The Repudiation of Originality & the Embrace of Vegetality in the Botanical Artwork of Henrietta Maria Moriarty
From the paintings of exquisite floral arrangements by Rachel Ruysch to the meticulous documentation of entomological subjects in their tropical milieu by Maria Sibylla Merian, early modern women depicted the natural world with varying degrees of scientific specificity. However, while Ruysch’s role as a flower painter confirms the appropriately feminine approach to naturalist study expected by her contemporaries, Merian was considered an outlier in her time for her dedication to technical minutiae. Expressly botanical art, distinguished by its utilization of technical terminology and an adherence to conventions of specimen depiction, is also a tradition usually dominated by men. In part due to gendered expectations about scientific technology and praxis, this imbalance importantly speaks to the ways in which women as creators of any sort are underrepresented in the historical record. This paper seeks to explore women’s role in envisioning, producing, and disseminating scientific content through art by looking at the botanical artistry of a third artist, the Englishwoman Henrietta Maria Moriarty.
Moriarty is among the few English female botanical artists of the eighteenth century credited with her own labor, yet her work has been all but completely ignored in the centuries since. Her Viridarium (1806) features fifty lushly illustrated plates of greenhouse plants, each with accompanying taxonomic classification, and personal notes about growth and appearance. It was designed both as a botanical reference work and a guide for teaching young girls how to draw flowers and was specifically marketed to schools and tutors. The individual plates are vibrantly colored and carefully executed, with one small flaw – a portion of the images were copied more or less directly from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. What does this say about her contributions to the history of women naturalist-artists? How can we understand her labor as both artistically and intellectually significant? Is artistic originality key to scientific specificity?
While a partial answer to such questions looks to the pragmatic realities of professional botanical illustration (which commonly used models), a more meaningful response situates Moriarty in a rich tradition of what I am calling botanical entanglement. I parse Moriarty’s own annotations of her plant subjects to tease out her personal relationship to the natural world, noting her deeply personal and intimate connection with vegetal being(s). Utilizing contemporary critical plant theory, this paper will argue for Moriarty’s significance to the long eighteenth-century tradition of scientific artwork, as well as the generative possibilities the rejection of originality—a human concept rooted in economic ideals—has for the legacy of women/plant relationships.