Three Botanists and the Times

In working on this painting I am reminded of something that is very easy to forget, a lot was happening across the globe while Humphry Marshall lived his life newly forming America. Many artists that I love were contemporary with Marshall, but lived in entirely different worlds. As a particularly stark example Mozart was writing and performing his piano concertos at the same time Humphry was working on his book, the Arbustum Americanum. The work of Mozart is a fixture in our culture today, but Humphry Marshall never heard it. Aside from Vienna being a long way away from Pennsylvania, Quakers at the time were discouraged from participating in music and especially dancing.

Art in general was looked down upon by the Quakers of colonial America, as it distracted from practical and useful things. Benjamin West was the single internationally prominent artist of the 18th century born in America of a Quaker family. As a “Convinced Friend”  myself I have come across Quaker tracts written as late as 1950 criticizing artists as being “frivolous time wasters.” Quakerism’s views on art today has profoundly changed and is much more positive. As a 21st century professional artist, who is also a Quaker, painting 18th century Quakers I’m aware of the irony. No doubt most of them would be profoundly disapproving, if not actually outraged – with the exception, I’d like to believe, of Humphry. He was a man of insatiable curiosity and I think he would be fascinated with this artist person painting his imagined portrait.

Changes in culture were happening at the time of these three botanists as well, and I’ve represented that particularly in their dress. Moses (who in his old age looks quite similar to Humphry) is dressed in the clothes of his era, a hat, long hair, a shirt with rumpled sleeves, and a vest. Moses is also very weather-beaten from a lifetime of hard labor and occasionally hard living. Darlington and Baldwin, on the other hand, are dressed in more carefully in high collared suits with short hair. Both their clothing and their features show that they are certainly not farmers. Darlington came from a family of farmers, but hated farm work and left his home as soon as he possibly could. Humphry would have strongly disapproved of Darlington’s rejection of farming. Humphry was a great believer in manual labor, and thought a man that didn’t grow his own food was essentially lacking. Thankfully, Moses didn’t let his uncle’s prejudices get in the way of passing down their knowledge onto these two more citified young men.

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Triple Composition

Each new painting provides new challenges, and this one is no exception. There are many different elements at play in this work and it is my task to make sure that they all communicate well with each other and don’t look too separate.

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We have the house in the background, which is the actual Humphry Marshall house as it still exists today, with the slight addition of Humphry’s wooden observatory projecting from the side of the building. It has long since fallen off in our time, but would still have been intact back then. In a compositional sense this building will be a much bigger player in the final work than John Bartram’s house was in his painting. As the focus of the show I wanted to give the house Humphry built himself its due.

The next major element is the garden to the left of the three botanists. Since Humphry’s garden is long gone I decided to base the space in the painting on the wonderful garden of David Culp (the model for Humphry Marshall in my other paintings and a major contributor to the show). In particular this is a take on David’s vegetable garden, something that the Marshall family had, though we don’t know what form. Also included with the garden is the inevitable dramatic sky above it!

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The last element is, of course, the botanists themselves, their communication and relationship. They are the natural focus of the painting, but are also in more direct competition with their surroundings.

The consequence of having to balance these 3 disparate elements in the painting is that I will have to work on it very fast and all at once. Though the figures will need to wait until later, I need the unity created by a single painting session to make sure the work doesn’t end up looking like 3 smaller paintings stuck together. This is a problem even with more unified paintings, so I have to be particularly careful now. Regardless, I have quite a lot of oil to move in a relatively short amount of time – so the speed painting is necessary from both a practical and artistic angle!

Start of Three Botanists

The start of a new painting! The subject of this work is a meeting between three botanists, William Darlington, William Baldwin, and Moses Marshall at the botanical garden of the now late Humphry Marshall. You may notice that the subject has a number of similarities to an earlier painting, the one with four botanists. This is intentional, as this new work is about the continuation of the spirit of the first. In the four botanists John Bartram and William Bartram are passing down and spreading their love and knowledge of botany to Moses and Humphry Marshall, symbolized by the Franklinia they surround. Though it is very unlikely all four actually met in person in this capacity, we know undoubtedly they were a great influence on each other.

With these three botanists a very similar process is happening. As John inspired Humphry, Moses inspired both Darlington and Baldwin. Moses in particular knew Baldwin at an early age and shared with him his love of botany. Baldwin in turn spread this passion to Darlington, who then also met with Moses and talked about plants. Again, we have no particular record of all three men meeting together, but in this instance it is quite possible that they did.

As you can see, there is more to this painting than just three plantsmen talking about a native trillium, and in the next post I’ll talk about the paintings composition along with some of the history.

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