The Pomological Watercolor Collection

Feb 22, 2020 0 comments

Before the days of photography, documenting anything accurately was a task that could only be undertaken by an artist or a model maker. So, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided, in the late 19th century, that they needed to create a sort of national register of fruits and vegetables, they turned to one of the leading botanical artists of the time William Henry Prestele.

In 1887, Prestele was appointed as the first artist for the newly created Division of Pomology. His task was to reproduce in watercolor and ink, the different varieties of fruits and cultivars American farmers were growing, in painstaking detail. He was to show the natural size, shape, and color of the fruit, both exterior and interior, complete with leaves and twigs.

Pomological Watercolor Collection

From left to right: Cabashea variety of apples (artist: Deborah Griscom Passmore); avacado (artist: Mary Daisy Arnold); Un-Shu variety of oranges (artist:Deborah Griscom Passmore)

In the 19th century, the American fruit industry was growing rapidly, with farmers producing a variety of fruits and developing new cultivars by grafting foreign specimens brought from distant lands. Identifying these new stocks became essential not only for botanists but for the fruit producers as well as. It was not uncommon for competitors to sneak into a rival’s nursery at night and steal cuttings. An important focus of the Division of Pomology was to publish illustrated accounts of new varieties and to disseminate research findings to fruit growers and breeders.

Before long, Prestele was joined by no less than 65 talented artists, and together they painted over 7,500 amazingly detailed portraits of fruits over a span of 30 years. Among the most prolific contributors were Deborah Griscom Passmore, Amanda Almira Newton, and Mary Daisy Arnold, who each painted over 1,000 watercolors. Between them they created nearly half of the collection. William Henry Prestele himself painted over one hundred.

Astoundingly, more than half of the watercolors show apple cultivars, a good many of which are no longer cultivated. The remainder range from common types of fruits and nuts, such as grapes, berries, melons, citrus, and walnuts, to lesser-known native fruits and species newly introduced in the United States or not yet grown there.

Aside from being beautiful works of art, the Pomological Watercolor Collection presents us a comprehensive, technically accurate, and highly detailed encyclopedic information on America’s 19th century agricultural landscape. The entire collection has been recently digitized and is available online at USDA’s website.

Pomological Watercolor Collection

On the left is Yankee variety of apples, (artist: Amanda Almira Newton). On the right is the Willow variety of apples, (artist: Mary Daisy Arnold).

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Naranja Alotonilco variety of oranges (artist: Bertha Heiges); Right: Valencia variety of oranges (artist: Royal Charles Steadman)

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Servan Blanc variety of grapes, (artist: Amanda Almira Newton). Right: Concord variety of grapes, (artist: Deborah Griscom Passmore.)

Pomological Watercolor Collection

The collection also included paintings of diseased fruit. Pictured above is the Rome variety of apples. Artist: James Marion Shull.

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Tsuru No Ko variety of persimmons, (artist: Amanda Almira Newton). Right: Tanaka variety of loquats, (artist: Amanda Almira Newton.)

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Miller variety of persimmons (artist: Deborah Griscom Passmore); Right: Princess Ena variety of strawberries (artist: Deborah Griscom Passmore).

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Commercial variety of loquats (artist: Ellen Isham Schutt); Right: Champion variety of quinces (artist: Royal Charles Steadman)

Pomological Watercolor Collection

Left: Dacca variety of bananas, painted by Ellen Isham Schutt. Right: Indian tamarind, painted by Amanda Almira Newton


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