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Evolution of Botanical Artistic Expression


Maria Sibylla Merian from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLIII. "Spiders, ants and hummingbird on a branch of a guava"

A Horse of a Different Color!

  by Penelle Braida-Skinner

This month we touch on the evolution of botanical artistic expression from the 19th century to modern day.  What does a horse have to do with modern botanical art?  Well, climb aboard and see the world! 

 “The Iron Horse” traveled a web of railroad tracks across America and Canada intensifying man’s exploration of the continent in the late 1880s. These transcontinental ‘critters’ facilitated all manner of adventure into the great Rocky Mountain forests and glacial lakes; into the woods, glades and deserts of this wide and varied land. Heretofore unknown plant-life could be discovered and revealed to the world.  The North American wilderness became a major attraction to explorers, naturalists and scientists who fostered a burst of botanical artwork.

Mary Vaux Walcott (18601940) began mountain climbing at the age of 23, leaving her eastern Quaker town to vacation with family and then to assist her brothers in their burgeoning career as naturalist photographers. Learning the skills of mountain survival, Mary hauled heavy camera supplies up thousand foot mountains, all the while developing an eye of observation and the hand of an artist.  Through the 1920’s she received acclaim for her watercolors of wild flora painted during her years of mountain treks.  Ultimately, part of her work was published in 1925 by The Smithsonian Institute in a five volume set called, North American Wildflowers.  Walcott was hailed by botanists as the “The Audubon of Flowers.”  Her originals, shown in big city galleries commanded $500 for each of the “deluxe editions” in an age where bread was 3 cents a loaf!  

Mary was instrumental in the development of color printing. She worked with the inventor William Edwin Rudge to develop what became “The Smithsonian Process.”  Pure rag paper was used for color retention and durability. Put through a number of four-color presses before being ‘fixed’ in a water bath, it was a pains-taken effort to dry each sheet by hand!

Dr. Charles Walcott acclaimed Paleontologist and also strong administrator to the Smithsonian was a true partner to Mary’s personal growth and her husband.  After his death Mary continued her mountain journeys and became active in many organizations for the preservation of forest lands, its peoples and explorations. She fundraised for The Smithsonian and for the opportunities and development of artists in the region. She was often referred to as “The Artist.” and “Grand Dame” of the mountains.

From that period we can also note Mary Schaeffer Warren (1861-1939) and Julia Henshaw who were also climbers here and abroad, explored and recorded the beauty of nature.  In 1907 Warren published her Alpine Flora and Henshaw in 1920 her Mountain Wildflowers of Canada.  Each received acclaim and added substantially to the body of botanical art.

(1)              As Mary’s work reached its zenith a new kind of flower came upon the scene.  Some artists were exploring their “visions,” “impressions,” “abstractions” or “understandings” of the subject, at the expense of accuracy.  Nonetheless beautiful in their own right, these new representations veered away from being botanical art and caste a temporary shadow on its popularity.   American Artist Geogia O’Keefe (1887-1986) at the age of 13 told a schoolmate, “…I am going to be an artist!”–“I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind.”  She was one of those artists whose powerful and elemental art caught the limelight from 1924, when she painted her lovely flower painting Petunia No.2 – until 1939, by which time she had evolved to highly cerebral interpretations not only of flowers but trees, rivers and buildings.

By the mid 1950’s quite a number of art movements had attracted a variety of following.  Most of these had their beginnings in the intellectual circles of the European continent and in particular, France.  These movements revolted away from bucolic realism of 19th century art in favor of “the strange and the exaltation of imaginary. (1)

Dreams, inner demons and any art of the past that revealed something unreal or a mind projection was captured in the movement called ”Surrealism.”  L’Art Deco represented an art movement that stylized all objects; architecture, furniture, statue, jewelry and painting. The list of movements goes on, many of which were also newly familiar with primitive art and ancient cultures heretofore unexploited. Art incorporated the occult and also the legends and myths of early civilizations. 

