Orra Hitchcock finally shines in 21st century with exhibit at Amherst College

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

At Amherst College, the name "Hitchcock" is something of a legend: That would be Edward Hitchcock, famed 19th-century Valley geologist and author, longtime Amherst professor and beloved college president.

But that's only half the story - because behind Hitchcock, propping him up both professionally and personally, was his wife, Orra.

She, too, was a force to be reckoned with.

If the 19th century was when Edward Hitchcock staked his claim to fame, the early 21st century is when Orra White Hitchcock - skilled illustrator and artist, self-taught botanist, supermom and close scientific collaborator with her husband - gets her moment to shine.

The college's Mead Art Museum has opened a window into the Orra Hatch story with a special new exhibit of her work from about 1817 to 1850, an extensive list that includes detailed watercolors of native plants, lithographs of Valley landscapes, fossil drawings and colorful pennants she painted as classroom lecture aids for her husband. The exhibit, which opened Jan. 28, runs through May 29.

It's the biggest exhibit ever of Hitchcock's work, say co-curators Daria D'Arienzo and Robert Herbert, one that combines over 100 examples of her art that the college owns, along with others the curators spent years tracking down from collections at Smith College, Deerfield Academy and other locations.

Hitchcock was more a scientific illustrator than an artist in the traditional sense. "She didn't sit and paint portraits," said Herbert, a retired professor of humanities from Mount Holyoke College. "But she brought an incredible eye for artistic detail to the watercolors she did of plants and to her lithographs."

Both curators say it's high time that Hitchcock receive recognition for what she was: the principal female illustrator of her generation, one whose accomplishments have long been overshadowed by her own modesty, her husband's notoriety, and the social constraints women faced in the 19th century.

"She was a woman of her time," said D'Arienzo, the former head of the college's Archives and Special Collections. "She saw herself first as a mother - she raised six children - and a wife. But she was not a shrinking violet, either. She was kind of quietly feisty and the real backbone of the family."

Herbert and D'Arienzo say Hitchcock also was an inseparable part of her husband's scientific research, joining him in the field as they charted the area's natural history and landscapes and she illustrated their discoveries. It was an exciting time for science, Herbert notes, and many of Hitchcock's paintings and drawings were sent on for examination and cataloging in laboratories and museums in New York, Boston and New Haven, Conn.

Her more famous husband - he was Massachusetts' first state geologist, taught at Amherst for almost 40 years, and served as president from 1845 to 1854 - recognized that his work would have been incomplete without her. He dedicated one of his geology texts to her, writing "Your artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive."

As D'Arienzo and Herbert gave a tour of the exhibit recently for a small group of Amherst students, they also talked about a more personal side of the Hitchcocks. They were an exceedingly close couple, D'Arienzo said, explaining that Orra often had to comfort and encourage her husband, who was a hypochondriac and most likely suffered from depression.

In fact, an 1849 Amherst College graduate, Martin Root, once wrote in his diary that Professor Hitchcock was "liable to fits of despondency and gloom. The least obstacle is apt to discourage him." It took both his wife's artistic skill and personal charms to make his life a success, Root added: "It is probable he would not have been anything great, is she had not assisted him."

As well, D'Arienzo pointed out that Orra Hitchcock was already an accomplished artist and aspiring botanist before she met her future husband, probably sometime around 1814 in Deerfield Academy. Born in 1796 in South Amherst, she was "a prodigy" who excelled in several subjects as a student at Deerfield and was teaching female students at the academy in art, math and natural sciences when she was just 17, D'Arienzo said.

"She had no formal training beyond what she learned in school," added Herbert. "But she taught herself to be a first-rate observer and illustrator of nature, and she was already pursuing her own interest in botany when she met" Edward Hitchcock.

"I think part of what drew them together was their love of nature and their religious faith," Herbert noted. "They were both deeply devoted to the landscape of the Valley."

As Herbert and D'Arienzo conducted their tour of the exhibit, D'Arienzo asked students to gather round some of Orra Hitchcock's lithographs, many of which were used to illustrate small geology volumes that her husband wrote. D'Arienzo pointed to some familiar landscapes, like Hitchcock's rendering of Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield. "It's the same thing you can see today," she said. "It connects people and places, and you're all part of that."

All told, the curators say, Hitchcock produced over 1,100 illustrations and some 220 lithographs, while also making dozens of exhibits for her husband's lectures: sheets of muslin with watercolored cross-sections of rock, volcanic layers and other geologic features that would be hung on the walls. "They were the digital displays of the day," Herbert said.

Though the exhibit can only show a fraction of that work, D'Arienzo and Herbert hope it will help shed some light on a talented woman who was not just of her time but also "transcended her time," as D'Arienzo wrote last year in the Massachusetts Review in a biographical sketch of Hitchcock and an examination of her work.

She was, in the end, both a devoted mother and wife and "an artist and a passionate scientist," D'Arienzo wrote, "a person capable of meeting the expectations of society even while she fulfilled her own dreams and created an illustrated life of her own."