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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Microscope Portrait

The opening date of the show is drawing near, especially for us since soon a lot of our effort will need to be focused on the actual physical installation of Martinez presents Marshall in CCHS’ gallery. To that end a whole painting has been completed! This painting will be one of the major works of the show as it is the full portrait of Humphry Marshall in his study. Though there are a number of things to talk about in the portrait, I’m first going to talk about the much anticipated microscope. This is the microscope that was actually used by Humphry Marshall and it’s in the CCHS collection. It was bought in London for him due to the efforts of two people that are very important in the story of Humphry, Dr. Fothergill and Benjamin Franklin. Before the revolution started Fothergill was Humphry’s main client and contact for European plant collectors. The doctor was wealthy and well respected both for his knowledge of medicine and botany. Initially theirs was a barter relationship exchanging plants and seeds for the latest books on botanical science and instruments like a telescope and microscope. Of course sending delicate equipment overseas was a hazardous undertaking at that time, so Fothergill contacted Benjamin Franklin, a mutual friend who was in London to pick out a good microscope and telescope to send to Humphry and a trusty ship’s captain to take care of it.

This is the microscope Franklin and Fothergill choose, beautifully crafted with a flamboyant baroque design so different from the microscopes of today. In particular this is a Culpeper-Style microscope, so named for the originator of the design, British instrument maker Edmund Culpeper. The notable aspects of the style are the vertical design, double tripod, and mirror. The microscope was focused by sliding the body up and down, and the mirror on the bottom helped to focus light underneath the specimen. Having used microscopes for botanical purposes myself I can attest that having a backlight is extremely important. Without a light a leaf will just look like a fuzzy black silhouette, with a light you can see the individual cells and structure of the plant. Though our microscopes look very different and have many more refinements, the basic principles are still all present. Humphry Marshall was looking at the same subtle elements of plant. There are many small but important parts of plants, like the insides of a flower, which are best viewed through a microscope. Small seeds, which look like black specks to the naked eye, reveal different geometrical shapes under a microscope and go from identical to quite distinct, which can help enormously for identification and classification. Imagine Humphry’s excitement at having his capacity for scientific research suddenly and profoundly expanded by this 18th century cutting edge technology.

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A Skull?

Susanna Wright and Secretary skull

I always talk about how my paintings change overtime, but sometimes those changes can happen a long time after I ‘finish’ the work. It’s very important to know when to stop on a painting, but oil paintings are always able to be edited and changed. The edit I made today was taking out what was a major element of my Susanna Wright and Deborah Norris Logan painting, the skull in the center of the table. The composition of the painting was like a wagon wheel, with the skull serving as the hub. The skull was also making a strong statement by itself and could be seen as what renaissance artist called a ‘memento mori’ or ‘reminder of death’ a object like a skull that served as a reminder of the importance of the afterlife.  While touching up the painting I thought that the skull was a little bit too prominent due to its position, so I started darkening it. While doing that it occurred to me that the skull and its message was not necessary to the rest of the work – so I removed it! I’m quite pleased with the result, as it brings a lot more visual focus to Susanna and Deborah and frees up the general atmosphere.

Susanna Wright and Secretary no skull

Drawing and Focus

I’ve gotten much farther along on my new painting and I’ve devised a new setup to help me with my drawing. I’ve closed all the windows and covered the doorways with cloth to keep all of the light out. Normally I enjoy working with natural light, but when I’m doing my drawing I find that the light changing due to the sun and clouds moving seems distracting. I think this is because my preliminary drawings use a very different part of my brain than painting does. I’ve mentioned before that I do drawings that are more detailed than they need to be, and they’re often more detailed than I actually end up painting.

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If you look at my drawing of the telescope you’ll see that a lot of little details that won’t be present in any other stage of the work. Those little screws will almost certainly be painted over and omitted. So why do I do this? It’s a little hard to explain, but by drawing an object completely and analytically, almost mathematically – I understand it and I am able to visualize what the final work could look like. I can move the object around in my head, and see what it would look like elsewhere in the composition. The moving and changing doesn’t stop once I finish the drawing of course, but the way I look at the painting does change character.

As a small bonus, here is some of the redecorating I’ve done to keep my studio space nicely dark and quiet.

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Building into Working

I’m finally at the point where I’ve put graphite on canvas and the new painting is starting. As you can see this is the very start of the painting, at this point I’ve only been working on it for an hour or two! This one is going to be the near life-sized portrait of Humphry Marshall, in his study with his microscope. The microscope being Humphry’s actual microscope, which is in the collection of the CCHS and will be present at the exhibit.

