Exhibit offers rare glimpse at Bunny Mellon’s botanical art
She started gardening at age 5 and became a consummate horticulturalist and art collector, particularly of botanical art. But until now, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon’s vast collection could be seen by invitation only at her Oak Spring Garden estate and library, just outside Washington, D.C.
In what is being billed as a coming-out party for the Mellon collection, more than 50 works, most never before shown in public, are now on view at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
The show, “Redoute to Warhol: Bunny Mellon’s Botanical Art,” will remain on view at the garden’s Lester T. Mertz Library through Feb. 12.
Mellon — who designed the present Rose Garden at the White House and restored a “potager” garden at Versailles, in France — had, by the time of her death in 2014 at age 103, amassed thousands of works of botanical art. They included engravings, watercolors, works on paper and canvas, and more than 10,000 rare and scholarly books. All were housed at Oak Spring, in Upperville, Virginia.
“The collection certainly traces the history of gardening and horticulture... but also the evolution of our interaction with plants, from some of the earliest books on the cultivation on plants,” said Sir Peter Crane, president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. “This is the first public glimpse” of the collection, he said, “and it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
The New York show begins in the library’s rotunda with reproductions of enormous, trompe l’oeil panels by French painter Fernand Renard, commissioned by Mellon for the walls of her greenhouse. They feature objects meant to represent her life and passions. Although there is no garden component of this winter show, the rotunda does feature some of Mellon’s own living topiary trees from Oak Spring.
“In addition to being an avid collector of art, she trained her own topiaries,” said Susan Fraser, vicepresident and director of the botanical garden’s library.
Organized chronologically and by theme, the exhibit begins with 14th century drawings from books pertaining to gardening and agriculture. Another section shows gorgeous images of tulips from the 17th century, when the demand for rare bulbs became so intense that some tulip varieties cost more than a house.
“They needed artists at that time to document what kinds of tulips were available,” Fraser said. “And at one point, Mellon bought up bunches of these very rare tulip illustrations.”
The show also includes hand-colored engravings by French artist Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues; floral works by artists in the French royal court for King Louis XIV; and 18th century watercolors on vellum by German artist Georg Dionysius Ehret. A voluptuous 1737 Ehret painting of a Southern magnolia stands out for its painstaking detail.
In another section is a wall of 17th century studies of plants, insects, spiders, mollusks and reptiles by Jan Van Kessel the Elder.
“The Van Kessels are my favorites,” Fraser said. “We suspect they were originally built into a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and were later framed in this way. They record what was probably a real collection and are so beautifully rendered.”
There are also 19th and 20th century works on paper and canvas by artists including Henri Rousseau and Pablo Picasso.
One of the more recent works in the show is an Andy Warhol illustration — and handwritten recipe — for a cookbook. Entitled “Vine Leaf Marinade,” it’s a 1959 ink and watercolor on paper.
Although there is no immediate plan for the exhibit to travel beyond New York, Crane said an increasing number of works from the collection will be loaned to other exhibits around the country. A small selection is to be exhibited at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, starting in February.
Much of the vast collection can be seen online on the foundation’s website, www.osgf.org.
This undated photo provided by the New York Botanical Garden shows Georg Dionysius Ehret’s “Magnolia grandiflora (Southern Magnolia),” bodycolor on vellum, ca. 1737.
This undated photo provided by the New York Botanical Garden shows Jan van Kessel the Elder’s “Still life study of plants, insects, arachnids, mollusks, and reptiles,” 165358, Oil on copper.
This undated photo provided by the New York Botanical Garden shows Andy Warhol’s “Vine Leaf Marinade,” ca. 1955, ink and watercolor on paper.