José Celestino Mutis, the Spanish botanist who drew the flora of America

When the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt obtained the permission of King Carlos IV to explore the fauna and vegetation of the Spanish possessions in America, decided to establish a route to meet with Jose Celestino Mutis, a famous Spanish botanist who lived in Bogotá, corresponded with Linnaeus and enjoyed a reputation as a wise man who crossed the Atlantic. The meeting, which took place in 1801, was unforgettable for both men. Humboldt marveled at the Mutis library, which, perhaps flattered, decided to give this brilliant young man some drawings of the plants of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. These were works made by his workshop, which was dedicated to this noble effort since 1783, year in the

that he had received the royal permit for a scientific expedition.

“Humboldt was grateful to Mutis, whom he called a benefactor, but published the drawings of the plants under his name,” he explains. Esther Garcia Guillén, Spanish curator of ‘Exit. A shared heritage‘, an exhibition that can be visited until October 24 at the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid. The sample, possible
thanks to the collaboration of Colombia
and composed of a selection of the more than 2,000 botanical plates from the Royal Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), it reflects on the library of the Spanish naturalist -which could inspire the drawing technique of his workshop- and on his influence on other scholars and painters.

A cabinet botanist

The exhibition begins with a portrait of Mutis, an oil painting in which the naturalist holds a magnifying glass and looks closely at a copy of the mutisia, a plant with long orange petals and thus named in his honor. «Represents you like a cabinet botanist, not field. During the expedition, his collaborators sent him the plants they were collecting, as he hardly ever went on excursions, ”says García. As an anecdote, the canvas, which for years was believed to have been painted by a man, was actually the work of the anthropologist Cipriana Álvarez Durán, the grandmother of the Machado brothers, the famous Sevillian poets. “Her grandfather was a professor of Natural Sciences at the Hispalense University and she was a painter, artist and anthropologist,” says the curator, who celebrates the discovery.

In the old Bonsai Greenhouse, the exhibition is presented in dim light, an essential requirement to prevent the sheets from being damaged. The drawings are distributed on the walls, along with some key objects to understand this historical episode. «It is the best collection of American botanical drawing from the 18th century. They are drawings where the plants have practically no movement and in which it stands out flatness, symmetry and harmony. Mutis wanted any botanist to know a plant and not need to see it in nature, “explains García. «Fresh plants were drawn, during various moments of their life: when they had flower, when bearing fruit. They tried to show species as ideals, as if they were archetypes. When you look at them, you can’t see the brushstroke, because single-ended brushes were used and they colored in dots, with the expertise that was used for cameos, but here it is transferred to paper ”, adds the curator.

The reflection of the plates of the expedition also reached contemporary art. An example is the reinterpretation that Salvador Dalí made in the second half of the 20th century

The workers at the Mutis workshop learned drawing techniques from European books – it is believed that these copies, prior to the final plates, also served as a kind of field guide – but their job consisted in portraying the species that the others collected. members of the expedition. “Here we have the herbarium of Francisco José de Caldas, a disciple of Mutis, who was lost in Ecuador and collected alone ”, says García, pointing to a display case. «The drawings on endemic Ecuadorian flora come from their findings and from natural prints, which are made by inking the plants. It is believed that it was a technique that Caldas learned from Humboldt and Bonpland, with whom he coincided, ”says the curator. These images have great beauty: they seem like the shadows of an invisible living being.

The reflection of the plates of the expedition also reached contemporary art. An example is the reinterpretation that Salvador Dalí made in the second half of the 20th century: «He carried out a work called ‘Flora Dalinae‘, consisting of ten lithographs, with three inspired by the works of Mutis. I don’t think Dalí came to the Botanical Garden, but he consulted some volumes made in 1952, with the drawings of the workshop and the texts of Spanish and Colombian botanists “, indicates García. The lithograph on display, inspired by the drawing of the passionflower in the Mutis workshop, is a reflection of the themes that haunted the so-called genius of Cadaqués: sexual allusions and surrealism, drawing eyes or lips on the buds of the plant.

The journey by sea

The work of the Royal Expedition continued after the death of the naturalist from Cádiz, which occurred in 1808. The mission was left to his nephew, who continued with his uncle’s task until 1816, when Bolívar’s troops reached the outskirts. de Bogotá and the scientists decided to package the collection and send it to Spain. That episode, the closing of that scientific adventure, also has its own space in the exhibition. «The first copies of the Mutis collection they were sent to Madrid in 1789. Most of it was later packed, in 1816, in 105 boxes that arrived by ship. Here we show the one that carried the seed boxes, protected with a waxed canvas for the sea voyage », explains García. “It is a jewel”, congratulates the commissioner.

After passing through the Royal Botanical Garden, ‘Mutis. A shared heritage ‘will travel to Bogotá, where it will be exhibited at the National Library of Colombia. It will be the perfect closing for an exhibition that reflects on a scientific expedition that opened a bridge of knowledge between two continents, of incalculable wealth.


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