Women have played a significant role in the development of plant science through botanical art, yet many have not received due recognition for their work as compared to their male counterparts. Explore the works of women artists ahead of their time whose works are part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation's collections.
The spikes of the caterpillar run against the fine lines of the backdrop, demonstrating Merian’s fixation on insects, down to the details of the tiny hairs on their backs. Her interest began from an early age, of which she said, “I have been studying insects since my early youth. I started with silk worms in Frankfurt am Main, the city of my birth.”
While Merian found acclaim during her lifetime, history has also shown that many unconventional female botanical artists went without such recognition, despite great talent. The following artists and artwork, all represented in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library, received varied acclaim for their works, which varied from entomology to mycology to herbology, not purely what was expected of them. During their lives, these women were expected to illustrate floral, decorative pieces. Merian was the first artist to display the full process of metamorphosis, leaving her mark on history. Yet she was not the first, and would not be the last, woman to challenge their ordinary roles and influence the techniques and significance of a woman’s role in the marriage between art and science.
Herolt’s work was often misattributed, but much of it has been recovered and identified. She emphasized three-dimensional petals and stems, often putting different flowers into the same arrangement and including the familiar insects that Merian illustrated, probably because of her stepfather’s influence.
Dietzsch took advantage of her social standing, but she worked diligently to make her work original by painting watercolors over gold leaf on vellum. While many of the artists in the collection were able to receive training, their accomplishments were particularly significant because, unlike their male counterparts, they could not continue to pursue art by traveling. Some challenged convention by arranging trips to study foreign plants, while others became impressively proficient in drawing the fine details of local plants.
Lady Brassey was interested in wildlife, particularly trees native to the places to which she traveled. In Trinidad, she learned about the significance of cacao and coffee berries. Throughout her travels, she noted each detail she learned and observed, including the age, height, and farming methods of cacao trees. Although Brassey wrote the book and other artists created the plates, she gave significance to these drawings by detailing the methods of planting and caring for plants she encountered on her trips.
In eighteenth-century western Europe, flower-painting was a fashionable pastime for upper-class ladies, which informed Cloquet’s artwork. Despite this, she demonstrated extraordinary talent and created memorable pieces with a vivid focus on petal details that made once Redouté famous, and perhaps made Cloquet a superior pupil.
Byam, whose social standing propelled her into encounters with foreign plants, and provided published collections for her audience. Eventually, these collections created by women became more than scientific and artistic: the next artist made these plants medicinally significant, permanently altering a woman’s role in art.
The plants were drawn from actual specimens in the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was established to educate apprentice apothecaries about plant identification, including new imported species that had never before been studied. Despite the fact that Blackwell had no training in the field of botany, she consulted with experts and filled a necessary and timely demand to document these herbals.
In line with the scientific nature of Blackwell’s publication, she took great deliberation to illustrate the various anatomical parts of the specimen, especially those that were typically out of sight. Dracunculus genum was recorded by Blackwell to be “good in malignant contagious distempers, and pestilential fevers, and… very useful to drive any thing out from the heart, for which it is given in the small pox and measles.” The College of Physicians, when presented with Blackwell’s creation, were highly impressed and issued a glowing endorsement. Previous herbals sorely lacked the comprehensiveness of Blackwell’s atlas of medicinal plants. Keep reading in Part 2 of our Women Botanical Artists exhibit.
All images are the property of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. All text was provided by staff, interns, and volunteers of Oak Spring Garden LLC, who also curated the exhibit.
Learn more at www.OSGF.org