Breeding plants has a very long history that is little known. Even less known is its history as the one of an artistic discipline. Edward Steichen is the first artist who creates new organisms and exhibits these as art in the Museum of Modern Art in New York: Bio-art, long before Eduardo Kac in the 1990s coined the term. The beginnings of Bio-art lie far back in time and ideas to involve living organisms in art or to make themself a work of art are old. Aesthetic experience shapes so consistent the human understanding of the world that those organisms with which human beings are living at the closest are affected evolutionary. As a medium of horticulture plants and animals have been modified by aesthetic ideas. The boundaries between nature and artifice were never clear and disputed here already. Although the functions of inheritance, and even the sexuality of plants was long unknown - it was only discovered in the late 17th century - aesthetically extremely refined living organisms were grown previously. Much of this work is not seen as a work of art. Such as Edward Steichen's larkspur 'Connecticut Yankee', which can be purchased by about two dollars at the garden center today. But Edward Steichen is neither first nor the only artist who dealt with the hybridization and selection of ornamental plants: Claude Monet, Cedric Morris, William Caparne or Fernand Denis grow dahlias, poppies or irises, to name just a few examples. Many of these works are now lost. Many breeders, despite the utmost aesthetic awareness, do not position themselves within the reference system of art––an example is Karl Foerster. A comparison of the careers and practices of Steichen and Foerster is also profoundly questioning nowadays assignments to various disciplines.


Karl Foerster (1874 - 1970), world-famous as a gardener and writer, and Edward Steichen (1879 - 1973), world-famous as a photographer, never met one another personally. As contemporaries, they lived in different political, geographic and professional spheres. Even their personalities are as different as can possibly be: On the one hand there is Steichen, sophisticated and widely travelled, familiar with the world of the stars and seldom sedentary, his language clear and precise. On the other hand there is Foerster, who spent his life in Potsdam and, with his language stacked into mystical word structures, is tied to 19th-century poetry. If we consider their careers according to typical categories of (art) historiography, we fail to find a point of reference for dedicating a single article to both of them. Yet these categories are deficient, and indeed ignorant: Foerster and Steichen can be linked by their artistic work, their lifelong aesthetic examination of and passion for growing plants. As a manifesto, this article thus follows the history of a heretofore marginalized art form: “The time is long overdue for ornamental plant breeding to be considered an art.”[1]

Karl Foerster and Edward Steichen made use of a common artistic medium: plants. “The science of heredity when applied to plant breeding, which has as its ultimate purpose the aesthetic appeal of beauty, is a creative art. Instead of words or pigment or tone, the plant breeder works and struggles with factors and forces that have been locked up within the various species of plants he may employ for tens of thousands of years... releasing new forms, patterns and colors....”[2] It is especially the larkspur (delphinium) and its blue that fascinated both artists: “The delphinium and many of our garden flowers still have unexplored potentialities awaiting development that will bring us flowers beyond any of our present concepts or imaginings,”[3] Steichen stressed, and Foerster pointed out: “It depends on ordering the blue matters, by conveying the experience and nature and art, into adventurous, creative harmonies with all others. The world can be trained in the color blue.”[4]


Well informed about the results of other cultivators, Foerster commenced growing his own delphiniums in 1907. He first procured already successful breeds from around Germany (from Nonne and Höpker in Ahrensburg, Junge in Hamelin, Wilhelm Pfitzer in Stuttgart, as well as Goos and Koenemann in Niederwalluf), as well as from English cultivators such as Blackmore & Langdon and James Kelway, whose 'King of Delphiniums' was cultivated in Foerster’s nursery in Bornim until into the 1930s. He drew on thousands of seedlings and in 1912 offered the variety called 'Arnold Boecklin', his first “novelty of his own breeding, in pure gentian blue. No other variety of delphinium even remotely approaches in its coloring the purity of this color.”[5] Clear, luminous colors were the most important goals of his cultivation work.


