Isaac sprague (1811–1895)

Isaac Sprague was one of the foremost American botanical and ornithological artists in the the 19th century. The Massachusetts artist was apprenticed as a carriage painter before becoming a successful, self-taught artist.

Having heard of Sprague’s talent in ornithological painting, John James Audubon visited Sprague at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1840. After seeing the younger man’s work, Audubon invited him to join an expedition on the Missouri River in 1843—a wonderful opportunity for Sprague to paint not only birds but landscapes, plants, and American Indians.

After Audubon’s expedition, Sprague returned to Massachusets and worked as illustrator for Asa Gray’s botanical studies at Harvard College for the next 20 years. Gray referred to Sprague as "the most accurate of living botanical artists".

It was unlikely that such a gifted botanical illustrator could escape working on the great survey expedition reports; Sprague's work at Harvard included illustrating the botany sections written by Asa Gray and John Torrey for the Pacific Railroad Survey reports. (It should be noted that a number of Sprague's works for the government survey reports are unattributed, and it is likely that he was the illustrator Torrey's "Botany of the Boundary" for the U.S.-Mexico Survey Report.)

While employed at Harvard, Sprague provided technical botanical illustrations for several of Gray’s other works, such as Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States and Genera florae Americae boreali-orientalis illustrata. His flower paintings were published in a number of books written for the general public, such as Flowers of Field and Forest and Beautiful Wild Flowers of America.

Here is a selection of Isaac Sprague's botanical illustrations that accompany the reports written by Gray and Torrey for the various Pacific Railroad Survey reports.

First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology by Asa Gray with illustrations by Isaac Sprague can be found at Biodiversity Heritage Library (www.biodiversitylibrary.org) along with some of his general interest flower books.