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Margaret Mee/Portraits of Plants

Yota Batsaki

Each plant is a mystery whose laws challenge us; whose reason for life, whose preferences, dislikes and inter-relationships, teach us a lesson which should give us a better understanding of the world in which we live. I admire and respect Margaret Mee, who seeks to portray the intricate beauty of the many plants which have so far passed unnoticed in a world where greed and ambition ruthlessly destroy our wonderful heritage, the gift of life.

—Roberto Burle Marx, Brazilian artist and landscape architect

The long tradition of plant representation combines the resources of art and science. While botanical art has been associated with aesthetic pleasure and botanical illustration with scientific documentation, both media draw on close observation, curiosity, and admiration for the natural world.

Margaret Mee was a remarkable artist who unlike many botanical illustrators sketched many of her plants in their natural habitat. She embarked on fifteen expeditions to the Amazon, spanning the years 1956 to 1988, and collaborated with renowned botanists, who fed her growing knowledge of Brazilian flora. For one of them, Lyman Smith, who worked on the bromeliads that have their center of diversity in the Atlantic Forest, she produced her first illustrations. Mee’s gift of observation led to the discovery of five new species, three of which were named after her. While her works have been admired for their vibrant color and beautiful composition, they are also valued for their scientific accuracy. This interplay between art and science is seen in Tabebuia umbellata (Sond.) Sandwith, where the glowing trumpet-shaped flowers are arranged for maximum aesthetic effect, while the addition of dissections and anatomical details at the bottom recalls a scientific illustration (fig. 1). Mee usually recorded the time and place where she collected or studied her plants. One of her paintings has even prompted the discovery of a new variety, Heliconia chartacea var. meeana, by Smithsonian botanist John Kress.

Mee used gouache, a type of watercolor that consists of pigment and a water-soluble binder. By contrast to the transparency of conventional watercolor, the addition of white pigment or chalk renders gouache opaque and gives it a matte finish. Mee’s choice of this medium enabled her to capture the plant’s color and texture. Her sense of composition was extraordinary. In some paintings, the plants seem to step forward boldly from the page, as with the Streptocalyx longifolius (fig. 2)or the Bromelia antiacantha. Others, like the Neoregelia concentrica, appear to draw the viewer into the very core of the plant through the concentric arrangement of the leaves, toward the inflorescence in the center that resembles a minute garden, a world within a world (fig. 3). The flowers of the Vriesea simplex extend down and out, conveying the plant’s natural rhythm and showing the artist’s mastery of movement and depth. Mee is equally capable of capturing the delicate structure and sumptuous, modulating color of the Heliconia psittacorum and the hardy texture and sharp spines of Ananas bracteatus. To see her paintings is to partake of her passionate endeavor “to seek out a plant, bring it from its obscurity” (in the words of her friend, Brazilian artist and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx) and have it acknowledged, studied, and admired for its individual features and beauty. This approach speaks to the quality of revelation in Mee’s paintings; just as portraiture seeks to capture a unique individual, so Mee’s botanical art reveals what botanists call the “character” of plant, its unique combination of color, texture, and form.

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee, Tabebuia umbellata. Cult. São Paulo, Proc. Butantã, August 1964”

Fig. 1. Margaret Mee, Tabebuia umbellata (1964), Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Streptocalyx longifolius, Proc: Amazonas, Rio Vaupés, Vaupés, Dez. 1964. Margaret Mee”

Fig. 2. Margaret Mee, Streptocalyx longifolius (1964), Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

Margaret Mee, 1960, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Neoregelia concentrica, Dezembro, 1960, Reserva Florestal, Caraguatatuba, São Paulo. Margaret Mee”

Fig. 3. Margaret Mee, Neoregelia concentrica (1960), Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

From the earliest days of Dioscorides’ De materia medica, composed in the first century AD, stylized renderings of plants accompanied their description. Early modern herbals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries employed the new printing technology to include images that assisted plant taxonomy and identification. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the further flowering of botanical art and illustration to capture the explosion in the exchange of specimens and the accelerated mobility of plants across the globe. The emergence of photography did not edge out the medium of pen and ink illustration, still prized for its ability to synthesize important elements from different parts of the plant’s life cycle and to capture and highlight individual detail. The interests of the botanist and the artist converged in the intimate knowledge of the plant and the desire to translate the pressed herbarium specimen or photograph into a dynamic, memorable portrait. At its best, botanical art, such as the paintings of Margaret Mee, is able to convey the growing, changing nature of the plant and to capture the moment of intimate encounter with the unique specimen, the living organism.

Throughout the early modern period, art was a powerful tool for capturing, recording, and sharing the knowledge of nature, with women artists playing a prominent role. Usually trained by close family members or hired professionals, they were excluded from such key aspects of artistic instruction as the study of the male nude and directed instead to less ambitious genres, especially still-life painting. Representing the natural world afforded women artists opportunity to overcome these social and artistic constraints, revealing the full breadth of their talent through close observation to nature, often enhanced by technical precision and attention to detail. The relationship between the artistic and scientific aspects of their practice, however, was far from straightforward; nor were their productions always considered of value to professional botanists. Their works could be admired as important records of botanical collections or dismissed as a genteel pastime; yet the subject matter of their flower paintings is very far from insignificant.

