Deborah griscom passmore
and the art of the u.s. department of agriculture

From its inception in the 1860s through the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made significant contributions to the botanical art of the country. Color photography was not widely used in publishing, so to provide illustrations for its many books, circulars, and bulletins, the USDA employed a great many illustrators, including some of the most talented botanical artists of the day. Two of those artists, L.C.C. Krieger (see The Desert Breeze, September 2013) and Deborah Griscom Passmore, also contributed illustrations to Britton and Rose’s landmark study of cacti, The Cactaceae.

In 1886, the USDA Division of Pomology was established in response to a booming industry of fruit tree production that needed up-to-date research and dissemination of information for breeders and growers. Accurate illustrations were required to document a flood of new varieties of fruit and nut trees. By the time the Division was discontinued forty years later, its twenty-one artists had produced a bounty of more than 7,700 exquisite watercolors that now comprise the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection held in the Rare and Special Collections at the National Agricultural Library. In 2010–11 this entire collection of watercolors was digitized and can be viewed on the USDA/NAL website. Many of the fruit varieties represented in the collection are no longer in production, and the only visual record of them is held in this collection of watercolors.

Deborah Griscom Passmore (1840–1911), the most prolific of the Division’s pomological artists, produced over 1,500 paintings of a large variety of fruit and nuts—over 700 paintings of apples alone. She was raised in an Orthodox Quaker community in Pennsylvania before leaving to study at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After teaching art for several years, Passmore relocated to Washington D.C. and began working at the USDA in 1892. She was immediately tasked with creating many of the Department’s exhibits for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Her career at the USDA continued until her death in 1911.

Illustrating the subtle details of such a wide variety of fruit required technical and observational skills, patience, and long hours. An unnamed writer, whose informal biography of Passmore is kept with her papers at NAL, noted the following:  “Her diversion was yellow cats, and, when exhausted from intense application of mind and body, nothing rested her so much as watching the graceful gambols of kittens. On any Sunday evening one might see her sitting under a lamp … with a large Bible across her knees, Dandy Jim in her arms, and Buttercup, as jealous as a cat can be, ready to spring at the first opportunity.”

The two illustrations shown here represent Passmore’s work for the USDA Division of Pomology and her work for David Griffiths, the USDA Opuntia researcher who worked with several artists to produce many of the illustrations for The Cactaceae. — Cindy Hartwell

This appeared in the June 2015 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.