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Plant Portraits

Margaret Mee was a British botanical artist, explorer, and environmentalist who, following a trip to Brazil in 1952, spent more than three decades exploring and painting the country’s flora. Over fifteen expeditions in the Amazon, spanning the years 1956 to 1988, Mee discovered five new species, three of which were named after her. The works in this gallery were painted during the first three expeditions, between 1956 and 1969. Mee sketched the plants at life size in their natural habitat and collected specimens to bring back from the field. She worked with gouache, a type of watercolor that contains white pigment: it is opaque on the page and dries more quickly, with a matte finish. Mee’s choice of medium enabled her to paint minute details and capture the plants’ rich hews and textures. While her works have been collected and prized 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 of the drawing parallels a scientific illustration. Heliconia repeats this design, where the glowing yellow and red flowers are arranged for maximum effect, with the addition of dissections and anatomical details at the bottom of the drawing. The leaves of heliconias are large, fleshy and resemble those of the banana. In Mee’s painting the leaves are curling because they are beginning to dry out, perhaps because the plant has been cut rather than painted in its habitat.

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Heliconia, Proc: Amazonas, Nr. Manaus, November, 1964. Margaret Mee”

Margaret Mee, Heliconia, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Heliconia, Proc: Amazonas, Nr. Manaus, November, 1964. Margaret Mee”

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

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

These works are plant “portraits” that reflect the strong emotional appeal of Mee’s art and the singular presence of her stunning plant subjects. She painted individuals rather than an ideal type. This does not imply that the plants are rendered anthropomorphically, but rather that their fundamental alienness is respected. Bromelia antiacantha and Ananas bracteatus are exemplary of this quality of botanical art to elicit an emotional reaction in the viewer. Bromeliads are a family that Mee painted extensively, following her early encounter and collaboration with botanist Lyman Smith. Through extensive observation and deep familiarity—the extended dialogue with the plant necessitated by the process of sketching and painting—Mee opens up a space of reflection and communion with a life form that is radically different from our own.

 

Exhibit Items

Stanhopea graveolens

Margaret Mee, 1957, 66 x 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Stanhopea graveolens, Santa Caterina, flowered February, 1957”; “Orchidaceae, Stanhopea graveolens, Instituto de [sic] Botanica, S. Paulo. Flowered February, 1957. Margaret Mee”

Grobya amherstiae

Margaret Mee, 1958, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Orchidaceae, Grobya amherstiae Lindl. Viscondé da Mavá, Serra Negra, S. Paulo, flowered February 1958. Margaret Mee”

Zygopetalum maxillare

Margaret Mee, 1958, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Orchidaceae, Zygopetalum maxillare Lodd., Represa Billings, S. Paulo, flowered Feb. 1958. Margaret Mee”

Pitcairnia flammea

Margaret Mee, 1958, 66 x 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Bromeliaceae, Pitcairnia flammea, Jardim Botanico [Jardim Botânico], São Paulo, flowered May, 1958. Margaret Mee”

Aechmea nudicaulis

Margaret Mee, 1958, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Aechmea nudicaulis (L.) Griseb. var. aureo-rosea (antoine) L. B. Smith. Viscondé da Maua, S. Paulo, flowered May, 1958”

Eucharis amazonica

Margaret Mee, 1958, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Amaryllidaceae, Eucharis amazonica, cult. São Paulo, flowered March, 1958”

Nematanthus fluminensis

Margaret Mee, 1959, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Gesneriaceae, Nematanthus fluminensis (vell.) Fritsch, Ubatuba, São Paulo litoral, flowered July, 1959. Margaret Mee”

Vriesea simplex

Margaret Mee, 1959, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Bromeliaceae, Vriesia [Vriesea, corrected from: Vreisia] simplex, Bertioga, São Paulo, flowered September, 1959”

Bifrenaria harrisoniae

Margaret Mee, 1959, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Orchidaceae, Bifrenaria harrisonae [harrisoniae] Reichb. f. Est. do S. Paulo, Paranapiacaba, October, 1959”

Clusia

Margaret Mee, 1960, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Guttiferae, Clusia, Cultivado, S. Paulo, Dezembro, 1960”

Catasetum trulla

Margaret Mee, 1960, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Catasetum trulla Lindl. var. trilobatum, Morro de Jurea, S. Paulo litoral. Flowered Feb. 1960. Margaret Mee”

Neoregelia concentrica

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

Hippeastrum sp.

Margaret Mee, 1961, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Hippeastrum sp., Santa Caterina, October 1961. Margaret Mee”

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora

Margaret Mee, 1961, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Dichorisandra thyrsiflora Proc. Represa Billings, Santo Amaro, São Paulo, Feb. 1961”

Tabebuia umbellata

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

Streptocalyx longifolius

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

Bromelia antiacantha

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Bromelia anticantha [antiacantha], Cult. São Paulo, Proc. Minas Gerais, 1964. Margaret Mee”

Heliconia psittacorum

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Heliconia psittacorum, Cult: S. Paulo. Proc: Mato Grosso, between Gleba and Cuibá, July 1964. Margaret Mee”

Heliconia

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Heliconia, Proc: Amazonas, Nr. Manaus, November, 1964. Margaret Mee”

Rapateaceae

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Rapataceae [Rapateaceae], Proc: Amazonas, Alto Rio Negro, Rio Curicuriani, Dec. 1964”

Ananas bracteatus

Margaret Mee, 1964, 66 × 48 cm, gouache, signed and dated “Margaret Mee. Bromeliaceae, Ananas bracteatus Lindl. Proc. Ubatuba, Est. do S. Paulo, Jan. 1964”