Story posted March 06, 2008
A Gift of Flowers: An Exhibition of Floral Images from the Bowdoin College Library's Special Collections Commemorating the Centennial of Kate Furbish's "Flora of Maine" is on display at Hawthorne-Longfellow Library now through May 2008.
In 1908, self-taught botanist and painter Kate Furbish completed her monumental Flora of Maine, a life-long project of depicting the flowering plants then known to grow in Maine, and presented her work to Bowdoin College. The bulk of this work, achieved by drawing both in the field and from specimens that she had gathered, occurred between 1870 and 1908.
Flora of Maine consists of 1,326 watercolors and pencil sketches, assembled in 14 half-morocco volumes and arranged by plant families; two additional volumes concern mushrooms. Furbish's wide-ranging explorations, and the meticulous detail of her drawings, came to be highly regarded by preeminent contemporary scientists, including botanists Asa Gray, Sereno Watson and Merritt L. Fernald of Harvard.
Numerous additional books in Special Collections also feature flowers. Some are botanical works that treat flowers scientifically. Others evoke flowers in literary or artistic contexts. In still others, floral images or designs appear purely decoratively. That flowers have appeared in printed works in so many different ways demonstrates their universal appeal — for their intrinsic beauty, their symbolic value, the shapes and colors that they supply for artistic design, and their uplifting affect on our emotions and our senses. In addition to Furbish's paintings, this exhibit also offers examples of the various ways in which illustrators, authors, book designers, and bookbinders have featured flowers from the Middle Ages until the present day.
Furbish (1834-1931) grew up in Brunswick, Maine, and she developed passionate interests both in art and in wildflowers. Although she enjoyed no formal schooling in either discipline, she had studied painting in Paris and had become a serious and accomplished, if self-taught, student of botany after attending a series of botany lectures in Boston during her young adulthood. Pedicularis furbishiae (Furbish's lousewort), which she discovered in the late 1800s and is now endangered, is named in her honor.
Furbish's two passions — art and wildflowers — merged in her Flora of Maine project, but her focus remained more scientific than artistic. Furbish referred to herself as a "botanic-artist" in regard to these drawings and paintings, which she presented to Bowdoin College in 1908. As such, she wrote to College President Hyde in 1909, "I hope that they [the paintings] will assist the earnest student instead of serving merely to entertain the visitor."
In fact, her work has done both.