Orra White Hitchcock was one of the earliest documented female botanical and scientific illustrators in the United States. Born in 1796 in the western Massachusetts town of South Amherst, Orra married Edward Hitchcock, a pastor, geologist, professor of chemistry and natural history, and future president of Amherst College, on May 31, 1821. Immediately upon completion of her formal education, Hitchcock began teaching at Deerfield Academy, a school for ladies located 25 miles from her home. The diverse subjects she taught included fine and decorative arts, mathematics, botany, and astronomy.
Orra and Edward likely met between 1816 and 1818. Edward was headmaster at Deerfield and actively conducting field studies of local botany and mineralogy. Orra is described by author Elizabeth Farnsworth as “Fearless...She did not limit herself to the most traditional role of wife and mother, but became an equal and complementary partner to the brilliant and complex Edward…Although she did not exhibit her work, it became known to contemporary scientists including Benjamin Sillman, John Torrey, and Chester Dewey.”
The Hitchcocks collaborated on Edward’s geological publications as early as 1822. The couple settled in Amherst Massachusetts in 1826 and Edward began teaching chemistry, natural history, and “natural theology” classes at Amherst College. In addition to her increasingly well-known works of art on paper, Hitchcock started to create painted cotton textiles depicting geological and zoological subjects. These classroom charts were used by Edward and his colleagues as teaching tools. Sixty-one of the classroom charts survive in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. All but one is currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum.
In the 2011 exhibition catalog Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Art and Science, authors Robert L. Herbert and Daria D’Arienzo state that, “Orra drew her charts in ink and watercolor on canvas from about 1828 to the 1840s. The mixed media throughout include ink, ink wash, pencil, watercolor, and gum Arabic.” The cotton plain-weave ground is heavily sized, or glazed, to give the textiles varying degrees of stiffness. We found at least two different lots of fabric.
Author Tekla Harms explains in a nut shell that the challenge Hitchcock faced in making the classroom charts was “To faithfully represent what could only be imagined.” "Megatherium Cuv.," for example, had to be adapted from published lithographs because it was not among the fossils in the Amherst College collection. She also ventures a guess as to the appearance of "Anoplotherium" known only by its fossilized remains.
Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863) will be at the American Folk Art Museum through October 14, 2018. In Part II of this blog, we will go into the conservation treatments undertaken by Museum Textile Services to prepare the classroom charts for display.