New York

Orra White Hitchcock, Colossal Octopus (After Pierre Denys  de Montfort), ca. 1828–40, pen ink and watercolor on cotton, 27 7⁄8 × 21".

Orra White Hitchcock, Colossal Octopus (After Pierre Denys de Montfort), ca. 1828–40, pen ink and watercolor on cotton, 27 7⁄8 × 21".

Orra White Hitchcock

American Folk Art Museum

The American illustrator Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863) was born, lived, worked, and died in and around Amherst, Massachusetts. She probably left the area only a handful of times. On the few occasions I stumbled, speechless, through this utterly germane celebration of her life and work, I wondered if that ability to stay in one place for so long had something, or everything, to do with her keen and pragmatic understanding of the synthesis between nature and the divine.

Hitchcock’s prolonged sense of ecological time sang out strongly, providing a sharp reminder that it’s the already documented, harrowing shifts in the long haul of climate change (and not some mysterious inconsistency of today’s weather, Mr. Trump) that are our era’s greatest disgrace. She is now known as one of the foremost scientific artists of her day, and she was also married to a leading geologist, Edward Hitchcock. Most of her painstakingly created prints, drawings, paintings, and watercolors accompanied his research and books. A startlingly early funerary work in the exhibition—Mourning Piece for Perez, Mabel, and Rebecka White, 1810, which she made at just fourteen—served as a memorial to three of her siblings. Here, brilliantly rendered trees foreshadow her budding penchant for flora. While it was common for well-heeled women to work, largely unacknowledged, in the natural sciences back then, Hitchcock’s unique artistry resulted in two albums of botanical illustrations and, most curiously, three series of educational “charts” on large cotton backdrops for her husband’s Amherst College classes.

Pinned on the walls like tapestries, these variously sized banners trumpeted her genius for composition, scale, and line. Little is known about how they were used, and it was a challenge to imagine what they looked like in the classroom, but a room of them must have been awe-inspiring. They are full of intriguing artistic choices: a warm palette of watercolor washes; uniform black handstamped lettering; and a nascent take on reductivist abstraction, as in one striking demonstration of a “sectional view of the crust of the earth,” dated 1828–40. This nearly six-by-six-foot piece features a dominant, Agnes Martin-esque dusty-pink disk, indicating a chasm of molten blazes, with the tiniest of volcanoes at its edges spewing lava.

The thread running through the show, like the languid, recurring lines representing the earth’s strata in her charts and drawings, was the identity of spirit and nature. Unsurprisingly, the range of flora and fauna on view was wide. There were drawings of a woolly mammoth, a mastodon, and octopuses—but I was even more wooed by a meticulous painting of a sprig of maple leaves in autumnal hues, a charming pencil drawing of aster plants, and a simple watercolor of a pink carnation. All of these neatly captured Hitchcock’s personal ambition to understand the natural world through God’s beneficent design, as she might put it. Or, as Edward Hitchcock wrote in The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (1851), which he dedicated to his wife and to which she contributed art (and surely ideas): “We ought only to expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, correctly interpreted.” In other words, scientific truths are illustrations of divine truths: This idea is at the heart of Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) and related debates still smoldering today.

Hitchcock died in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the start of the Civil War, yet that wasn’t addressed in the ample letters, books, notes, and archival documents exhibited, or in the show’s lengthy explanatory labels, which might have benefited from this essential social context. Despite that omission, the sense that Hitchcock’s last pieces were made during this groundbreaking moment of upheaval—across science, religion, economics, and politics—stayed with me, and that emphasis on change and newness was something you could feel emanating from her work. She kept her mind focused on the present but she was also prescient. In a recent interview for this magazine’s website, the Otolith Group told me: “Art has to learn how to move across scales. It has to become . . . capable of moving across the deep times of the soil, the hyperlocal scales of the climate, and the life cycles of human generations.” Almost unfathomably, nearly magically, Hitchcock’s oeuvre does exactly that.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler