Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

One of the treasures of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh is a 1745 gouache painting on vellum by the eminent German­-English artist Georg Dionys Ehret (1710-1770) depicting two species of Iris, Iris susiana L. (Mourning Iris) and Iris latifolia Mill. (English Iris). The Hunt Institute is fortunate to own more than two hundred and twenty-five paintings by Ehret; most of his extant works are held by institutions and private collections in Europe.

The son of a gardener in Erfurt (Germany’s “city of flowers”), Ehret combined his early training in gardening with a hobby of drawing plants. He managed, in the course of his traveling about Europe, to meet the most influential scientists and patrons of his day. Early on he was appointed gardener for the Margrave of Baden. In 1736, Ehret settled in England and became a popular figure in society (see “Old World Influences on Pennsylvania Gardens” by Myra K. Jacob­sohn in the spring 2005 issue).

Ehret’s autobiography lists among his pupils many members of nobility, including the daughters of the Duchess of Portland, whose collection included one hundred and fifty of his paintings. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, the only foreigner on the English list. Among his numerous patrons were Johann Weinmann, author of the valuable florilegium Phytanthoza iconographia (1735-1745); Nuremberg physician C.J. Trew; Dutch banker and garden-lover George Clifford; royal physician Richard Mead; Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum; and Philip Miller, author of the well-known The Gardener’s Dictionary (1731 and subsequent editions). Among the botanists Ehret met was the great Linnaeus (1707-1778), for whose new system of plant classification he engraved a tabella (or table). Information about Ehret can be found in Gerta Calmann’s Ehret: Flower Painter Extraordinary (1977) and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Ehret’s Flowering Plants (1987).

The solitary flowers in the painting, four to six inches across, of Iris susiana have been described as having lilac-grey petals with deep purple veins, velvety purple-black patches, and brown-purple beards. Iris latifolia Mill. has dark blue or purple-blue flowers with a golden patch on the falls, but can vary in color from white to lavender and blue. Where these plants originally grew is anyone’s guess, but it is plausible that I. susiana was native to southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, and I. latifolia to the Spanish Pyrennes. The Dutch, finding the latter plant in Bristol, England, and thinking it to be a native, called it English Iris. Iris susiana seems to have fallen from favor and is not easily grown.

The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, founded by Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt and her husband Roy Arthur Hunt in 1961, serves international plant science through research and documen­tation in all aspects of botanical history. The Hunt Institute acquires, preserves, and exhibits collections of books, images, manuscripts, specimens, and works of art. Its library numbers twenty-eight thousand volumes and its art collection – a major resource for the history of botanical art and illustration ­- comprises more than thirty thousand drawings, watercolors, and original prints.

Additional information is available by writing: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890; by telephoning (412) 268-2434; or by visiting Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation website.


James J. White is curator of art and principal research scholar at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.