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History and artistry

Pancrace Bessa
Soft white mock-orange blossoms rise delicately above a slanting branch of bold green leaves. Lovely, but not perfect or symmetrical, it’s a romantic picture from a Romantic artist.

The artist was Pancrace Bessa (1772-1846), and he painted this picture for a periodical called Herbier Général de L’Amateur that was published in Paris between 1810 and 1813. It was then copied onto a printing plate by skilled artisans. Now The Morton Arboretum has not only the original watercolor but the engraving for which it was painted.

That engraving is part of a rare volume with 389 of Bessa’s 572 watercolors for the publication that was obtained in 2014 by the Sterling Morton Library as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. “It fills a gap in our collection of French botanical art,” says Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert.

The Arboretum has been collecting rare botanical books since it was established in 1922, and botanical art has been a specialty since the Sterling Morton Library was dedicated in 1963. Art and libraries were twin interests of the Arboretum’s board of trustees chair at the time, Suzette Morton Davidson, granddaughter of founder Joy Morton.

Pancrace Bessa was one of the most important French Romantic botanical artists, Hassert says. He was a pupil of Pierre Redouté, whose famous book Les Roses also is in the Arboretum’s collection. Bessa was especially expert at a technique called stipple engraving—building up an image from a multitude of tiny dots on a metal printing plate—though the images in Herbier Général de L’Amateur are more conventional line engravings, made by scratching lines.

The book was acquired from a dealer in Amsterdam, Hassert says, and funded by a bequest from the late Charles Haffner, who succeeded Davidson as chairman and, like her, was a great lover of libraries. It is one of only 10 copies of the work in library catalogs in the world.

Kept in the library’s Special Collections vault, the book can be viewed by appointment. Like all the art collection, it can be especially valuable to students in the Arboretum’s botanical art and illustration education programs. “We encourage members to enjoy the collections,” Hassert says.