Nearly simultaneously, in the spring of 1908, Edward Steichen rented a farmhouse in Voulangis, in the département of Seine-et-Marne in France. He began dealing with genetics[6] and heredity and to cultivate delphiniums. The raw material of his work was plants from the Parisian cultivator Victor Lemoine and—also—James Kelway. “The Lemoine-named varieties made an appeal by beauty beyond anything I had ever experienced with flowers before—charm, dignity, grace and elegance—with double flowers in delicate pastel tints in varying proportions of lavender and sky blue. Among the Kelway seedlings, all in small single florets, were several of a deep, pure blue suggestive of the rich coloring of a stained glass window. How wonderful it would be if these rich colors of the Kelway strain had the form and style of the Lemoine varieties.”[7] Steichen interbred the French and English delphinium varieties in order to combine the Kelway flowers with the overall appearance of the Lemoine breeds. In these first attempts at breeding plants, his focus was only on the pure, deep blue of the flowers, while in the ensuing years he became increasingly interested in the plants’ structure and habitus. Already in 1911, he was able to announce the first positive results when one of the delphiniums blossomed as he had hoped: “a pure, rich blue self”[8]. Through this first success he leased several fields in the vicinity and continued his experiments on a grander scale. “Seven acres solid with delphinium made a breath-taking display.”[9] His French neighbors knew and valued him as a gardener and plant breeder, and in the summer of 1913 one of Steichen’s delphiniums won a gold medal from the French Horticultural Society in Paris. Steichen drew clear parallels between his approach to photography and to breeding delphiniums: “In general I’ve undertaken breeding delphiniums very much as I went about the study of photography years ago.... Systematically, I violated every rule.”[10] Steichen nurtured thousands of delphinium seedlings and selected from among thousands of negatives and prints—for him, making a breeding selection was every bit as demanding as exposure in photography. “The most difficult thing is to pick out the good ones for breeding. Their points are indescribable. You can see it, it’s just a little difference in color and texture that makes the good ones shining and luminous.”[11] His intuitive knowledge of his plants corresponds with his intuitive ability to expand the rules of camera technique. Yet the situation in Voulangis changed abruptly in August of 1914 with the outburst of the First World War. Steichen and his family succeeded in fleeing the battle zone with the railway’s last cattle transport and boarding a ship from Marseille to New York. Steichen returned to France with the US Army and after the war was still able to save several of his plants that were retrieved from neighbors’ gardens, yet he continued his breeding work only sporadically until 1928.


The First World War also interrupted Foerster’s breeding work: Most of his seedlings fell victim to the conversion of gardens to agricultural crop production due to the war. In 1916, Foerster was drafted into military service yet was declared unqualified for the front due to his hardness of hearing. He returned to Potsdam already in 1917, where he dreamed “of flower gardens of the future” and thus wrote his first bestseller. Breeding successes also cropped up, and in 1920 he presented his first delphinium elatum variety, the 'Berghimmel', and other varieties followed. In 1929, Foerster published his book Der neue Rittersporn – Geschichte einer Leidenschaft in Bildern und Erfahrungen (The New Delphinium – The Story of a Passion in Image and Experience), in which his new delphinium elatum varieties were introduced, as was an exact definition of his breeding goals. The range of Foerster delphiniums grew to 29 varieties by 1935. Foerster described this new aesthetic richness quite dryly: “The ideal delphiniums are here. It would be better to say that the ideal realistic delphiniums have been achieved. The most obvious thing in the world occurred: the pure blue tones, sky blue, gentian blue, cornflower blue, night blue, ice blue, sea-green blue got their right to exist, next to the transition tones of purple, violet, amethyst, rose quartz and opal.”[12]


In 1928, Steichen purchased a farm in Umpawaug, Connecticut, where he resumed breeding delphiniums. By 1934 he had fully 10 acres with around 50,000 plants. He described his breeding interests as such: “Like most novices I began by being primarily interested in color, and it was the idea of pure blue selves that I worked most upon during the early part of the work. Later, with the introduction of Victor Lemoine’s larger floret and longer spiked variety I became interested in bigness and tallness.... As my experience grew and my judgment matured, the foliage, stem, architecture, and style of the spike in relation to the plant as a whole became essential factors in my breeding and selection, but all the time perenniality and disease resistance were basic considerations. The seedlings selected for propagation were planted in various parts of the nursery for testing purposes. When a plant stood up and showed improvement along the general lines of the breeding program, and if it had passed these tests for six years, it became a candidate for further crossing and improvement.”[13]


In 1935, Steichen became president of the American Delphinium Society and began editing the annual Delphinium. On June 24, 1936, the exhibition titled “Edward Steichen’s Dephiniums” was opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Just how unusual the show was can be gathered from the museum’s press release: “They are original varieties, as creatively produced as his photographs. To avoid confusion, it should be noted that the actual delphiniums will be shown in the museum—not paintings or photographs of them. It will be a 'personal appearance' of the flowers themselves.”[14] The exhibition was a popular success, and the press also responded in detail to the event. J. W. Johnston, editor of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote: “In our short lives, we have already seen delphiniums that one can describe as very good-looking, and there has to be a reasonable boundary for what one may expect from a plant. This exhibition raised the level of our knowledge by at least 50 percent, to be conservative. It is the most striking exhibition of delphiniums by a single breeder and all breeders together that we have ever seen in our country. With it, one man has proven once more that with nature, virtually anything is possible.”[15] From this exhibition, Steichen hoped to gain recognition for breeding plants as an art form—but was disappointed. The tall delphinium elatum varieties that were on display in the exhibition were never brought to market—neither in nurseries nor on the art market.


