Let Them Eat Roses: the Joy of Collecting Pierre-Joseph Redouté's Botanical Prints & a More Sustainable Way to Gift Roses This Valentine's
I don't know how or when exactly I fell in love with roses, because I do remember disliking them. They were on every greeting card. Cloyingly sweet. A rose by any other name... A rose is a rose is a rose... My father is French, and my mother is American. I grew up feeling more French than American. I wanted to stay in France, but my American mother wanted to move back to her native New York. Later, I can remember my French family complaining of how I'd changed, how often I smiled for example. Roses struck me as being like that: cheesy, smiling in your face while pricking your thumb.
Did you know roses, specifically the American Beauty, are even the official flower of the United States?
For a lot of my life, roses were to me a symbol of simpleminded Disney romances that I scoffed at, particularly after watching the movie Maria Full of Grace, an excellent film based on true stories about Columbian immigrants. In the movie, Maria's work, wrapping rose bouquets in plastic, is less preferable to her than the dangers of ingesting heroin and becoming a drug mule. That movie scarred me for life. I have had to, more than once, ask my more traditional-minded husband to please never buy me a bouquet of roses. On top of the terrible working conditions rose factory workers face and the endless plastic packaging, there's also the insane emissions from transporting millions of bouquets from Columbia to the States.
Hardly the language of love. More the language of destruction.
So roses were a symbol I'd been resisting all my life. Even as a grungy teen, I found roses to symbolize something suspect.
No, wait. I've premised with a total lie. I do remember the exact moment I fell for roses, and while it's kind of embarrassing, because it's everything Hallmark-movie-ish that my Nirvana-screaming-along-voted-Most-Unique in high school self would have abhorred, here it is: the story of how I fell in love with wonderful, ickily romantic roses. I can even remember the date. It was December, 2019. The Christmas my husband and I fell in love with the movie The Holiday-- not a Hallmark movie to be fair, although Nancy Meyers' films aren't entirely a different genre. Just like in Hallmark movies, her heroines sport flawless blowouts at all times, have perfect kitchens that they never appear to clean, and dwell in the most beige but beautifully decorated abodes, one of which, in the movie The Holiday, is set in Surrey and is much more old-fashioned and much less beige than Meyers usually goes for. I'm talking about "Rose Cottage".
So that's how roses came into my life: it was Christmas. We were watching that movie together for the first time, and we had just bought our first home together in Philadelphia.
It is a fact that I'm not sure who first dubbed our new (but very old) home Rosie Cottage. All I know is that Christmas we fell in love with both Arthur, the elderly screenwriter who inspires Kate Winslet to find her moxie and her sweet Surrey home, which I wanted to emulate in my own space. That Christmas, The Holiday replaced Die Hard as our favorite Christmas movie, and from there the name "Rosie Cottage" stuck. And from there, I became genuinely fascinated with roses. I wanted to grow them in my garden, which I did. I began to study them as well so as not to murder them the way I'd managed to murder all our plants in our TOO BRIGHT AND SUNNY Philly apartment.
Did you even know such a thing could kill plants? Too much light? I learned when I purchased my very first, very expensive fig tree and then watched it perish, one magnificent leaf at a time. It was an incredibly depressing lesson in sunlight and gardening.
I didn't want to make a similar idiotic, fatal error with our roses. So I began to study everything about roses pretty intensively. From there, I learned to my total delight that because of the writings of a certain aptly named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu-- Romeo of Romeo and Juliet was a Montague!-- roses were the symbol of love for a good while, and so until pretty recently, a very popular motif in everything from thimbles to hand mirrors to book covers to flatware to art.
Side note: you should know, I've always wanted to be someone who collected sentimental objects for some sentimental reason. Something like elephants for example. And people would say about me, oh yes, that's that girl who loves elephants. It would be my identity. I'd be the elephant girl. But I wanted my obsession, just like I like my voted-most-unique- and-it-was-not-meant-as-compliment-at-my-high-school-but-I-decided-to-take-it-that-way identity, to be organic not faked.
Well, roses are much easier to nurture than elephants, who require at least 200 liters of water a day to survive, although on the plus side did you know elephants also purr like my favorite animal? Anyway, as far as both growing and collecting roses, I did. I planted climbing roses all over our porch and garage. I collected a thimble with tiny roses etched on the top. An old hairbrush with roses engraved on the back and a matching gilt mirror. A wood box from Iran with roses drawn on it. Roses on my Japanese flatware and roses on old perfume bottles. My obsession is not super obvious yet if you set foot in my house, but if you rummage around a bit, you'll spot it here and there, tucked onto shelves and growing on the walls as abundantly as our climbing roses are taking over the walls of our home.
And then one day, it happened. I came across an $18 framed print of a Redouté botanical sketch, and I truly, madly, deeply fell in love with collecting roses. Roses are now irrevocably, officially my thing.
Pierre-Joseph Redouté is a completely fascinating artist I'd never heard of, just like, prior to growing roses in my garden, I'd never known of our collective past's obsessions with roses. Spend time browsing vintage items on eBay or Etsy, and you too will begin to notice our forebears drew or engraved roses on anything that would hold still. Redouté loved them, too. Once upon a time this humble Belgian painter who would grow up to hobnob with the most glamorous queens of his era was widely known as the "Raphael of Flowers" and the "Rembrandt of Roses". Not only did naturalists like Rousseau admire him, but he was also a court favorite of Marie Antoinette and later the Empress Josephine. I love the idea of a quiet life lived peacefully among the utter political chaos of his time, sketching flowers until he died sketching his last white lily at 80. Maybe the nicest way to die imaginable? Not to mention extraordinary considering what turbulent times he lived in and how closely he rubbed elbows with those in positions of power, who died less well. There's a book I found in one of my vintage rabbit holes called The Man Who Painted Roses. It's out-of-print I believe and as cloyingly flowery in its language as I used to think roses were, but I could see a less flowery and just as excellent film being made about that extraordinary village boy who would grow up to know emperors.
In the meantime, while we wait for Redouté's life story to be made into a film, if you also love roses but abhor their environmental impact, I can attest that they're fun to grow, and despite their thorns much less prickly to care for than fig trees and equally fun to collect as drawings, which will never wilt or age. I think Redouté's botanical prints are just as fresh now as they were over two hundred years ago.
1. First Edition of Les Roses
If you have $4,000-$35,000 lying around, you could do worse than to buy a very lovely rare first edition of "the most successful flower painter of all time" Joseph-Pierre Redouté's Les Roses.
2. A Used Copy of Les Roses
If you understandably do not wish to throw a down payment at your rare book collection, very beautiful, more recent copies of Redouté's prolific work can also be had for $25-50. Many of them are in French, but there's a beautiful hardcover in English by Taschen in existence.
3. Framed Prints of Redouté's Roses
I've come to dearly love collecting Redouté's prints, which he also drew of innumerable kinds of flowers. Not just roses. Many of his originals can be had for surprisingly affordable amounts. Well, affordable compared to first editions of his books. I've seen them go from $800- $2,000. Far less than a secondhand Chanel bag and with a nicer story behind it. If that's also out of your price range, then you can easily find beautiful framed reproductions of his prints for incredibly affordable prices. I've been snapping mine up from anywhere to $18-$35 a framed print. There are some shops selling theirs for more, so shop around until you find a price, print, and frame that you truly vibe with!
That's just a little taste of my new obsession with roses! Let me know in the comments if you'd be interested in learning more about collecting vintage rose bric a brac.