The Mead Honors Hitchcock: the Versatile Orra White
By Daniella Bassi ’14, A&L Section Editor
The Mead Art Museum is currently honoring Orra White Hitchcock, the wife of Edward Hitchcock — former president of the College — and a woman who deserves to be remembered for her remarkable and largely self-developed artistic ability.

Hitchcock combined her aesthetic talent with a love and knowledge of botany and created astonishingly detailed, accurate and beautiful renderings of hundreds of species of grasses, shrubs, flowers and fungi. She also depicted subjects from other branches of natural science including geology and paleontology (which her husband taught at the College). Edward Hitchcock used these pictures as visual aids in his classroom. What remains of Orra’s art, from her sketches, pencil drawings, colored lithographs and watercolors, is on display this semester in an exhibition of over 100 pieces of various sizes and stages of completion.

The exhibit starts out small, detailing the general chronology of the artist’s life. There are small albumen prints of her in her later years (1860), showing her as a robust woman with a strong figure and a rather serious, but shrewd, intelligent expression on her face. She is a woman of her times, wearing a long dark dress with a full skirt, and with a white bonnet covering her head. She does not look toward her viewer but instead appears to be observing something else, though in a reserved and un-relaxed pose of form and countenance. Next to this print there is a carbon copy of a daguerreotype of her husband Edward, also in his latter years (1854); he also looks away, a stern, stately stiffness on his face.

Though the two can come across as cold in their portraits, they shared a close bond and had much affection and appreciation for each other. Hitchcock met her future husband in her teen years — both of them were teaching at Deerfield Academy — and became good friends, publishing a compilation book of New England plants, in which she made the drawings and he did the labeling. They were later married in 1821. Through his career she was always present as a partner and colleague, as they scoured country together to observe and collect specimens; her drawings and paintings repeatedly appeared in the books he wrote.

The few pieces that remain from the earliest part of her life were also placed here. Among the most interesting is a template she sketched out for the diplomas of the then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. There are some aesthetic flaws in the way the words don’t line up and are not always spaced evenly that show the design to be a thumbnail. It is done in pencil, and she writes out what the diploma will announce in her neatest cursive, in which certain letters actually vary in form. A prominent example is the letter ‘p,’ which looks more like an ‘r’ with a long tail in her writings. This is a mark of the era, and possibly of the country where Hitchcock was raised — but not of a personal preference, as her husband’s cursive is the same in design. Hitchcock also sketched the seal of the school, which portrays an open field with a few trees in the middle and a kind of oriental temple off to the right, as well as another building on the other side.

What is most remarkable about this little sketch is the amount of detail that Orra cleverly and skillfully managed to fit so proportionately into such a small space. Apart from fitting the contours of the depicted subjects in, she also managed to incorporate value to an extraordinary degree: an innumerable amount of variants of gray, black and white can be spotted in the vignette, and the depth and dimension they provide cannot be ignored.

Also in the exhibit is a section full of the classroom displays Orra made for her husband. Most of them are made of ink and watercolor on canvas and display a variety of subjects, from the internal layers of Earth to stratified views of rock and mineral deposits in various parts of Massachusetts, and even paintings of fossils based on 250-400 million year-old fossilized flora and fauna. Orra however, considered most of these works “too coarse” to be displayed and actually didn’t want them to be attributed to her. Although the drawings are rather flat in terms of dimension and aren’t very complexly colored, they are very informative and precise guides to many of the subjects they were based on. Edward himself prized them greatly for the help they provided in his lecture halls.

The most complex and beautiful paintings are of the plants she observed, both for her and her husband’s books, and for other independent requests made by some of his colleagues. One painting, Foxglove, is a gorgeous watercolor of a plant specimen with big, downcast bell-shaped flowers. Her depiction is accurate, and retains a nearly perfect symmetry. Another beautiful one is of her Indian Pipes, which resemble white candy canes, and to which she gives a genuine fragility by leaving them pale and barely painted.

The most noteworthy aspect of these works is the remarkable detail, often completed without preliminary pencil work, by a secure hand and minute paint strokes. She was able to magnify details naturally: many of the plants are portrayed whole, and accompanied by close-up paintings of their stems with leaves and roots attached — very much like today’s digitally-created science posters.

Many of Edward’s original books that contain his wife’s paintings and drawings are also on display. One of those, The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences, is open to the introduction, which he dedicated to her with glowing admiration: “Both gratitude and affection prompt me to dedicate these lectures to you … while I have described scientific facts with the pen only, how much more vividly have they been portrayed by your pencil! And it is peculiarly appropriate that your name should be associated with mine …since your artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive to the young men whom I have instructed.”

For some time after the Hitchcocks’ deaths (within a year of each other), time having eroded memories, much of Orra’s works were mistakenly attributed to her husband. The Mead’s exhibit awards all the credit dutifully owed to her.

Issue 15, Submitted 2011-02-16 00:19:53