Helene Durand

Helene Durand

Helene Durand (1883-1934) was arguably the most talented botanical artist ever. She was the daughter of Theophile Durand (Director of the Garden between 1901 and 1912) and Sofie Van Eelde. She took courses, both in the arts and in botany. For a brief period she worked at the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences. In 1912 she became full time employed at the Garden. Here Helene Durand produced countless illustrations of an outstanding quality. She managed to combine scientific accuracy with artistic craftsmanship and a passion for plants. She produced scientific line drawings, illustrations for the wood museum and small enamelled labels for the living collections. She dearly loved both plants and painting and her water colours of living plants are a vivid testimony of this love. The series on gymnosperms is especially beautiful. The paintings render the hues and textures of the cones of these plants in an unsurpassable way. One of the treated groups: the cycads, is threatened at the moment. These ancient plants evolved long before the dinosaurs and managed to survive till today, but at present they are endangered by human activities. The living specimens of these plants are still in cultivation in the National Botanic Garden and the illustrated conifers can be found in the Arboretum of Tervuren.

Helene Durand was a productive and meticulous artist. From her notes, in the archives of the Garden we can calculate, for instance, that the drawing of a cone of the Noble fir (Abies nobilis) took her 105 hours and 30 minutes. A small number of her illustrations have been used in scientific publications. The magnificent gymnosperm series, however, remains unpublished. Helene Durand lived for her work. She shared a small, simple apartment with her sister Louise. At the end of her life she suffered from a lung disease. Several treatments were tried, even the enigmatic 'energetic treatments', all to no avail. A stay in the countryside, in Keerbergen, away from the pollution and grime of the city, eased the suffering slightly but temporarily. In the night of 3rd August 1934, a few days from her 51st birthday, Helene-Emilie Durand died. The day after her death her sister writes a letter to the director of the Garden

"Hier encore - le jour même de sa mort ! - elle me parlait d'une série de planches commencés [sic] pour un de vos ouvrages ... Je regretterai [sic] pour monsieur Robyns si je ne pouvais pas finir ces planches; me disait-elle."

"Even yesterday, the day before she died she talked to me about a series of illustrations for one of your publications... I would feel very sorry for Mr. Robyns, should I not be able to finish these illustrations; she told me."

Till the very end of her life Helene Durand remained true to her mission. She was one of those unique and passionate people who excel in their work.

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