The art of photography bloomed over the first half of the 20th century, impacting the attention paid to the botanical artist. Film documentary has done likewise, growing more influential over the entire century.  The Information Age began and technology expanded the availability of knowledge as well as the rapidity of its dissemination.  Thus at the beginning of this 21st century man is bombarded with possibilities and most importantly, with the influence of his/her own individual voice.  However, the tradition of scientific documentation is not diminished by this maelstrom. 

Today the pendulum of public acclaim has swung back more fairly to appreciation of the skillful painting artist whose work is often the basis of other art forms. The public is more than ever interested in the peacefulness and artistry of our natural world. In fact, botanical art is all the more important to us individually with its focus on the preservation of life. Today’s botanical artist works hand in hand with the exploring botanist to enrich science, with gardeners to preserve a history and with the educator that we might go beyond the chaos and witness the divine.

With its exactitude, Botanical Art promises new heights in composition, perspective, color and personal style and continues to reveal the self contained abundance, uniqueness and fragility of all plant life on this planet we all share. Modern botanical artists provide us with the joy of “seeing” life in ever new ways, where we may have missed the very knowing of it.                        

No to overload you with facts, but my sister, Penelle, and I thought it best to list just a few modern day botanical artists that are at the top of the charts.  The list goes on, but here’s a start…


  1. English Nature Artist, Margaret Mee (1909- 1988) remarked during an interview that the culmination of her career occurred during an evening vigil when she was able to record a rare night-blooming cactus flower in bloom, “There was the full moon looking through the branches of the tree — magnificent — and all the time, the sound of night birds.”
  2. American Artist Mary Ann Currier (1927-) has said that “no two organic things are the same” and believes that botanical art has no finitude.  Her oils, and pastels, have a realistic exactitude that she softens with a delicate touch of brush and color.
  3. Scottish Botanical Artist, Rory McEwen (1932-1982) was one of the most influential twentieth century botanical artists. Although his flowers are highly detailed and botanically correct, they float in space in a dramatic, almost surreal manner.
  4. Italian Botanical Artist, Marilena Pistoia who currently teaches at the University of Bologna gifted the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, PA, 223 original watercolor paintings from three publications: F. Bianchini and F. Corbetta, I frutti della terra and Le piante della salute, and Laura Peroni, Il linguaggio dei Fiori; The Complete Book of Fruits and Vegetables, Health Plants of the World: Atlas of Medicinal Plants; and The Language of Flowers.
  5. American Botanical Artist, Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden (1907-) Grew up in the Colorado Rockies.  She wrote and designed 20 books on botany enlightening generations of children and adults about plants and their pollinators on everything from roses to city weeds, including books that detailed plants found in the Bible and those in the literature of William Shakespeare. “She is one of the — if not the — leading botanical artists in America,” says James White, curator of art and principal research scholar at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.


Book Buys

North American Wildflowers, 5 volumes

Smithsonian Institution 1925, Repub 1988
ISBN 0517642697
Wildflowers of America

by Mary Vaux Walcott
400 Plates
Item # 180005596596
Available on E-Bay

A Hunter of Peace: Mary T. Schaffer’s
Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies
by Schaffer, Mary T. S
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,
1986, Includes her unpublished account

of the 1911 Expedition to Maligne Lake


Mountain Wild Flowers of Canada
by Julia Henshaw:
Item number: 6980406186
available on E-Bay.


Rocky Mountain Wild Flowers
by A.E. Porsild –
Item number: 4581784131
available on E-Bay.


Margaret Mee’s Amazon:
Diaries of an Artist Explorer

Margaret Mee


Jaguar Rain:
The Margaret Mee Poems

by Jan E. Conn


Flowers of the Amazon Forest:
The Botanical Art of Margaret Mee

Margaret Ursula Brown


Complete Book of Fruits & Vegetables
by Francesco Bianchini, illustrated
Marilena Pistoia.
ISBN: 0517520338


The Secret Life of Flowers by Anne Ophelia Dowden
ISBN: 193331754X

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