Art is a Science: Women Illustrators Breaking Gender Barriers and the Story of Agnes Chase

Art is a Science: Women Illustrators Breaking Gender Barriers and the Story of Agnes Chase

Despite persistent gender disparities, women today hold positions throughout the sciences and are vital members of the scientific community. Universities in Western Europe and the United States began admitting women to science programs at the end of the 18th century. Certain subfields welcomed women more than others, with botany being one of the most accepting fields. In fact, the study of plants as a suitable vocation for women became a popular idea as early as the 18th century. Although women were not encouraged to take up botany as a profession, members of the elite class considered the practice of illustrating and studying plants a moralizing pursuit and a means of natural theology⁠—a celebration of the greatness of God through the study and contemplation of His creations. Before botany became a professional field with its own scientific degree in the mid 19th century, the study of plants was valued equally for its moralizing role as it was for its advancement of humanity’s scientific knowledge. Following the professionalization of botany in the mid 19th century, a small number of women earned doctorates in the field as early as the 1880s.

Botany earned a special designation in the United States as the most suitable science for women due largely to the work of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, a teacher and author responsible for popularizing botany in America. Phelps’ book Familiar Lectures on Botany, first published in 1829, was one of the few books on the subject available in America and the only one intellectually accessible to beginners.[1] Phelps argues that women are particularly suited to study botany’s “beautiful and delicate” subjects and that spending time outside benefits women’s health.[2] Phelps’ textbook remained in publication for 40 years, selling nearly 400,000 copies, many to female students.[3] Although Phelps educated American women in the scientific aspects of botany, its theological role persisted.

As botany transitioned from an elite pastime to a professional science in the second half of the 19th century, the field became increasingly specialized. Serious female scholars distanced themselves from associations with botany’s amateur past by conducting expert studies on botanical species unpopular among most hobbyists. While a small number of women achieved respected positions in botany through academic study at institutions of higher learning, this avenue remained unavailable to most. Despite the barriers women encountered in seeking a career in the botanical sciences, some women managed to use alternative means, such as illustration, to break into the profession. As in the biological sciences, illustration was a crucial component to the study of botany. Moreover, illustration and botany both existed in a liminal space more accessible to women as illustration was not considered fine art, nor was botany considered among the most rigorous of the hard sciences. This allowed women like Mary Agnes Chase to break into the scientific profession despite continued gender discrimination.

Born in Illinois in 1869 into a lower class family with little money, Chase lacked the resources to attend high school or college, but she overcame these obstacles to become a respected botanical scientist. Chase began working towards a career in botany following the death of her husband in 1889. A poor widow burdened by her husband’s debts, Chase worked to support herself, but she spent any free time working towards a career in botany. She volunteered as a botanical assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1901 and passed the Department of Agriculture’s examination to become a botanical illustrator in 1903. Shortly thereafter she attained a position working for Albert Spear Hitchcock as a botanical illustrator at the National Herbarium in Washington D.C. Chase continued her education by staying after work to independently study specimens at the National Herbarium and quickly mastered the taxonomy of grasses.[4] She earned a promotion to scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (the study of grasses) after publishing her first article in 1906.[5]  Chase worked with Hitchcock for more than 20 years studying the grasses of North and South America and assumed Hitchcock’s position in the department following his death in 1935. Chase held this position for 4 years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70; however, she continued to serve the National Herbarium as an honorary curator of grasses until her death.[6]

To complete their study of American grasses, Hitchcock and Chase conducted field research in Central America and South America where they collected and observed botanical specimens in their natural environment. As a woman, Chase encountered many obstacles while on exhibitions. These difficulties included being denied access to resources easily available to male botanists and a lack of funding. However, Chase’s involvement with the women’s movement in the United States provided her with valuable connections that helped ease this financial burden, as members of North American women’s missionaries hosted her in their homes.[7] Notably, she became the first American botanist to undertake an expedition to Brazil. After completing her second trip to Brazil in 1929, she amassed a collection of Brazilian grasses consisting of more than 4,500 specimens, likely the largest collection of its time, which included at least 10 varieties previously unknown to science.[8]

The fact that Chase’s success as a botanist hinged on her initial access to the field through her skills as an illustrator is critical to this narrative. A classificatory anomaly, botanical illustration is both art and science, but remains relegated to disciplinary fringes. In fact, the existence of botanical illustration within this liminal space contributed markedly to the perceived suitability of the profession for women, making botanical illustration, arguably, the easiest way for women to enter into the sciences. Unable to pursue a doctorate in botany, illustration offered Chase an alternative way into the field. Even though botany underwent profound professionalization changes at the turn of the century, it altered very little in terms of the use of botanical illustrations and preserved specimens.