Thankfully I’ve got all the panels I’ll need to the beginning of the show built and ready, here you can see Sebastian vacuuming the structure in preparation for us to stretch the canvas (if the canvas gets stretched over dirt or sawdust it will create very noticeable marks and bumps on the work so having a clean surface is very important).

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We don’t have any photos of the stretching itself, as it’s a difficult two person job with paintings this large, but it involved us pulling on and staple-gunning down the canvas until it was taut and smooth.

Lastly, here I am with the completed results of our efforts, putting primer on so they will be ready to work when I need them.

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Gardens, Modeling, and Driftwood

With the canvas building rolling along smoothly I’m very close to having new surfaces to paint on. However, that’s only the first part of the raw materials needed to make some new paintings. The other important part is pictures of my models! To that end my son and I spent a day last week with David Culp and Michael Alderfer at their wonderful garden, and I took a number of pictures. I dressed them up in some period clothing, generously donated by Downingtown Quaker Meeting. Over the course of the day I took pictures for several potential paintings, the most unusual set of pictures was of the Marshalls conferring with a young William Darlington over a native trillium.

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From left to right is Michael as Moses, Sebastian as Darlington, and David as Humphry. You might notice that Sebastian is wearing a rather strange outfit, we didn’t have any 19th century costumes on hand, so I had to improvise. He’s wearing  a normal suit and shirt with popped collars and a bunched up tie, to emulate the fashion of Darlington’s time. Darlington (who you can read about here) was a man of the 19th century, and they had a very different sense of fashion compared to the 18th century the Marshalls belonged to. As you can see in this actual portrait of Darlington high collars were in and wigs were out. I’ll have to add in the vest myself, and I’ll probably end up taking David and Michael’s hats off while lengthening their hair. After all, what would a painting be without a little improvisation?

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Constructing Paintings

Before I talked about my love of building and the wood I bought for the purpose of making new painting structures, now we are actually doing something with it! It can be a good deal of work, but I enjoy it. There is quite a lot of cutting measuring and gluing that has to happen.

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Sebastian Measures the Boards

Here you can see us preparing all of the wood that we bought so it can be the right size for the paintings.

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Adrian Cuts the Boards

The next stage that had to happen very quickly was gluing the braces on to the luan board. Wood glue is extremely sturdy, and once it dries it is the main binding element for the paintings, in the meantime we used staples and weights to get everything into place.

Ready to be Glued

Ready to be Glued

I stand triumphantly over our pile of successful construction.

Weights for Drying Glue

Weights for Drying Glue

The last step before stretching the canvas is to screw in some braces. This keeps the wood from warping too much or shifting out of positions, even if it is the glue doing most of the work.

Drilling Braces

Drilling Braces

A Drawing under the Clouds

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So, did you notice the issue I alluded to in the Rocks, Plants, and Randomness blog? Can you see my drawing of the tree under the sky?  It’s understandable if you didn’t, because unless you’re zoomed in it is difficult notice anything. This problem arose because of some particular quirks with how I work. As I have mentioned before I do more detailed and intense underdrawings than is strictly necessary, I also tend to paint very thin. Both of these factors together mean that the drawn but not painted parts of the tree are visible. I could perhaps get away with it now, but as the painting ages the phantom tree would become more and more obvious. Oil paint becomes more transparent with age.

Drawing of tree that never was

Some of my intentions for this painting have changed dramatically as I’ve worked on it. A while ago I made a post about how I was experimenting with a new technique for painting clouds (which you can read here). As the painting evolved I actually quite liked the stark beauty of the blank sky, and wanted to leave it alone. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the too-dark under drawing forced my hand. Painting it over with some blue patches would look like a bad repair covering up some sort of damage. Repainting the entire sky would be very awkward and fundamentally change the work. I had already decided to truncate the tree. My best option: do the clouds I had originally planned!

I’m not quite finished with them yet, but adapting once again has been as interesting and informative as I could have hoped for. Painting the clouds on dry has allowed me to make them both wispier and sharper than I could have otherwise. Technically this research and development has exciting potential. The last wrinkle of this long chain of challenges means I will have to rethink the lighting of the work. With an empty sky the lighting could be hazy dense with moisture like a Renaissance Venetian landscape, but the clouds necessitate some variation. Though this might sound like a series of problems, for me the challenge is a large part of the reason I paint.