Mushrooms, Magma and Love in a Time of Science

Posted July 26, 2018 6:45 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Women remain grossly underrepresented at the highest echelons of U.S. science and continue to face absurd claims of “innate” inferiority, whether from former Harvard presidents or senior engineers at Google. But until the mid-19th century — when the sciences became professionalized, and when Charles Darwin and others put Christian doctrine under pressure — a woman’s place was in the laboratory, or among the geology and zoology specimens.

Back then the humanities (classics and philosophy, especially) were understood as masculine academic pursuits. It was the more genteel disciplines of natural science, astronomy, chemistry, botany and anatomy, to which women of a certain class gravitated.

Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) was one of the most remarkable women from this more egalitarian age of scientific study. She had a deep knowledge of botany, zoology and paleontology, and she was also an artist — though that “also” would have seemed unnecessary to her. She produced two albums of botanical illustrations, and later, as introductory materials for her husband’s classes, she diagramed volcanoes, sketched the skeletons of extinct fish and mammals, and drew undulant squids and octopuses on large cotton sheets.

They are all united at the American Folk Art Museum in “Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock,” a handsome and unexpectedly passionate exhibition on art, science and education in the early U.S. republic. More than 100 watercolors and classroom charts are here, from painstakingly accurate paintings of reeds and mushrooms to boldly colored abstractions of the earth’s crust and core, and they share space with a splendid array of diaries and correspondence, redolent with the Hitchcocks’ intertwined loves for science, God and each other.

This show, organized by the museum’s chief curator, Stacy C. Hollander, proves Hitchcock to be an artificer as much as an observer, imagining dramatic new ways to express the world’s beauty and, as she saw it, its sacred order. It also demands we drop some of our contemporary assumptions about academic disciplines, to understand an age when “science” was not so rigidly delimited, and stretched beyond the natural world to encompass theology and art.

Orra White was born to a family of wealthy farmers in Amherst, Massachusetts, the only daughter who survived infancy. She exhibited a particular talent for science and mathematics — one of the earliest documents here is a ledger of logarithms, meant for determining syzygies of the moon and sun, that she worked out at age 14. But she also had an aptitude for art and made proficient copies of illustrations in the books she was reading, whether of European royalty or of crazed Romantic lovers wandering through the forest.

Before she was out of her teens she was teaching both art and the “exact sciences” at Deerfield Academy, where she encouraged her students to paint in watercolor, to draw maps and to undertake careful studies of flowers and grasses. The principal at Deerfield was Edward Hitchcock — a serious young geologist-in-training with a melancholy streak, who admired her religious zeal (she had a conversion experience while at Deerfield) as much as her scientific sophistication.

They fell in love amid the plants and grasses of Massachusetts. Edward collected the state’s angiosperms and gymnosperms in an herbarium, and Orra drew and painted them. Eight of the dried specimens that Edward gathered are on view here alongside the watercolors that comprise Orra’s “Herbarium Parvum, Pictum” (“A Small Herbarium of Paintings”), whose pages contain spindly reeds of Kelly green, and ovate leaves scratched with delicate veining. They are diligent, gossamer-fine paintings that stand in a long tradition of women’s botanical illustration, stretching back to the 17th-century watercolors of German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian and forward to Victorian pioneers like Anna Atkins, who made ghostly photograms of algae.

The Hitchcocks married in 1821, the same year Edward took up as a Congregationalist pastor in Conway, Massachusetts. That summer, as a kind of honeymoon project, they set themselves the task to document every species of mushroom in the vicinity of their home. Orra’s second book, “Fungi Selecti Picti” (“Selected Painted Mushrooms”), featured 100 mycological specimens whose tops she painted with watery inks of gray, brown and amber and whose undersides she detailed with pen. I imagine Edward and Orra setting out after prayers to find some new mushroom, crouching in the Massachusetts moss, holding a fungus up to the clear light of day, he counting the gills while she sketched the shape of its cap. This was love in the time of science.

Edward was named professor at Amherst in 1826, teaching chemistry, natural history and geology and later becoming president of the university. For the next 36 years, Orra produced large-scale diagrams and illustrations for Edward’s lessons, for which she received neither pay nor fame. Those that survive prove not only the breadth of her scientific knowledge, but also the creativity with which she expressed it. She painted skeletons of a woolly mammoth, its tusks curving inward like loop-de-loops, or else an extinct cousin of the tapir known as a Palaeotherium, which she imagined trotting along with a coat of spotted gray. She drew an octopus, its tentacles tangled above its bulbous head like the roots of an onion; then she imagined a monstrous kraken, gobbling the deck of a three-masted schooner.

Orra’s diagrams for Edward’s natural history and geology lessons are almost wholly abstract, and often reduce the natural world to bands of solid color, outlined with lines of black. An illustration of valleys take the form of rolling stripes of mauve, indigo, chartreuse and teal. The core of the earth, in one representation of planetary volcanic activity, is a disc of monochrome peach.

When most geological diagrams used color sparingly if at all, Orra embraced a palette of wild variety, chosen through her own scientific expertise. Many could be mistaken as abstract paintings 80 years before the coming of nonobjective art.

These freer and less figurative classroom paintings were not shown publicly. It is therefore tempting to judge them now as undersung “women’s work” — as Orra’s silent support for Edward, who was the “real” scientist. But that misunderstands just what it meant to have a scientific mind in the years before U.S. science’s professionalization. Science, for both the Hitchcocks, was not a stand-alone academic discipline so much as a pervasive approach to the world at hand, woven entirely into their carnal and spiritual domains.

Soon after her death scientists would discover that order is not the natural state of the universe, that entropy is the way of all things. But for Orra White Hitchcock, the discovery and depiction of nature’s workings overlapped seamlessly with all the other parts of her life, and fused with family and church into a single vision of the world’s splendor. Science was another facet for her religious convictions and another facet, too, of her love.

“Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863)”

Through Oct. 14 at the American Folk Art Museum, Manhattan; 212-595-9533, folkartmuseum.org.