Palaeotherium by Ora White Hitchcock

Imagine walking into geology class and finding visual aids worthy of display in an art history lecture. A tabular view of stratified rocks, 10 feet long, stunningly colored. Swirly clay-bed contortions in a lovely blue. “An octopus,” in the words of one reviewer, “as an oddly sensual configuration of dots and swirls.” PowerPoints have their place, but a 12-foot pen-and-ink drawing with watercolor wash on cotton linen: wouldn’t you rather look at that?

Such were the images that awaited Amherst geology students in the early and mid-19th century. In addition to having a professor, Edward Hitchcock, who was among the leading geologists of his time, these students benefitted from unusual, large-scale scientific illustrations—“works of art in their own right,” to quote a recent review in Smithsonian magazine. “Educational posters on acid,” enthuses writer Priscilla Frank in The Huffington Post


Back in the 19th century, no one thought of them as art, not even their creator. Unsigned, underappreciated, they’re only now being recognized on a national stage. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City has devoted a summer and fall exhibition to Orra White Hitchcock, long known as the wife of Edward, now regarded as one of the premier scientific illustrators of her time, and one of the first who was female. This self-taught artist managed to communicate “complex scientific principles in abstract visual terms,” the exhibition explains, creating pieces that today feel “gorgeously fresh and modern.”

No one thought of these pen- and-ink and watercolor drawings as art, not even their creator.

Octopus by Ora White Hitchcock
Born on March 8, 1796, in South Amherst, Orra White was 17 when she began teaching math, astronomy, botany and “decorative arts” at Deerfield Academy. That’s where she met her future husband. Married in 1821, Orra and Edward arrived at Amherst four years later, when he was named professor of natural history and chemistry. He went on to become the College’s third president and to establish a still-famous collection of dinosaur footprints.

While Edward pursued his work as a teacher and scholar, Orra made more than 60 large-format charts on linen for his lectures. She also illustrated his geological publications, notably the 1833 Final Report on the Geology of Massachusetts.

The exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum runs through Oct. 14. It features more than 100 original works, and it’s earned glowing reviews: “a handsome and unexpectedly passionate exhibition on art, science and education in the early American republic,” said The New York Times. “Her geological illustrations are particularly striking—they’d be at home in a display of abstract art,” said The Washington Post.

Granite Veins by Ora White Hitchcock
Most of the pieces in the exhibition come from Amherst. Archives and Special Collections in Frost Library holds the largest collection of Orra White Hitchcock’s work. Indeed, while her work may be unfamiliar to New York’s museum goers, she’s well-known to Amherst.

In 2011, the Mead Art Museum held a special exhibition devoted to Hitchcock’s work, describing her as “the principal female il- lustrator of her generation in the UnitedStates,”someone who “deserves to be better known.” The curators of the Mead exhibition were Robert L. Herbert, professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke, and Daria D’Arienzo, head archivist at Amherst (now retired). Their re- search earns special recognition in the New York exhibition.

While her work may be unfamiliar to New York museumgoers, she’s well-known to Amherst.

In summer 2015, Archives and Special Collections had four digital humanities interns conduct research on the College’s Ed- ward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection, which, in addition to the artwork, includes letters and manuscripts. The illustrations and charts “allow us a look at how science was taught at Amherst in the mid-19th century,” wrote Chris Barber, an archivist at the College, and also offer “a glimpse of the geological landscape of the Pioneer Valley during her time.”

Most who have reviewed the Folk Art Museum exhibition have emphasized that the works are un- signed. The artist’s husband noted it too, in his 1863 memoirs, saying that his wife created her illustrations “without the slightest pecuniary compensation, or the hope of artistic reputation.” Orra died that same year, Edward the next. As Smithsonian noted, they’re buried together in Amherst, at West Cemetery, where his gravestone remembers a “leader in science,” while hers remembers the “wife of Edward Hitchcock.” Now, at the American Folk Art Museum, and on an ongoing basis in the Amherst College Archives, she’s remembered for far more.

Ora White Hitchcock artworks courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.