Among the earliest and most truly accurate (and most beautiful) representations of the botanical actuality of shrubs and flowers are in mid-fifteenth century drawings by Pisanello, Jacopo Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, and in details of Flemish painting by artists such as Jan and Hubert van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes. It is in that period that the truly naturalistic rendering of plant life, based on careful observation and study of the real thing, began in modern European art and science. Such drawings were often made from the life as studies for details in paintings, mostly devotional. This was certainly the case with Albrecht Dürer, whose marvellous watercolour study of Irises (1503), held by the Kunsthalle Bremen, was carefully utilised in the painting of the London National Gallery Madonna with the Iris, executed by his workshop in 1508. It is to Dürer, certainly, that we look, also, for the first accurately observed study of plants in a natural ecological community (it might best be described as a habitat fragment): this was the famous Das Große Rasenstück (The Great Piece of Turf), completed in 1503.

Speaking of his own version in relation to Dürer's masterpiece, de vries exclaimed; "but mine is more real!". He was, of course, speaking truly, but his own version is no more a simple botanical or herbarium specimen than is Dürer's, and is susceptible of as many 'readings' as that early masterpiece of complex naturalism to which it explicitly pays homage. Both works are informed by love and reverence for the natural world, both are manifestations of wonder at the beauty, diversity and complexity of the commonest plants of the field. Both are in their different ways symbolic, even as they appear to present nothing more than a piece of reality, a humble natural fact. Although both seem to project an objective reality that places them in certain respects within the domain of scientific investigation, they are both without doubt works of art.

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rasenstueck, 1503

Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries. chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 66-68.

Albrecht Dürer, Das Große Rasenstück, 1503. Aquarell, Deckfarben, mit Deckweiß gehöht
[© Albertina, Wien]