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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Past Exhibitions

Flora’s Lexicon

25 March – 30 June 2011

Flora's Lexicon explored the 19th-century European and American phenomenon of The Language of Flowers, the common understanding that plants and blooms were charged with sentiment and meaning and held the potential to express emotion or to communicate privileged messages within the strict confines of social etiquette. Flower associations made their way into Victorian language from various sources, including Japanese, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek and Roman cultures, religions and mythology, as well as the literature of Shakespeare and the still-life painting of 17th-century Dutch artists. The result was a fashionable system of floral connotations that blossomed during a time of burgeoning public interest in botany and its scientific importance.

So pervasive and popular was The Language of Flowers trend that it launched the introduction of the floral dictionary or Language of Flowers book, a small, beautifully bound and illustrated volume devoted to the decoding of each flower's secret meaning. This sentimental craze and the books associated with it originated in France, the most notable being Le Langage des Fleures of 1819 by Charlotte de Latour. This volume was reprinted in multiple editions, translated into English and imitated by other French, British and American authors until the trend waned in the mid-1880s, shortly after English author and illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1901) published her charmingly illustrated floral dictionary, The Language of Flowers (1884).

The Language of Flowers book phenomenon also attracted the skills of numerous respected botanical artists of the era, including Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840), Pancrace Bessa (1772–1846), Pierre-Jean-François Turpin (1775–1840) and Pierre-Antoine Poiteau (1766–1854). Although their illustrations for this genre differed slightly in scale and scientific detail from their major works, they were prized for their beauty and added to the appeal of these intricately bound and decorated volumes while serving to familiarize a large segment of the population with the artists' talent.

Flora's Lexicon presented books from the Hunt Institute's Library and botanical portraits from the Art Department in an examination of the scope of The Language of Flowers phenomenon, from the influences on its beginning to its continued presence in 21st-century publishing. Differing approaches to the floral dictionary were displayed, while intricate systems of meaning were explored through artworks of many key 18th- and 19th-century botanical artists and illustrators.

Open House 2011

In conjunction with Flora's Lexicon, the Hunt Institute held its annual Open House on 26 and 27 June 2011. We offered talks, tours and opportunities to meet one-on-one with our staff to ask questions and see items in the collections. Cate Hammond (curatorial assistant, 2010–2011) discussed "Mixed messages: Love in the era of The Language of Flowers." Angela Todd (archivist, 2000–2013) presented "Love's labors lost: The work of women and wives in botany." Librarian Charlotte Tancin delivered "The art of the folio: Botanical art and text, supersized."

To beauty, friendship and love [Rosa Linnaeus, Rosaceae; Hedera Linnaeus, Araliaceae; Myrtus Linnaeus, Myrtaceae], hand-colored engraving published by Saunders and Otley, Conduit Street, after an original by an unknown artist for Anna Christian Burke, The Illustrated Language of Flowers (London, G. Routledge and Co., 1856), HI Library call no. DG21 B959I.

Selected Artworks

[+] Click to enlarge