quality of Pierre-Joseph’s illustrations, other botanists are soon beating a path to his door: De Candolle, Ventenat, Rousseau, Michaux, and many others besides.
Voyages of discovery
Europe is dispatching its explorers to all corners of the world. Dombey, Cook, Humboldt, La Pérouse, d'Entrecasteaux and many others all embark on voyages of discovery, often accompanied by botanists who would bring back a varied collection of exotic plants in the ships' holds. Pierre-Joseph Redouté collaborated in creating an illustrated garden of part of the world’s flora.
Watercolours and etchings
In the 16th century, the great German painter Albrecht Dürer produced the first water colours and can therefore be regarded as a precursor of the art. Until the 18th century, Dürer would be the exception rather than the rule as water colours were considered to be only fit for documentary purposes. Their only purpose was to aid and support the oil paintings based on these studies and only these were considered to have any artistic value.
The first watercolour society in the world was set up in England.
France did not really become familiar with the aquarelle until the end of the 18th century. However, that era saw the appearance of Hubert Robert, Chapalle, Van Spaendonck and the Redouté brothers, Pierre-Joseph as well as his younger brother Henri-Joseph. He, together with his brother Pierre-Joseph, received a commission from the Museum of Natural History to conserve its precious collection of vellums. One brother was to work on botany and the other on zoology.
Although Pierre-Joseph remains the most popular member of this family, Henri-Joseph was also an excellent watercolour artist. It must not be forgotten that Henri-Joseph was part of an expedition commissioned by the Academy of Sciences and Arts and as such, accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt. Henri-Joseph was one of the contributors to the famous Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt), a tome that contains the observations made and research carried out during the expedition to Egypt by the French Army.
From then on, the aquarelle was recognised as an artistic expression in and by itself.
Demand for watercolours increased steeply and so, Pierre-Joseph had to adopt a faster and less expensive reproduction technique: intaglio etching. Pierre-Joseph pioneered a printing technique using a serrated wheel to make indentations into the (copper) metal, also known as ‘pointillé’. By varying the distances between the ‘teeth’ of the wheel he was able to achieve a playful effect of light and shadow, or claire-obscure (see the original etchings on view at the Musée).
Pierre-Joseph Redouté has painted many flowers in a great variety, but his depictions of roses are considered the peak of his art. They immortalise the ephemeral beauty of the rose.
The definitive tome on roses from the Pierre-Joseph era was published in three volumes and accompanied by a scientific description by botanist Le Thory.
The roses of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, these seductive flowers, have woven their magic spells to charm Queen Marie-Antoinette, the Empress Joséphine, spouse of Napoléon I, and the Queen Consort of the Belgians, Louise-Marie d’Orléans.
The talents of le Professeur Redouté, still on show at the Musée de Paris, were endorsed in his days by the highest ranking ladies of Parisian nobility. What more could he have wished for ?