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Orra White Hitchcock

Photo courtesy of the Mead Art Museum

Orra White Hitchcock was a college president’s wife, a mother of eight, and an artist. The art she created, drawings and watercolor paintings of flowers, grasses and other plants, were scientifically accurate yet transformed by a lyrical delicacy and artistry.

An exhibit  of her work, Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863): An Amherst Woman of Art and Science, co-curated by Daria D’Arienzo and Robert L. Herbert, will run through May 29 at the Mead Museum of Art at Amherst College. It documents the botanical and scientific art of an amazing local woman who has been all but forgotten.

Though not as well remembered as other now famous women of her time like Emily Dickinson and Mary Lyon who were connected with her family, there is a considerable record of Orra’s life because she was born in South Amherst and spent her whole life in our area. Her father educated her as he did his sons. Her intelligence and skill as both an artist and scientist were already recognized when she began teaching drawing, painting, the decorative arts and the natural sciences to girls at Deerfield Academy at the age of 17.

When she married the newly ordained Edward Hitchcock in 1821 the couple moved to Conway. According to D’Arienzo “Theirs was a union of love and mutual respect that lasted almost 42 years until Orra’s death in 1863. It was a scholarly, scientific and artistic collaboration . . . Edward and Orra were ‘the Connecticut River Valley’s first power couple.’”

Orra’s life as a pastor’s wife was busy, boarders sometimes lived with them adding to the family’s income, and the children began to arrive. Yet Orra worked with her husband drawing flowers, maps, fossil fish, plants and more for lithograph plates to illustrate the articles Edward wrote for the American Journal of Science and Arts. For most of her life she worked with her husband making the drawings for other lithographic plates for his geographical books, and painted the large classroom charts for his work as professor at the young Amherst College.

There is no question that Orra was an equal partner and professional collaborator with her husband. She was a brilliant woman, with scientific and artistic sensibilities that reinforced each other in her work. She was also essential in helping her husband, who suffered from hypochondria and melancholy, keep his physical and mental balance.

From 1845 to 1854 Edward served as President of Amherst College. Orra was busy with the duties required of the president’s wife, with her own domestic chores, but she also used her natural teaching skills by giving  painting lessons to girls who came to take classes with her.

The works on display at the Mead Art Museum show the variety of her work from the decorative rose she painted while young to the watercolor that she did of a ladyslipper to show the botanical details, the veining of the foliage and even the different tints of the underside of the leaf, through the large palentological charts that she did to aid her husband’s teaching. Edward Hitchock is often unknowingly referred to when people talk about Lake Hitchcock; it was he who first identified this prehistoric lake of the Connecticut River Basin.

Many of the drawings are small, because she drew and painted to life scale, as botanical artists do today. Her scientific observations and drawings were always made with a decorative impulse. In addition to drawings of individual plants she sometimes drew landscapes, of the Oxbow, of Sugar Loaf Mountain and long views of the Amherst landscape. They are all delightful and so accurate that we can recognize those spots today.

Daria D'Arienzo

D’Arienzo has been fascinated with Orra for more than 25 years. “I found her to be an inspiration. She represented and transcended her time.  She raised a family, was active in her church and was beloved across boundries,” she said.  “She was not a woman of wealth, she had to do her own housework. She was one of us.”

As we will recognize our modern local landscape in her paintings, the rest of us may also recognize ourselves in her active life.

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Daria D’Arienzo will give a talk at the Meekins Library in Williamsburg as part of their celebration of Women’s History Month on Tuesday March 22 at 7 pm. She will also speak at the Conway Historical Society on May 10 at 7:30 pm.  On March 27 Robert L. Herbert, Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Mount Holyoke College, and author of A Woman of Amherst: The Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850, will give a talk at 2 pm in the White Church in Deerfield.

The exhibit  is accompanied by a generously illustrated catalogue featuring a biographical and interpretive essay by Herbert and D’Arienzo, as well as  contributions by Elizabeth Farnsworth, senior research ecologist with the New England Wild Flower Society, and Tekla Harms, professor of geology at Amherst. The catalogue is available through the Mead’s bookshop or by contacting the University Press of New England.

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Don’t forget, next Saturday is the Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium at Frontier Regional High School from 9 am to 2 pm.  Lunch available. Full information at www.wmassmastergardeners.org. There will be a whole variety of practical workshops, Sue Reed will speak about Energy Wise Landscaping, and I’ll have slides of Elsa Bakalar’s garden. See you on March 19.

Between the Rows   March 12, 2011

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