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Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
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Pierre Joseph REDOUTÉ

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Stephen Ongpin Fine Art

Period Late 18th century to early 19th century

Origin French

Medium Watercolour and pencil, with touches of gum arabic, on vellum.

Dimension 47.3 x 34.2 cm (18⁵/₈ x 13¹/₂ inches)

Regarded as Redouté’s masterpiece and one of the finest illustrated books ever published, Les Liliaceés occupied the artist for fourteen years, and involved the assistance of three botanists and eighteen engravers. In his introduction to Les Liliaceés, Redouté wrote, ‘I have chosen for the subject of this new work, of which I am sole proprietor, the family of Liliaceae, so interesting for its variety of forms and for the brilliance and richness of their colors. The plants of this brilliant series will be drawn, engraved, and colored with the luxury of detail with which nature has embellished them. Long researches into the best means of engraving to produce a colored impression, and numerous trials, have shown me that art can capture and record the impact and the varied nuances that we admire in these flowers.’ He goes on to note that, since plants of the Liliaceae family were very difficult to keep preserved in herbaria, or as dried specimens, his accurate illustrations of them would be of great benefit to naturalists. Published in eighty instalments, the complete work contains a total of 486 hand-coloured engraved plates illustrating 476 different species of plants, each based on a highly finished watercolour on vellum by Redouté. Although not commissioned by the Empress Joséphine, this immense project could not have been undertaken without her support and patronage, and she was eventually to purchase the complete set of original preparatory watercolours for Les Liliaceés from the artist.

As has been noted of Les Liliaceés, ‘Although the plates are spectacular examples of the botanical engraver’s art…they cannot equal the coloristic brilliance, accuracy, and luminosity of the originals. On vellum sheets of the finest quality, Redouté made only the lightest outline in pencil, over which he applied pure watercolor to achieve the full effect, conveying with matchless skill the delicate gradations in the shade of petals and foliage. The flowers seem to break free of the flat vellum surface, inviting the viewer to reach out and pluck them up. Indeed, it is the creamy quality of the vellum, smoother than any paper, that gives the drawings their special incandescence. Redouté took infinite care with the arrangement of his plants and their placement on the page. All but the largest specimens are reproduced at life-size, and never do the supplementary pencil drawings of bud, bulbs, seed, and other details detract from the impact of the complete plant.’

Despite its title, Redouté’s Les Liliaceés included not only plants of the Liliaceae family, which in fact account for only about half of the species illustrated, but also numerous other species of monocots with petal-like flowers; all from the gardens of Malmaison, Saint-Cloud, Sèvres and Versailles. Les Liliaceés includes depictions of plants from, among others, the families Agavaceae, Alismaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Cannaceae, Iridaceae, Strelitziaceae and, as in the case of the present sheet, Ziniberaceae, or ginger family. Turmeric is a flowering plant native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Its roots, when ground into powder, are often used for medicinal and cooking purposes (particularly as a spice for curries) and also for dyeing fabric. At the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and likely at Malmaison as well, the turmeric plant flowers in the month of August, which is probably when Redouté painted it. 

The 487 original watercolours by Redouté for Les Liliaceés – including the present sheet - were acquired from the artist by the Empress Joséphine (1763-1814) and bound, together with a copy of the text also printed on vellum, into sixteen large folio volumes4. At the death of the Empress, the Redouté albums were inherited by her son, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, later Duke of Leuchtenberg (1781-1824). They remained with his descendants until 1935, although nineteen of the watercolours were removed sometime in the 19th century5. Sold at auction in Switzerland in 1935, the watercolours for Les Liliaceés were acquired by Erhard Weyhe (1882-1972), a rare book and print dealer in New York. The volumes remained intact until their sale at auction in 1985, after which they were broken up and the 468 watercolours by Redouté subsequently dispersed among various public and private collections.

Period: Late 18th century to early 19th century

Origin: French

Medium: Watercolour and pencil, with touches of gum arabic, on vellum.

Dimension: 47.3 x 34.2 cm (18⁵/₈ x 13¹/₂ inches)

Provenance: Part of sixteen bound albums containing 487 original watercolour drawings on vellum by Redouté for Les Liliacées, acquired directly from the artist by the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte, Château de Malmaison
By descent to her son, Prince Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, later Duke of Leuchtenberg, Seeon-Seebruck, Bavaria
Thence by descent with the Dukes of Leuchtenberg, Seeon-Seebruck, until 1935
Leuchtenberg sale (‘Bibliothèque Eugène de Beauharnais. Bibliothèque des Ducs de Leuchtenberg’), Zurich, Braus-Riggenbach and Ulrico Hoepli, 23-24 May 1935, lot 82 (bt. Weyhe for 49,000 Swiss francs)
Erhard Weyhe, New York
Thence by descent to a private family trust until 1985
Anonymous sale (‘Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Les Liliacées: The Empress Josephine’s Copy with the Original Drawings and the Text on Vellum. The Property of a Private Trust’), New York, Sotheby's, 20 November 1985, this watercolour as lot 473 (the entire group sold for $5,500,000)
W. Graham Arader, New York
The present sheet later acquired by a private collection. 

Literature: Peter and Frances Mallary, A Redouté Treasury: 468 Watercolours from Les Liliacées of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, London, 1986, p.41, no.36.

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