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William Bartram's Drawing of a New Species of Arethusa (1796): Portrait of a Life

Amy Meyers, Yale Center for British Art

In one of the most evocative portrayals of landscape from the first years of the young republic of the United States, the naturalist, William Bartram, counterposed a view of his family’s garden in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, on the western bank of the Schuylkill, against a more distant vista of the city of Philadelphia emerging from the treetops across the river. Bartram’s drawing, executed in 1796, has come to be recognized as a declaration of early republican exceptionalism--the depiction of an American reformulation of the European garden, located on a specifically American site and filled with rare New World species without parallel across the Atlantic. It has been argued that Bartram’s inclusion of the carnivorous Venus Flytrap alongside two gentle orchids posits this distinctly American garden as a model for the harmonious social order of the ideal city, where the lion lies down with the lamb—an allusion to the Biblical trope of the garden as an earthly paradise, suggesting that Eden might be regained on American soil.

These careful readings of Bartram’s drawing as a depiction of the incomparable redemptive power of a new society grounded in America are deeply persuasive, but, as some have contended, they must be justified with an understanding of the work as an autobiographical narrative that addresses the new order not just in terms of the present and future, but in terms of the past.  Indeed, the drawing relates a personal history that ties the Bartram garden, the city of Philadelphia, and the nation as a whole back to pre-revolutionary relationships that helped to determine their development.  Simultaneously, the work roots the evolution of Bartram’s own image-making and his role as a naturalist within a matrix of interconnected communities which, over much of the eighteenth century, extended from the garden itself to nearby Philadelphia and across the eastern seaboard of North America, as well as across the Atlantic to England and the Continent. This paper examines the ways in which Bartram drew upon a complex set of pictorial conventions, learned and developed across the whole of his professional career within these interlinked circles of associates, to craft a work that argues for the importance of his own history—and that of his family—to the emergence of the city that had come to serve as the capital of the nation and the center of American culture. 

Amy Meyers earned her PhD in American Studies at Yale in 1985. Since 2002, she has served as Director of the Yale Center for British Art. Previously, she was curator of American art at the Henry E. Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Meyers has written extensively on the visual and material culture of natural history in the trans-Atlantic world, serving as editor (with Lisa Ford) of Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia,1740 to 1840 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); (with Therese O’Malley) The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings, 1400-1850 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2008); Art and Science in America: Issues of Representation (San Marino: The Huntington, 1998); and (with Margaret Pritchard) Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). She has organized numerous symposia in the field, including Curious Specimens: Enlightenment Objects, Collections, Narratives (with Luisa Calè, Michael Snodin, Margaret Powell, and Cynthia Roman; London, 2010), Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (with Harold Cook and Pamela Smith, London, 2005; papers to be published by The University of Michigan Press, 2014); and ‘Curious in Our Way’: The Culture of Nature in Philadelphia, 1740 to 1840 (Philadelphia, 2004). 

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