Appearing around 150 million years ago, the first flowers propelled the evolutionary success of the higher plants. The flower, serving the purpose of plant reproduction, is an evolutionary masterpiece with astonishing and delightful variety of structure, color, and texture (qualities that lend themselves to visual representation) as well as scent and taste. The latter elude the artist or illustrator, but often play a role in the elaborate relationship between pollinator and plant. Necessary to the production of fruit and seed that in one way or another sustain all life on earth, flowers have come to symbolize vitality and beauty, but also fragility and transience.

In the case of orchids and their pollinators, for example, these specialized relationships have driven the spectacular diversity of forms and colors captured in the watercolors of Caroline Maschek or the photographs of Amy Lamb. One hundred years apart and working in the different media of gouache and photography, both Maschek and Lamb resort to stitching together images to capture the extraordinarily long spur of the Angraecum orchid. This epiphyte, which originates in Madagascar, is also known as Darwin’s orchid: in 1862, the naturalist postulated the existence of a moth with a proboscis long enough to pollinate it, and such an insect was indeed discovered two decades after Darwin’s death, confirming the predictive power of evolutionary theory (figs. 4–5).

Caroline Maschek (1857–1938), 1884–91, 31.5 × 24 cm, with additional sheet of thin paper measuring 28.5 × 24 cm, gouache on tinted Bristol paper

Fig. 4. Caroline Maschek, Angraecum sesquipedale (1884–91), Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

Amy Lamb (b. 1944), 2016, 33.8 x 76.2 cm, pigment print of photograph. Loan, Amy Lamb

Fig. 5. Amy Lamb, Angraecum II (2016).

As poster-organisms for conservation, plants are less charismatic than animals. Their movement and growth are slower than our senses can usually register, obscuring their dynamic interactions with their environment. Their temporal horizon is often more ephemeral or else substantially longer than the human lifespan, leading us to overlook their fundamental importance to the health and vitality of earth’s ecosystems. The resulting “plant blindness”—our inability to recognize and acknowledge the singularity, ubiquity and significance of plants in our environment—raises an obstacle to their preservation. Engagement with botanical art and illustration offers an antidote to this blindness, for both rely on detailed and prolonged observation of the plant and excel in the painstaking representation of its “habit” or character, the particularities of its form, scale, and rhythm.

We know Mee’s feelings for the Amazon from her diaries. She constantly reaches out for metaphors to convey the exuberance and luxuriance of Amazonian flora, likening the plants to precious stones (“rubies”), cultural artifacts (“Chinese lanterns,” “Impressionist paintings”), or other life forms (hummingbirds, parrots, and scorpions). The flowers are “gleaming,” “glowing,” “incandescent,” and “flamelike”; they “shone like stars from the dark firmament of the forest.” Her writing conveys the breathtaking beauty of the natural environment and the distinct temporality of the rainforest, with its “endless procession of flowering trees and plants moving through their cycles.”

Brazil has the richest flora in the world, with more than 40,000 species, half of them endemic to the country. It also contains two hotspots of biodiversity, Mata Atlântica and Cerrado. This abundance of plant life makes Brazil, according to Burle Marx, “the land of enchantment for the botanist.” While Mee, on her first trip to the Amazon in 1956, was introduced to a still largely untouched natural environment of unparalleled beauty and exuberance, the 1960s and 1970s brought new development, the Trans-Amazonian highway, and rapid deforestation for cattle ranching, logging, and mining. Her extensive and lengthy expeditions to the Amazon confronted her with the destruction of the coastal forests through the ravages of fire and the axe: “the cleared land has been left scarred and abandoned”; “[w]ith them perish untold numbers of animals and plants.” Contemplating for the first time the flowers of Gustavia pulchra, Mee wondered: “Will the exquisite beauty of this species save it from extinction?”

Botanical art and illustration alike place a spotlight on a particular plant by removing it from its natural context and depicting it alone, often against a white background. In her later paintings, Mee occasionally added the forest background to show the plant in its environment. One of these works is Philodendron from The Shirley Sherwood Collection. This recontextualization of the plant in its ecosystem is a reminder that many of the plants painted by Mee are extremely dependent on others. As epiphytes (like the Bromeliads) or vines (like the Philodendron) they rely structurally on other plants, while Heliconias depend on highly specialized relationships with animal pollinators. Yet scientific representation and even aesthetic appreciation hinge, to a large extent, on our ability to extract plants from their natural environment. To analyze is often to isolate, magnify, or dissect a living organism, but to understand it one must also grasp the system of relationships that allows it to flourish. Late in her career, Mee drew attention to the process—necessary to our understanding of plants—of removing and then re-embedding them in their ecosystem by filling in the blank background of her plant portraits.

Botanical artist Nirupa Rao describes in her essay why, in the rainforest context, botanical illustration may achieve better results than photography given that so many rainforest plants disappear into the canopy or are intricately entangled with other species. Unlike a photographer, botanical artists can utilize different vantage points and their own imaginations to extrapolate the plant from its environment so as to understand and represent it as a singular type or individual. The course of Mee’s career and her peculiar late paintings, such as the Philodendron, demonstrate her evolving insight into plants: from extracting to embedding them in their environments, from capturing their portraits to returning them to a landscape. Mee’s concern for the plant’s continuing existence in its living ecosystem and her early advocacy for the Amazon speak to some of the most urgent and pressing issues of our day (fig. 6).

Margaret Mee (1909–88), 64 × 47 cm, gouache. Loan, The Shirley Sherwood Collection, UK

Fig. 6. Margaret Mee, Philodendron Rio Negro Amazonas, The Shirley Sherwood Collection.

Yota Batsaki is Executive Director of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection and principal investigator of the Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative.