“Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, ‘If you can draw an egg, you can draw anything,’ says Francesca Anderson. “I spent my childhood drawing the ovals in Mickey Mouse’s face. Therefore, if you can draw Mickey Mouse’s face, you can draw anything.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Anderson spent endless hours being strolled around the National Gallery of Art by her mother, who noted her daughter’s fascination with shapes and colors from infancy. Later, growing up in Pittsburgh, Anderson remembers longing for more colorful surroundings and yearning to be a Disney illustrator.
In fact, she grew up to be a world-renowned botanical artist, depicting natural history in pen and ink.
In middle school, she was selected to participate in a Saturday art course at the prestigious Carnegie Institute. Lessons began with small crayon drawings on a different theme each week. Anderson attended these classes for three or four years and was sometimes among the few students periodically asked to present their work to the rest of the class, re-creating their compositions in pastels on a large paper and addressing some 300 students. “I remember being terrified,” she shares.
As the time approached for college, Anderson received a science scholarship from Westinghouse Electric Company. “I’d always loved science along with art,” she explains. “At Manhattanville College, I started out as a physics major, but it was quickly revealed that I could not handle the necessary math. To their huge credit, Manhattanville pivoted by creating a brand-new BFA [bachelor of fine arts] program around me and another student.”
Anderson earned her BFA in 1968; the master of arts and master of fine arts would come more than a decade later, after she had relocated to Brooklyn, married, and was rearing two daughters. Her longtime proximity to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden inspired a new passion—plants. In fact, she says, “It was the start of my lifelong fascination with plants, which has defined my life.”
A career as a botanical illustrator was the perfect expression for Anderson’s threefold enthusiasm for art, science, and plants. In addition to gracing the walls of countless public and private collections, her works, rendered primarily in pen and ink, are also featured on the pages of many field guides and other scientific publications as well as books and articles on contemporary botanical art.
“For most of my artistic career,” Anderson says, “I have been committed to the study and practice of the art of the natural sciences, which go back to our very beginnings, to the cave drawings. For centuries, nature has been an inspiration for art.”
She also discusses the precision required in drawing plants for identification purposes, especially in reference to medicinal or culinary use. “Botanical illustration demands an in-depth exact examination of nature and an accurate reproduction of it.”
Anderson’s work is respected in the world of botanical scholarship, as evidenced by the comments of eminent botanist Sir Ghillean Prance in his foreword to Field Guide to the Palms of Belize, published in 2022 by the New York Botanical Garden Press and illustrated by Anderson. Prance writes, “These drawings are not only strikingly attractive, but they are also accurate with every intimate detail shown. It is wonderful that the small country of Belize has such great diversity of palms to offer and they could not be better represented than by the pictures in this attractive book.”
Despite all of the technological advances that have revolutionized the graphic arts, there is no substitute for pen and ink. “There is a revival of botanical art today, spurred on by Shirley Sherwood from the U.K.,” Anderson says. In fact, Sherwood, a botanist and author who earned a doctorate from Oxford University and was awarded the status of Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services in the botanical arts, established a collection at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London. The celebrated collection includes more than 1,000 contemporary botanical artworks by some 300 artists from 36 countries; Anderson is represented more widely than the vast majority of other contributors, with 13 works currently in the collection.
In addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, Anderson’s work has been exhibited throughout the world, with at least 20 solo shows and 60 group shows to her credit. She has exhibited at the National Wildlife Federation, the United States National Arboretum, the New York Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, to name just a few.
Her accolades include two gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and an Artist of the Year designation from the American Society of Botanical Artists.
The balance of art and science is a fascinating aspect of Anderson’s occupation. By commission, a suite of 13 of her drawings adorned the walls of the Orchid Room at the famous 21 Club in Manhattan. At the same time, she is a fellow of the 234-year-old
Linnean Society of London and a member of the International Dendrology Society.
Anderson describes botanical art as “the perfect antidote for our modern predilection for searching for truth, beauty, and relevance through a machine like the iPhone for instance, rather than through our own personal senses and reactions.”
She adds, “Botanical art slows down time and puts one in the moment. This process of looking is a meditation. It is, for me, more important than the end result.”
Anderson’s special connection with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has never been broken. For many years, she served as a trustee, and also as founder and president of the garden’s Florilegium Society. In 2008, BBG honored her with its Forsythia Award.
Nevertheless, she says, the decision to relocate from Brooklyn to Vero Beach was an easy, painless one. “After living in New York for most of our lives, my husband, Brad, and I knew we did not want to move to an urban area. Having vacationed all around Florida, we loved the water, the nature, and the vastness of the state. We saw that Vero Beach was committed to a low profile and limited growth, unlike other areas in Florida. There was an incredible recreational and arts infrastructure in place. As an artist, I loved the amazing light and color.”
Anderson points out several local institutions that have become important to her. She mentions that “the Vero Beach Museum of Art held a magnificent ‘Poetry of Nature’ exhibit featuring the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade as well as the ‘Vero Collects’ exhibit with works by N.C. Wyeth. The McKee garden is a botanical paradise with its lush, ever-changing flora and vegetative treasures.” And, when her artistic tastes venture into the animal kingdom, “the Environmental Learning Center has been a great and welcoming source of taxidermy birds for me to observe and draw.”
Overall, she says, “We felt comfortable with the people and the place. With time, Vero Beach just gets better and better, and we just feel grateful that eight years ago we made the decision to make our home here.”