Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 31, 2011

Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Art and Science

 Yesterday Peter and I went to the show Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863): An Amherst Woman of Art and Science at Mead Art Museum. This museum at Amherst College is free, with donation suggested, and on Sundays, it’s open until midnight. And classes in Buddhist meditation in front of paintings and tai chi are offered to students. What’s not to love?

We heard the show’s co-curators, Robert L. Herbert, professor emeritus of humanities at Mount Holyoke College, and Daria D’Arienzo, former head of Amherst’s Archives and Special Collections, talk about finding this work and arranging it for display in what seemed a labor of love. We learned that Orra White Hitchcock was the wife of Edward Hitchcock, minister, scientist, professor and president of Amherst College for ten years, and mother to their eight children. She made watercolors, drawings, and prints of native plants and local scenery as well as hand-colored drawings of fossils and geological designs on muslin that her husband hung on the walls as visual aids for his lectures.

Three rooms were filled with artwork that showed a small amount of what this prolific artist did, and the curators hope this show will bring even more to light. Orra White Hitchcock encouraged her children to see the world as artists and scientists, too, and some of their work, along with their mother’s, was probably passed along through the family as well as to neighbors. The show included cases with paintings of flowers and grasses, beautifully rendered, and meant to aid botanical study. Leaves, for instance, might be shown with a view from below as well as above to help identify the plant. Many of the landscapes were meant to illustrate the nature of mountains and rivers over time. And, of course, the works on cloth were pedagogical, but it was amazing to see mastodons and cross-sections of the earth’s crust, which may have been executed on a kitchen or dining room table, perhaps in between making pies. Who knows? We have the art, some diaries, a lot of questions, and sheer wonder for a life filled with art, scientific curiosity, children, students, dogs, and chickens, too.



  1. that sounds soo cool!

  2. What a wonderful sounding show! I’m happy to see it runs through May… maybe…just maybe I’ll get to Massachusetts this spring. I love the idea of art and science not being so far apart, and this reminds me of the glass flowers exhibit at Harvard. Just lovely – thanks for sharing your field trip!

  3. oh this sounds like a wonderful combination!

  4. Very cool!

  5. One of my favorite things about the 1800s is how much closer art and science seemed to be. Back then, naturalists set out with sketchbooks and peered close and paid attention to context and often became great artists in the process.
    And of course I’d love it if you found time for a visit. Down the hill from the art museum, the natural history museum is amazing. Orra’s husband Edward Hitchcock collected fossils from the Ct. River bed and many are displayed, not just on floors, but vertically on rollers, which makes the scale truly breathtaking. And they have drawers of gemstones you’re allowed to open and gaze at and shut. It doesn’t have the breadth of the Harvard museum, but for geologists and paleontologists of all ages, it’s a treasure trove.

  6. It’s a delight. And Emily Dickinson, born down the street in 1830, might have known some of this couple’s children.

  7. Ghost pipes
    And if so, perhaps that’s when Emily told Orra that ghost pipes were her favorite flower.
    That may never have happened, but we did learn — via the text on a card which was part of the display of some of her watercolor illustrations of various wildflowers — that the Belle of Amherst did have a particular fondness for monotropa uniflora. — PL

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