During the mid-19th century, Americans embraced new and exotic varieties of fruits and nuts with increased fervor. Farmers were expanding orchards in response to growing markets, while horticulturists and explorers were importing new plant species from foreign expeditions and developing them for introduction into American agriculture. In response to this increased interest and activity, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1886 established the Division of Pomology. The mission of the division was to document new varieties, publish illustrations, and disseminate research findings to fruit growers and breeders through specialized publications. Scientifically precise representations of the fruits were critical in enabling farmers to understand and apply the information covered in agricultural publications. Since photography had not yet developed to the point where it could meet these needs, the USDA recruited artists to create technically accurate illustrations of newly introduced fruits and nuts.
William Henry Prestele was the first artist appointed to the Division of Pomology in 1887. Many other artists, including a significant number of women, joined him over the next four decades. The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is the fruit of their labors.
Chadwick-Healey and other publishers indexed the collection of approximately 7,700 watercolors created from 1888 to the 1930s. Building on those indexes, NAL developed a Web database which contains additional details of each watercolor and links to the images. The database includes information handwritten by the artist giving the plant species and variety; name of the property owner; the county, city, and state where the subject specimen was grown; and the date that the watercolor was painted. The collection also includes 90 wax models of fruit that reproduce the exact weight, color, and texture as well as appearance of the specimens. NAL has photographed the models and has developed a conservation plan to ensure their availability into the future. The annual reports of the Pomologist and other publications featuring lithographs produced from the original watercolors are also part of this collection and can be accessed on the NAL Web site.
Unique to NAL, the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is a major historic and botanic resource for horticulturists, historians, artists, and publishers. Drawn from nature, the paintings serve as the basis for exhibits at NAL and in collaboration with other institutions, and they are one of NAL's most popular collections. The primary research use is to trace the characteristics of early fruit varieties and analyze introductions from early plant exploration expeditions. This research informs horticulturists and can influence the direction of breeding programs. The collection is increasingly appreciated for its aesthetic value; therefore reprints of images are frequently requested. To increase access to the collection for both the research community and the public, over 300 watercolors have been scanned and are available on the Special Collections Web site. Digitized images and newly discovered facts about the artists and their work are added regularly.
Collection Profile and Overview: Susan H. Fugate
Illustrations: Bob Nichols