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.
From an early point in her career, Merian’s art included both plants and insects, often pairing a caterpillar with the corresponding butterfly or moth.
Merian’s work had astounding color while demonstrating meticulous scientific accuracy. For example, for each insect, Merian recorded how it looked in each stage, from the creation of the egg until the end of its life.
In some pieces, Merian’s expertly drawn insects dominate the piece and involve the whole process of metamorphosis. In this illustration, she uses less color but still makes the brown insects jump out against the black lines of the plant.
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.”
Merian found the flower spray that inspired this illustration in Suriname in January 1701, but the Acanthacee is drawn too short.
The creature, called wild wasp in Maribonse is depicted with additional inaccuracy, yet Merian wrote detailed descriptions of the nature of her insect specimens: in her research, that it was a social wasp and described its reproductive behaviors.
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.
This piece shows the crown imperial, two bluebells, and insects brimming with life and vibrant colors.
Herolt shows that crown imperial is the focal point of the painting by meticulously detailing the delicate red-veined petals fully opened to reveal the flower’s pistil and stamen.
Herolt, like her mother, was fascinated with the metamorphosis of insects and often included them, in different stages of their lives, in her paintings. In this piece, a caterpillar and a moth interact with the colorful and finely drawn flowers.
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.
This painting is highly representative of Dietzsch’s style: painting on vellum using dense layers of body color.
She also frequently used dark backgrounds to serve as a striking foil to her specimens.
In this painting, the two blooms balance gracefully on slender stems, one shown frontally and the other from the rear.
The white petals contrast arrestingly with the dark backdrop, while the long, undulating leaves seem to thrust forward from the darkness.
In this particular piece, Dietszch added a charming tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae).
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.
One illustration of a silk-cotton tree demonstrates her fixation on botany, as she features long, detailed accounts of what she saw in the fields.
Regarding the orange harvest, Brassey writes, “In many of the carts the golden fruit was already piled high, looking…[like] the garden of the Hesperides.”
Brassey was aware of the effects of colonialism and had a keen eye for political issues; she often featured images of “negroes,” or the workers she observed on her travels.
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.
The white chrysanthemum set against a grey background is rendered with artistic precision and great delicacy.
The intricately overlapping units in the flower head demonstrate Cloquet’s proficiency in capturing meticulous detail. The shadowing on the petals adds depth to the subject, a feature common to her lifelike illustrations.
While Cloquet almost exclusively painted flowers, there are two singular illustrations of pears in the last pages of her body color album. As with her flowers, they are rendered with vibrant colors and skillful texturing.
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 produced two collections of botanical drawings in hand-colored plates, one of which, A Collection of Exotics, from the Island of Antigua (1800), focused on her home. This piece, a watercolor of a potato vine, demonstrates her skillful shading and attention to leaves and branches.
This vivid depiction of an avocado pear, from A Collection of Fruits from the West Indies (1799), is characteristic of Byam’s colorful style. She uses rich shades with authentic shadowing, even taking care to note the subtler shades of oxidized brown in the avocado’s flesh.
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.
Like in many of her works, this piece demonstrates Blackwell’s interest in the many parts of a plant and often included them to help readers identify actual specimens in different stages of bloom.
In her illustration of the purple iris, she gives careful detail to the lines of the flower petals and the rough coloration of the root point.
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