Big bold botanicals

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What could a twentieth-century artist’s book by surrealist Salvador Dali have in common with an early nineteenth-century French volume documenting the plants in a famous garden?

Serendipitously, both volumes are recent acquisitions for the Library, acquired from international dealers during the 2021 lockdown. And, surprisingly, both present botanical subject matter with connections to one of Europe’s greatest botanical illustrators, Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840).

While not a botanical work in the traditional scientific sense, Flora Dalinae by Salvador Dali is a magnificent series of imagined botanical specimens. Dali’s flowers appear as human beings or with human body parts. He has taken the rose, dahlia, begonia, lily, pansy and other plants and playfully subverted the western tradition of botanic illustration. His version of a pansy resembles the artist himself, complete with his trademark waxed handlebar moustache.

This limited-edition portfolio of 10 etchings was published in 1969 by Maurice Gonon in Paris and each image is signed in pencil by Dali.

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Dali was inspired by Belgian botanist and flower painter Redouté, whose celebrated works Les Liliacées and Les Roses are still considered outstanding examples of botanical illustration.

Redouté’s patron Empress Joséphine Bonaparte — wife of Emperor Napoleon I and supporter of the arts — commissioned the artist to document the rare plant specimens in her exotic garden, Malmaison, near Paris. Étienne-Pierre Ventenat, librarian of the Panthéon monument in Paris, wrote the accompanying plant descriptions.

The book they produced in 1803–04, Jardin de la Malmaison, was a substantial work of botanical and horticultural importance that documented plant specimens from Egypt, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, China, Australia and other countries. The volume highlights the European fascination with newly discovered Australian plants. Of 120 specimens illustrated in the book, more than a third are of Australian origin.

Books illustrated by Redouté are among the most valued botanical books ever produced, and his Malmaison volumes are possibly the most significant documentation of Australian plants in France.


Sarah Morley, Curator, Research and Discovery.