Illustrators of the great survey expeditions portray the
magnificent cereus giganteus - part i

Much of the botanical and landscape art that emerged from America’s 19th century surveying expeditions was not intended to be scientifically exacting. While expedition reports of the time did produce hundreds of accurate and beautiful botanical illustrations, much of the art was created simply to document the vast unexplored territories for the rest of the country. Drawings from this period are notable not for their botanical accuracy but for the impact that they had on the imagination of future settlers and travelers.

The most dramatic of these works, Paulus Roetter’s “View Along the Gila / Cereus giganteus,” was prepared for the U.S.–Mexican Boundary Survey (1859). Roetter created roughly 100 botanical illustrations for the government survey reports, but he did not travel with the expeditions, working instead from collected specimens or sketches by the field artists. His majestic rendering of saguaros was based on one such sketch by Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, one of the artists of the Pacific Railroad Survey. Roetter was a successful landscape artist, and the artistic romanticism of the day can be seen here in the idyllic setting at the base of the saguaro. What is most interesting botanically is that the drawing subtly includes the life cycle of the saguaro, from the armless spears to the multi-armed mature plant to a standing skeleton.

Möllhausen had little formal artistic training, but he nonetheless secured a position as draftsman and official artist for the railroad survey. In 1857 he joined the U.S. Survey of the Colorado River and later published a memoir of his travels in that expedition. One of his accompanying illustrations includes the various stages in the life cycle of the saguaro as did the field sketches he had made a few years earlier for Roetter.

The third drawing here is by Arthur Schott, another artist of the Boundary Survey. This was one of 64 scenic views along the border that were to serve as a legal record of sorts to document points along the boundary. As a topographic drawing, it was not intended to be a detailed botanical portrait or even an evocative landscape, but Schott, ever meticulous and with a keen botanical interest, always strived to include in his drawings as many plant forms as time and circumstance would allow. As with the other two drawings shown here, the different forms in the saguaro’s lifecycle can be seen in Schott’s work.

Any botanical inaccuracies in these drawings can be overlooked given field conditions and, in Roetter’s case, unfamiliarity with living specimens. Their purpose above all was to present the landscape of the new territories in such a way as to amaze the viewer and encourage settlement. — Cindy Hartwell


This appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.