Published: July 3, 2018
NEW YORK CITY – “Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock” (1796-1863) explores the confluence of art, love, science and religion in the work of one of America’s first female scientific illustrators. The exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum is on view through October 14.
Hitchcock belongs to a select group of women in Europe and the United States who were uniquely privileged to nourish their own intellectual and artistic inclinations as collaborators with their scientist husbands, even as they performed their expected duties as wives and mothers. On view will be almost 100 watercolors, pen and ink drawings, prints and classroom charts that Hitchcock created between 1810 and the 1840s, primarily for the study of botany, geology, zoology and ichnology. The works illustrate Hitchcock’s deep knowledge of the natural sciences, her telling eye for detail, her ability to visually communicate abstract and complex ideas and her exceptional talent as an artist.
The exhibition traces Hitchcock’s development from her schoolgirl projects to her career as a teacher and her work as an artist in partnership with her husband, Edward Hitchcock, minister and professor of natural sciences at Amherst College. The exhibition will include rich archival materials relating to both Hitchcocks, including diaries, classroom lecture notes and correspondence from some of the leading scientists of the Nineteenth Century. The show is curated by Stacy C. Hollander, acting executive director as well as deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator of the American Folk Art Museum.
Born in South Amherst, Mass., Orra White exhibited a prodigious scientific mind and abundant artistic talent at an early age. At 17, she was teaching drawing, painting, math and “the exact sciences” at Deerfield Academy. During this time, she became acquainted with young Edward Hitchcock, principal of the academy, with whom she shared many scientific interests. Beginning in 1817, they began collecting and studying the native flowers and grasses in the vicinity of Deerfield, Amherst and Conway, Mass. Each specimen was then painted as a living, growing plant in precise and exquisite detail in the pages of an album Orra titled Herbarium parvum, pictum.
Edward and Orra were married in 1821. That summer, they embarked on a similar project to document all the mushrooms in the vicinity of Conway, where Edward was now the Congregational pastor. The small album Orra titled Fungi selecti picti holds significantly fewer pages than the Herbarium but features almost as many specimens rendered in tight clusters with the same sensitive hand and eye for significant identifying details. The Hitchcocks’ activities brought them in contact with the leading botanists of the day, some of whom employed Orra’s talents to illustrate their own published work. Edward also began his own prolific publishing career with articles in The American Journal of Science, and many articles and books to follow on a wide range of scientific topics, the majority featuring illustrations by Orra Hitchcock.
Highlights of the exhibition include pen and ink on cotton renderings of fossil footprints left by five kinds of ornithicnites, meaning stony bird tracks, a field innovated by Edward Hitchcock and that we know today were made by dinosaurs; cover and 15 drawings from Herbarium parvum, pictum, Hitchcock’s album of botanical watercolors; sectional views of the earth’s crust and geological phenomena above and below ground, including Iceland’s Great Geyser and lava in Mount Etna; pen, ink and watercolor wash drawings of Mastadon Maximus, Plesiosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, Paleotherum, Edephas Primogenius and other prehistoric vertebrates; and the Perez, Mabel and Rebekah White Mourning Piece – the earliest example of Orra’s work memorializing the deaths of three of her siblings, painted when she was 14.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. For more information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-595-9533
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