Pancrace Bessa was one of the premier botanical illustrators of early nineteenth-century Paris, together with Gerard van Spaendonck and Pierre-Joseph Redouté. He began his artistic career in the traditional manner, making anatomical studies and copies after the antique, but it was the natural world that fascinated him. Bessa spent many hours at the Jardin du Roi, where he eagerly took classes in botany, zoology, and a botanical illustration course taught by Spaendonck. Bessa also studied privately with Redouté at his Paris studio. With his prodigious talent, Bessa soon rivaled his two masters, and all three were at one time appointed peintre des fleurs to record rare plants at the Royal Garden. Bessa also collaborated with Redouté on a number of illustration projects, producing beautiful botanical prints rendered in stipple-engraving, in publications including an Album des Roses (1830) and Histoire des Tulipes (1818). Bessa was meticulous about recording every detail of his subjects, from the dew on the petals of a flower to the ragged edge of a leaf chewed by an insect.
One of Bessa's most important assignments was to chronicle, together with Redouté as part of a group of artists, the spectacular plants in the estate gardens of Napoléon's first wife, the Empress Josephine. Bessa also assisted in cataloguing the exotic specimens brought back to France from various exploratory campaigns, among them Napoléon's Egyptian campaign (1798-1801) and an expedition to the South Pacific for Louis Isidore Duperrey's Voyage Autour du Monde (1822-25). Bessa was himself a teacher of botanical painting, counting among his pupils the Duchesse de Berry (1798-1870), who so greatly esteemed Bessa's work that her father-in-law Charles X presented her with a set of his paintings as a gift.
Bessa's flower paintings, like Redouté's, translate the magnificent bouquets of seventeenth-century Dutch artists like van Huysum and van Os into the simpler, more naturally elegant arrangements of the French Romantic period. Like the Dutch masters, their paintings manage to be both scientifically accurate and visually stunning, with a correspondingly wide-ranging appeal. While Bessa's watercolors have only recently been studied in depth, his larger-scale oil sketches on unstretched canvas, among them the paintings offered here, are even less well known. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, published in conjunction with an exhibit of Bessa's paintings in Pittsburgh, discusses these oil sketches within the greater context of Bessa's career. The brilliant colors of the blossoms stand out vividly against the dark ground, representing either a collection of different floral studies or a single variety seen from several angles; perhaps they were studies for future compositions, but without doubt they prefigure the great French Impressionist still lifes of Fantin-Latour, Caillebotte and Manet.