Drawing From Life

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

A Look at the Work of Botanical Artist Maud H. Purdy

Science as Art
During the same decades that Georgia O’Keefe was making her dramatic modernist flower paintings, a botanical artist named Maud Purdy was also creating floral images using unexpected scale and an astonishing palette. Purdy was employed as a botanical illustrator at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 32 years, from 1913 to 1945.  The garden had been founded just a few years earlier, and it was not uncommon at that time for botanic gardens and other scientific institutions to employ staff artists to document their collections. 

When she was hired, Purdy had already established herself as a professional artist in the tradition of a turn-of-the-century “new woman.” She was a painter, textile designer, and fine art teacher working out of her own salon.

Purdy's first project for Brooklyn Botanic Garden was illustrations for Fundamentals of Botany, a textbook by Stuart Gager, the garden’s director. Over the years, she continued to illustrate articles and books by the staff and document plant collections like the garden's Japanese irises and heritage crabapples.

Purdy's striking paintings in gouache on black board were in electrifying contrast to more conventional botanical illustrations done against a white background. Produced over two decades in collaboration with the garden’s botanists and horticulturists, these gouaches were used to illustrate lectures and books.

Purdy’s illustrations were based on meticulous observation. She dissected specimens at different stages of their development and examined them both with the naked eye and under a microscope.

In her sketchbooks and research watercolors, Purdy recorded every defining part of a flower’s structure. She organized hundreds of these analytic drawings by order, family, and genus.

The 16.5” x 11.5” illustration of this morning glory cultivar depicted the flower at actual size in the upper left corner. Magnified images of the flower in cross-section were also included to show the details of its morphology.

In Purdy’s botanical illustrations, the scale of plant parts was meticulously recorded.

When Purdy painted Blumenbachia insignis, an unusual South American climbing plant with stinging hairs, she illustrated its sculptural, spirally twisted seed capsule stem up and magnified four times. Above it she painted the flower, magnified ten times, stem-end down.

Rather than depict the better-known tube-shaped leaves of this North American pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava, Purdy painted its topsy-turvy spring bloom.

In her lifetime, Maud Purdy’s botanical art was greatly appreciated for its beauty and educational value, but as photography became more widely used to illustrate botanical texts, her work for Brooklyn Botanic Garden was largely forgotten. Fortunately, many illustrations survived their neglect and were recently rediscovered and brought to light by the garden’s staff.

In 2004, 235 of her paintings, illustrations, and sketches were digitized. An exhibit and catalog, Drawing From Life: Maud H. Purdy and 90 Years of Women Artists at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, by Patricia Jonas, brought Purdy’s work to a fresh audience. This exhibit was adapted from that catalog.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Credits: Story

Drawing From Life: Maud H. Purdy and 90 Years of Women Artist at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, by Patricia Jonas

Credits: All media
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