These female watercolourists, guardians of American agriculture, have proven that scientific illustration can be great art

When Leonardo da Vinci painted The last supper, he provided Christ and his apostles with a meal worthy of Renaissance nobility. Instead of being limited to a menu of bread and wine – or even the roast lamb and charoset of a traditional Jewish Seder – he depicted platters of fresh fish and grilled eel garnished with slices of orange. . The last of these ingredients was particularly miraculous, since oranges were first grown in the Middle East nearly a millennium after Christ’s crucifixion.

But oranges, which were a delicacy that Leonardo might have seen firsthand at the table of the Duke of Milan, carried significance in the history of painting beyond their meaning of luxury. The fruit also gave a name to the color orange, which artists previously awkwardly called yellow-red. New to the Italian palate, orange also became a staple of the Renaissance palette, fortifying pictorial observation.

Four centuries later and halfway around the world in the United States, where oranges were a staple of most commoners’ diets, a watercolor artist named Amanda Almira Newton refined their depiction in a way that Leonardo could hardly have imagined. Newton was one of the most prolific members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pomology Division, which was tasked with creating a national fruit registry. Because color photography was still unreliable in the 1890s, the division relied on the meticulous observation and brushwork of Newton and his colleagues to record the wealth harvested from the vast orchards and fields of the continent. Their stunning photos of oranges, apples, strawberries and persimmons, which have long been a resource for specialists in the USDA websitehave finally received the mainstream attention they deserve in An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts.

Although this coffee table book, to be published next month, contains only a small fraction of the twelve hundred watercolors painted by Newton – and thousands painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore and Ellen Isham Schutt – the visual bounty cannot be overrated. Scientific illustration comes with responsibilities that most painters can ignore. The scientific illustrator must understand the subject of representation at a functional level in order to provide meaningful information. In the case of produce, this means that the artist must know how the fruit develops and decomposes, and must apply this general knowledge to the individual orange or apple, and apply observations to the seeds, stem and skin to capture the essence of the strain. .

All of this may seem very technical and may make pomological watercolors seem artistically inferior to still lifes and Last Supper. But while it would be an overstatement to place Passmore and Schutt and Newton in the same league as Leonardo, their watercolors are infinitely rewarding to watch because the conflicting demands of specificity and generality imbue them with the vitality of life itself. Like a real orange or apple, the paints are unique manifestations of a genetic line. Unlike a real orange or apple, the phenotype and genotype are palpable, coupled manifestations of the painter’s intelligence.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the watercolor illustrations of the level reached by the sixty-six artists who worked in the Division of Pomology between 1886 and 1942 reveal the living force which gives rise to the final form. . They are the opposite of still lifes because they encourage us to see internal change. They also make us aware of external changes over longer periods, such as those caused by global warming. In decades to come, the oranges we eat could be green, because ripe oranges are already found in places that stay warm all year round. The watercolors created by the Pomology Division and the data they keep make oranges environmental observatories. By illustrating the past, scientific illustrations illuminate the future.

Of course, Leonardo da Vinci was also a scientific illustrator, credited with pioneering many techniques still used in anatomical drawings and mechanical diagrams. Although botanical illustration does not appear to have been paramount in his depiction of the oranges garnishing his grilled eel – at least from what can be discerned in painting today – his drawing practice may have provided insight into phenomena such as his Rule of Trees. . (As he put it in one of his notebooks, “All the branches of a tree at every step of its height when joined together are equal in thickness to the trunk.”) Ease of translation between form and function, as well that demands careful observation, probably played an important role in his scientific discoveries.

From this point of view, An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts serves more than just an invitation to enjoy fruit (and a timely reminder of agriculture’s loss of variety and concomitant capacity for environmental resilience, just as those qualities have become more urgent). The book is also a manifesto for illustration as an essential scientific practice, and scientific illustrators as essential practitioners. As valuable as gene sequencing can be, the need for watercolors and paintbrushes and people who are skilled in their use remains as great.