The united states department of agriculture's
pomological watercolor collection
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In the June 2015 Desert Breeze, we presented a brief account of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Pomology with emphasis on the illustrations produced by 21 of the Division’s artists from 1886 to 1942 when it was disbanded. The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection contains more than 7,000 superb watercolors that are held in the Rare and Special Collections at the National Agricultural Library.
In 2011, the entire collection of watercolors was made available for viewing on the internet. The collection can be searched by artist, common or scientific name of the fruit, and country of origin, and, if you find a particularly luscious cluster of grapes, you can download a high resolution image, ready for printing and hanging.
Two books published in the past year celebrate this stunning collection of paintings. Heirloom Fruits of America – Selections from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection presents 200 of the paintings with an introduction by Yale historian Daniel J. Kevles that details the history of the Division of Pomology and its artists. The quality of the reproductions is excellent, but they are of a more modest size than those collected in the second book.
An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts – The US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection includes 300 of the paintings and offers much more than beautiful botanical art. A fascinating introduction, written by Adam Leith Gollner, author of The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession, begins with a brief history of the Division of Pomology and an account of the experimental breeding of the blueberry. He describes several of his fruit encounters around the world and pays tribute to three of the Division’s most notable plant hunters, David Fairchild, Frank Meyer, and Wilson Popenoe. A listing of all of the artists who worked in the Division of Pomology is followed by a biographical sketch of the nine most prominent and productive artists. A few of these artists can be seen in a 1914 photograph of the Division’s employees. For Meyer lemon lovers, there is a impressive photograph of USDA plant collector Frank Meyer in China where he found the fruit (Desert Breeze December 2018). The book ends with two brief literary tributes to fruit—“The Apple”, from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, and “Oranges”, an excerpt from the book of the same name by the extraordinary John McPhee.
It is notable that 50 percent of the watercolors in the Collection were painted by three of the Division’s female artists. The most prolific of the three was Deborah Griscom Passmore (Desert Breeze June 2015 where you can see her beautiful painting of the fruit of Opuntia hyptiacantha), who painted more than 1,500 of the Collection’s watercolors. Shown above is her painting of a mammillaria with its vibrantly colored, edible fruit. It may seem odd to find this in the USDA collection, but in addition to thousands of illustrations of well-known fruits, there were many lesser known fruits that were investigated, including the fruit of the prickly pear. Three rather sad illustrations of Opuntia fruit are in the collection and are mysteriously grouped with this beautiful mammillaria, which is even more mysteriously titled “Prickly Pear” in the Collection’s data base.
The second illustration is by Royal Charles Steadman, who painted some 900 of the Collection’s watercolors. Before joining the Division of Pomology, Steadman was a jewelry designer and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to his pomological watercolors, he developed a technique for modeling fruit from wax and plaster. Wikipedia has a wonderful photograph of Steadman at work with his wax models.
Watercolors by other USDA artists can be seen here. —Cindy Hartwell
This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.