Hunt exhibit mesmerizes

_Portraits of a Garden_ features a collection of hand-crafted botanical illustrations. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) _Portraits of a Garden_ features a collection of hand-crafted botanical illustrations. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

For most people, plants are simply part of the background of everyday life. But for certain artists, there is a whole other realm among arched petals and verdant leaves.

The exhibit Portraits of a Garden, a collection of botanical illustrations from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (BBG) Florilegium, provides an intimate glimpse into the entrancing world of flora. The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, located on the fifth floor of Hunt Library, has been home to works from over 48 American botanical artists on loan from the BBG’s permanent collection, along with never-before-exhibited historical volumes from the Hunt Institute’s own collection.

The BBG is one of the few botanical gardens that houses a florilegium, a compilation of handcrafted illustrations of the plants kept there. The florilegium is a tradition that dates back centuries: The height of its popularity was in the 17th century, when rare and exotic plants discovered on global expeditions were first introduced to European gardens. The wealthy owners of these gardens would then commission artists to produce illustrations of the plants they had collected.

Recently, modern botanical gardens have revived interest in florilegium, especially in the case of rare or endangered plants. Lugene Bruno, the curator of art for the Hunt Institute, emphasized the importance of such practices: “These plants could disappear any number of years from now. We need to keep records of what plants are being grown for hortological and medicinal reasons.”

Portraits of a Garden displays illustrations of only some of the several thousand plants that reside in the BBG, but even this small sampling of flowers, ferns, and trees is incredibly diverse. The exhibit showcases plants from all around the world, in a variety of colors and shapes. Among them are ferns that resemble the tail feathers of an ostrich and plants that look like they belong in a surrealist painting rather than in the real world.

Equally as fascinating as the subject matter is the artistic talent behind the florilegium. The sheer technical brilliance of the works is staggering. Whether in vibrant watercolor, crisp lines of ink, or careful strokes of pencil, each of the pieces not only painstakingly recreates each vein and fiber of its subject, but also radiates an inherent personality that the artist bestows upon them. For instance, Carol Hamilton’s triptych of an apricot branch conveys a zen-like sense of serenity, while Margaret Farr’s cherry blossoms idyllically float in everlasting spring.

“These artists are calling attention to the plant, their history, and how they’re used,” Bruno said of the artists. “They’re getting people to pay closer attention to the world around them.” Truly, the power of the exhibit lies not only in its ability to introduce its audience to a whole new world, but also to imbue them with a sense of appreciation for the world already around them.