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Margaret Mee

Margaret Mee, botanical artist of the Amazon

Catasetum trulla
Detail from Catasetum trulla, 1960

The Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection houses a collection of twenty-one paintings by the renowned British botanical artist, Margaret Mee (1909–1988). Known for her scientific attention to detail and painstaking color accuracy, Mee specialized in the flora of the Amazon. In 1967, Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss began the artist's relationship with Dumbarton Oaks by purchasing three botanical paintings from her recent expedition into the Amazon. Mee's published diaries describe the instant connection: “A portfolio of her work was showing in Washington, D.C., and some paintings on view in a small shop caught the eye of Mrs. Woods-Bliss who arranged a soiree at her famous home, Dumbarton Oaks.” The soiree took place in April 1967. At Mrs. Bliss’s invitation, Mee presented an exhibition of her work and delivered a lecture on her experiences in the field.

Mee painted the following twenty-one gouache* paintings during her first three expeditions into the Amazon from 1956 through 1969. She eventually made a total of fifteen trips into Amazonia to collect and paint the tropical flora before her death in Great Britain in 1988. Mee’s work grew out of a larger tradition of botanical illustration that reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. At that time, botany evolved into a discrete scientific discipline, and both European and American botanists studied native and exotic specimens brought back from remote journeys. Mee, however, was known for painting specimens in the field in an effort to capture detail and living color. Her dedication to accuracy and craft sets her work apart among botanical artists.

This exhibit provides Dumbarton Oaks an opportunity to display paintings acquired by Mrs. Bliss that reflect the work of Mee’s early journeys, when she had only just begun to chronicle the flora of the Amazon.

*Gouache is a form of watercolor. The pigments are mixed with zinc white and are opaque when applied to a surface.


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