Chase’s illustrations continue stylistic traditions established more than 4 centuries earlier in woodcut illustrations of plants from 16th century books known as “herbals,” the earliest books on plants printed in English. The woodcuts printed in these texts are the first known images of plants created expressly to aid in identification.[9]  Drawn in ink, Chase’s highly detailed line drawings typically consist of an overview image of the specimen, accompanied by 3 or 4 enlarged details of its seeds. In an illustration of ''Paspalum scabriusculum,” or wooly panicum, Chase depicts the joints of the stalk, the veins of the leaves, and all of the individual seeds as they appear when the grass is in full bloom.

Illustration of Paspalum scabriusculum, by Agnes Chase (1902). Image courtesyofHuntInstituteforBotanicalDocumentation (Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection at the Hunt Institute I Public Domain)

The overall image mimics the appearance of a pressed specimen and was likely drawn after one of the specimens Chase collected on her expeditions. Chase’s ink drawings are stylistically similar to 16th century woodcuts, like those by Leonhart Fuchs, in the stark contrast of crisp black line against a solid white ground, and in the depiction of an idealized perfect specimen without distortion or creative embellishment. This generalized version of nature became a popular mode of botanical illustration as it was thought to simplify the process of classification. Chase’s illustration also shows the influence of Hans Weiditz, a 16th century botanical illustrator who developed the convention of bending the stem of a large plant in order to depict it in its entirety without sacrificing the naturalism of the picture. Chase’s illustration uses this convention instead of depicting the plant in multiple sections, the other solution to this problem. Both methods became popular conventions. Chase’s stylistic similarities to these early forerunners attest to her dedication to a more historically scientific mode of botanical illustration.

Indeed, Chase’s illustrations contrast markedly with the more contemporaneous botanical paintings by mid 19th century British naturalist Marianne North, created when botany was still considered an amateur pursuit and had not yet developed into an academic science.[10] Rather than excise the plant from its surroundings to place it in a sterile and scientific space for contemplation, North fills the composition, surrounding the plant with botanical specimens and even other aspects of nature. North’s paintings depict multiple plants from different viewpoints and in various stages of growth, vibrantly painted with bright natural colors. While appealing, North’s images do not contain enough fine detail to assist in the precise identification of species. Her goals align with Victorian travel writers who went on amateur botanizing missions to record and report on the previously unseen. North’s artistic paintings reinforce strong period beliefs in biological essentialism that argue an individual’s characteristics and abilities are predetermined by sex. This division defined women’s role in botany as to identify, collect, press, and illustrate, while men claimed the right to create scientific taxonomies.

In contrast, Chase’s technical approach towards illustration is indicative of the professionalization of botany and efforts to secure the value of women’s scientific contributions. Chase managed to succeed by using the tools available to her within a system actively suppressing women’s efforts to infiltrate historically male sectors of society. Although her work remained largely in areas defined as appropriate according to biological determinism, Chase’s scientific career, made possible through art, remains an impressive achievement.

[1] Emanuel D. Rudolph, “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) and the Spread of Botany in Nineteenth Century America,” American Journal of Botany 71 (1984): 1163.
[2] Vera Norwood, Made from the Earth: American Women in Nature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 20.
[3]Rudolph, “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps,” 1164.
[4] Pamela M. Hensen,”What Holds the Earth Together’: Agnes Chase and American Agrostology,” Journal of the History of Biology 36 (2003): 439-440.
[5] Ibid, 439.
[6] Ibid, 440.
[7]Ibid, 443-445.
[8] Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), 137-142.
[9] Gill Saunders, Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995),17.
[10] Jeanne Kay Guelke and Karen M. Morin, “Gender, Nature, Empire: Women Naturalists in Nineteenth Century British Travel Literature,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26 (2001): 314-315.

Further Reading

Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992.)

Pamela M. Hensen, “What Holds the Earth Together’: Agnes Chase and American Agrostology.” Journal of the History of Biology 36 (2003): 437-460.

Gill Saunders, Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.)

Image credit: Muhlenbergia asperifolia (Nees & Meyen ex Trin.) Parodi - scratchgrass (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)