The Art of the Plant – Emily Dickinson

What did the American poet see in this simple page of pressed flowers?
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Herbarium sheet, c.1839–46 Pressed flowers on woven paper, 33 × 49.5 cm / 13 × 19½ in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. As reproduced in Plant
Herbarium sheet, c.1839–46 Pressed flowers on woven paper, 33 × 49.5 cm / 13 × 19½ in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. As reproduced in Plant

We can all find intrigue and inspiration in the natural world; scientists have been spurred on to fathom and order out botany’s intricacies and inner workings, while artists often driven to create works reflecting majesty and the wonder of nature.

Our new book, Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, reproduces a wide variety of botanical representations though the ages. Most of these 300 beautiful and pioneering images take some delight in the liveliness of the plant kingdom. Yet a few, such as this page of dried specimens prepared by the American poet and recluse Emily Dickinson, remind us of life’s transience.

Dickinson delighted in the natural world, yet she was also known for her morbid cast of mind, as Plant explains. “These flowers are more important for the identity of the person who pressed them than for themselves,” the book explains. “This is a page from a sixty-six-leaf herbarium, or album of dried flowers, put together in the mid-nineteenth century by fourteen-year-old Emily Dickinson - later one of America’s most beloved poets - as a schoolgirl in Massachusetts.

“The flowers reflected her lifelong fascination with death: by drying and preserving them, she granted them immortality. She wrote to a friend: ‘Did you ever know that a flower, once withered and freshened again, becomes an immortal flower, – that is, that it rises again?’

 

Detail from Herbarium sheet, c.1839–46 Pressed flowers on woven paper, 33 × 49.5 cm / 13 × 19½ in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. As reproduced in Plant
Detail from Herbarium sheet, c.1839–46 Pressed flowers on woven paper, 33 × 49.5 cm / 13 × 19½ in Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. As reproduced in Plant

“Of the ten specimens shown on this page, Dickinson has labelled eight, including the potato, the white lettuce, the common foxglove and the marsh marigold. In total, her herbarium contained 424 specimens, most of which she labelled, with only a few errors. More than half were native to Massachusetts; the remainder were yard, garden and houseplants. Flower-pressing was a popular hobby for young girls in the nineteenth century, but Dickinson often included a single flower she had dried herself when she wrote to her friends, frequently with a poem. When she was older, her father built her a conservatory at the family home, and she used it to study her beloved flowers.”

 

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

For more important floral imagery created by both artists and scientists, order a copy of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World here.


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