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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