At the height of his fame as a photographer, on 1/1/1938, Steichen retired from commercial photography in order to dedicated himself entirely to breeding delphiniums. As did World War I, the Second World War also interrupted Steichen’s breeding program, and after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Steichen decided to enlist in the Army at the age of 62. He was only able to save his most important breeds; the rest of his 10-hectare delphinium farm was ploughed down. After the war ended, he had lost 80% of his delphinium varieties and his last large-scale plant project was finished. Steichen now resolved to breed an entirely new variety of smaller delphinium—“a bush covered by blue butterflies.”[16] In the 1930s, scientists discovered that the drug colchicine brought about a transmutation of diploid chromosomes into tetraploid chromosomes, and Steichen made use of this fact for his previously sterile elatum/belladonna/tatsuenense hybridization. He called this bush-shaped delphinium “Connecticut Yankee,” after Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and brought it to market in 1965 with the aid of a major American seeds company. While Steichen’s photographic works can be traded at high prices on the art market, today his “Connecticut Yankee” variety can be had for around 2 dollars in a garden center—though without any mention of the artist. In 1985, the columnist Alan Lacy wrote, “I don’t have any Steichens hanging in my house. But I grow some Steichens out in my garden, which I raised from a package of seeds that cost less than dollar. They are lovely to behold... fine examples of the contribution of the hybridizer’s art to the American garden.”[17] Steichen’s demands of the art business remain without consequence to this day.


National Socialism and the Second World War also did not pass by Karl Foerster without a trace: In 1940, he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, yet the enthusiasm appears to have evaporated by 1943, when he wrote, “We are all guilty through our comfortable reliance on God. We 'peaceful people of the land' needed to intervene with the spokes, fervently wide awake. Now we are among the bearers of vicarious suffering. Yet not even by a signal such as the book Mein Kampf were we awakened.”[18] Foerster succeeded in saving several of his plant breeds from the destruction of the war and in 1945, despite the seizure of his nursery by the Soviet military, he continued to work on breeding his plants. Subsequently, Foerster’s nursery became the DDR’s only herbaceous perennial production facility. Up to his death in 1970, Foerster was exceptionally successful as a writer and as a cultivator. To date, 82 delphinium varieties by Karl Foerster have been verified, of which plants have been marketed. Many of them are lost and had already disappeared during Foerster’s lifetime. At present, around 30 of his delphinium elatum varieties are available on the market.


Contemporary biotechnologies offer new, unprecedented opportunities to genetically manipulate living creatures and design them according to human ideas. Some artists are already turning the laboratory into the studio: Tissue cultures, synthesis of artificially generated DNA sequences or biorobotics are no longer just content, but also tool. Is it artists ever allowed to change the forms of the living world according to aesthetic rules? Many of the discourses about Bio-art deal with the consequences of the new technologies and thereby appeal to the scandalizing potential about social, political and ethical issues. Very little attention, however, is paid to the aesthetic, ornamental plants do not provoke any discussions. Why not? Aesthetic decisions are left more and more to multi-million commercial vendors, bringing the annual new rarities, sensations and novelties on the market. The aesthetic goals of their creators are unknown as themselves, rarely the names of breeders are even known. However, their works become part of evolution. Should only artists not be allowed to change the forms of the living world according to aesthetic rules? With these arguments about aesthetic conventions art sharpens the ecological awareness. The dualistic view of the world in which art and nature are facing each other as separate spheres is more problematic and less durable, here the contemporary (Bio-) art shows important alternatives, towards non-dualistic hybrid constructs beyond their superficial prettiness.


For Steichen and Foerster, flowers are central objects of aesthetic work, which involve questions of form every bit as much as their intensive preoccupation with light and color. They pursued plant breeding as an art form every bit the equal of photography, painting or literature––in this, they remain to be discovered as pioneers.

[1] George Gessert, Green Light. Toward an Art of Evolution. MIT 2010.

[2] Edward Steichen, The Garden, 1949.

[3] Edward Steichen, The Garden, 1949.

[4] Karl Foerster, Blauer Schatz der Gärten. 1912/2006, p. 15.

[5] Karl Foerster, Blauer Schatz der Gärten. 1912/2006, p. 97.

[6] Hugo de Vries, Plant Breeding, 1907.

[7]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[8]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[9]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[10]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[11]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[12] Karl Foerster, Blauer Schatz der Gärten. 1912/2006, p. 98.

[13]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[14] Pressetext Museum of Modern Art MOMA, 22 June 1936.

[15]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[16]Ronald Gedrim: Edward Steichen. Oxford 1996.

[17] Alan Lacy, “Photogenic Delphinium.” The Wall Street Journal, 24 April 1985.

[18] Carsten Mehliss: Karl Foerster. Seine Blumen, seine Gärten. Ulmer 2012.