- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

Ever since Adam chased Eve around the Garden of Eden, artists have re-created its lush wonders and those of other gardens.

Painters have delved not only into the beauty of flowers and plants, but into their origins, growth and flowerings. The philosopher Aristotle was the first to systematize plants, in fourth-century-B.C. Greece.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts has mounted an extraordinary exhibit of 50 prints and four books called "Illustrating Nature: Three CenItalian female artists from the 17th through the 19th centuries. This well could be the sleeper exhibit of the summer.

Contemporary male artists such as Frederick Church and Thomas Moran trumpeted louder messages about nature with monumental paintings of South America´s wilderness, while Martin Johnson Heade painted the gigantic orchids of Brazil.

By contrast, female artists were constrained by the times to approach nature in just a few ways. One way was to paint botanical images from which publishers made prints. The exhibition shows the visual voices of women to be softer but just as effective.

Consider Augusta Innes Baker Withers (1792 to 1869), who swirled tiny orchids in book illustrations about these plants in Mexico and Guatemala. She worked up from the delicate root structure at the lower part of the print to the succulent green bulbs in the middle to the lilting flowers above. Withers earned a distinguished reputation as an artist and teacher. Queen Adelaide of England, her primary patron, named her "Flower Painter in Ordinary to Queen Adelaide."

Also look at the work of Madeleine Basseport (1701-80), a miniaturist and flower painter in the court of King Louis XV, who showed a branch, leaves and fruit of a "Cornichon Blanc." She portrayed the small, sour pickle both full and sliced down the middle.

Don´t miss Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-58), who created the first of two volumes of "A Curious Herbal" in 1738. Her "Foeniculum (Fennel)" its flowers and seeds was among the hundreds of medicinal plants she documented. Blackwell´s herbal work became an important resource on the medicinal properties of herbs. It also attempted to systematize earlier traditions of home cures.

Nancy Valentine, national advisory board member for the museum, assembled the collection. An artist and collector, Miss Valentine researched and collected about 200 botanical prints by women. Mrs. Oliver R. Grace gave the funds. Any museum would cherish contributors such as these. Miss Valentine, especially, has given unusual assistance in filling in gaps in the museum´s collection, first with antique silver made by female silversmiths and now with these prints.

The stories of women who entered the restricted field of botanical science round out the show. "The tradition of botanical drawing and painting allowed women to enter the science only through the back door. What began as a male-dominated field became an area of artistic practice in which women excelled," exhibit curator Jordana Pomeroy writes in the free brochure.

Several artists painted plants for economic survival. Blackwell´s husband was always in hot water, and she became the family bread earner. The couple had moved from Aberdeen, Scotland, to London, where Alexander Blackwell opened a print shop. The police jailed him for two years because he lacked the legal amount of print apprenticeship.

Worried about debt, Elizabeth consulted medical friends. She decided to produce the definitive herbal guide needed as a reference for doctors. Sir Hans Sloane, curator of the Botanical Gardens in Chelsea, let her work in a house near the Chelsea Physic Garden. There she drew displays of living plants. At the time, botanical prints were created by three artisans a sketcher, an engraver and a painter but she engraved her own prints and hand-colored them.

Close examination of the "Fennel" reveals the delicacy of printing and coloring. Blackwell´s husband contributed to the book from prison by translating the text into several languages. Elizabeth Blackwell also knew how to market. She had several prominent men contribute to the work. The artist promoted the book by word of mouth, placed advertisements in publications and negotiated sales arrangements with booksellers to make it a financial success.

Several women documented plants while traveling. Agnes Dunbar Fitzgibbon (1802-99) accompanied her English husband to the wilds of Canada, where she depicted wildflowers. Berthe Hoola van Nooten´s trip from the Netherlands to Jakarta in Indonesia at first seemed ill-fated. She had traveled with her husband, who died there. Money or the lack of it pushed her to publishing "Fleurs Fruits et Feuillages Choissis de l´Ile de Java Peints d´Apres Nature (Flowers, Fruits, and Leaves Chosen From the Island of Java Painted After Nature)" in 1863. She painted the brilliantly colored and luxuriant vegetation of the island, including the exhibit´s "Codiaeum Variegatum (Variegated Codiaeum)." A Brussels publisher printed her studies with chromolithograph on paper.

Little is known about many of the artists whose work is shown in the exhibition. One is the elusive "Miss S.A. Drake," a prolific and respected illustrator in London in the 1830s and 1840s. She worked for the best botanical publications and produced the exhibit´s ethereal "Nelumbium Caspicum (Lotus)" in 1884.

This is an extraordinary exhibition of the efforts of fine female artists who bucked the male-directed trends of their times. It enhances the museum´s track record of mounting better and better shows, among them exhibits of works by Julie Taymor and Grandma Moses.


WHAT: "Illustrating Nature: Three Centuries of Botanical Prints"

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 26

TICKETS: $5 adults; $3 seniors, students and museum members; free for children 12 and younger

PHONE: 202/783-5000

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