Dumbarton Oaks: Botanical Artists

Heliconia chartacea var. meeana by Alice Tangerini

In keeping with one of its three areas of study, gardens and landscape, Dumbarton Oaks Museum recently held an exhibition of paintings by the British botanical artist, Margaret Mee (1909-1988), who is known for her depictions of Brazilian plants.  She and her husband moved to Brazil in 1952.  She taught art and only became interested in depicting plants after she began to explore the countryside.  She was an intrepid traveler and spent long hours under difficult conditions sketching plants in situ.  She eventually created over 400 completed works in gouache and in the 1960s Mildred Bliss, who with her husband Robert had owned Dumbarton Oaks, purchased 20 of Mee’s paintings.  These were the focus of the exhibit, though also on display were relevant items from Dumbarton’s collection as well as contemporary work by botanical artist Nirupa Rao, scientific illustrator Alice Tangerini, and photographer Amy Lamb.

In a recent Zoom presentation hosted by Dumbarton, Rao and Tangerini were featured along with artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi who uses botanical themes in her paintings, sculpture, and multimedia work.  Each discussed her approach to portraying plants, and I found it one of the most satisfying presentations I’ve seen in some time.  I should note that this was not a seminar that could have happened without the internet since the speakers were on three different continents.  Rao was in her native India, though she learned about botanical art in Australia when she would visit her aunt there.  She was amazed by the uniqueness of the plants she saw and wanted to draw them.  It was only later that she became aware of the long tradition of what is called “Company Art” done in India (Noltie, 2017).  This was painting created by Indian artists, many trained in traditional local techniques, who then worked for the British, including naturalists, for whom they portrayed plants and animals.  The botanical art is accurate and at the same time has a distinctive style.

Rao was trained in present-day botanical illustration, and yet her work, too, reveals her cultural roots.  In a recent project, she collaborated with her cousins to produce a book on trees of India’s Western Ghats mountain range (Divya et al., 2018).  She was asked by botanists to aid in documenting the trees, since photography had failed to do them justice.  Though they rise very tall in the rainforests, it’s impossible to take a photo of an entire tree; there is just too much vegetation on and around them.  Instead, Rao painstakingly did sketches of various parts of a tree and then brought them together in a single portrait:  beautiful, stately, and delicate.  Rao also shares her talent in school programs designed to help young people see and appreciate the botanical riches around them.  They learn why species are endangered and what can be done about it, as they examine artistic treasures and create their own. 

Next to speak was Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Nigerian Jamaican-American, who now lives in Lagos.  She uses plants in her work in ways that are more expressive than traditional botanical illustration.  She began drawing plants in graphite on herbarium paper and went on to use ink and acrylic paints on found fabric.  She also references West Africa hairstyles along with plant forms in intriguing ways.  Her work is bold and original, and she too is interested in conserving the biodiversity she sees around her.  She is also intrigued by plants as food and brings her artistic talents to working with chefs.  Both she and Rao are young, enthusiastic, environmentally aware artists who communicate a calm sense of joy in their work.

The third presenter was Alice Tangerini, who has worked for many years as a botanical illustrator at the United States Herbarium in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMHN).  As she explained, most of her work is in pen and ink and done at the request of botanists who are publishing descriptions of new species.  She explained how she uses herbarium specimens in her work and also fresh material, if it’s available.  I thought it was interesting that the first thing she does is make a photocopy of the specimen, so she can work from that rather than disturbing the specimen, which is still available for reference.  She can cut the copy up and focus on particular areas.  She, too, is very enthusiastic about what she does, including incorporating digital technologies such as  sophisticated software to create color illustrations. 

I should add that a couple of weeks before this lecture, Dumbarton Oaks hosted one where the speaker was W. John Kress, Distinguished Scientist and Curator Emeritus at the NMNH.  He is an expert on Heliconia, a tropical genus with many species in Brazil, some painted by Mee.  When he saw one of these, he couldn’t identify the species, nor could he find a record of it in the literature.  He tracked it down with the help of a South American botanical colleague.  It turned out to be a new variety that he named for Mee, Heliconia chartacea var. meeana.  This is just one of many examples of an artist’s eye assisting the eye of a botanist.  Kress also spoke of studying gingers in Myanmar and finding a new species that was widely sold in markets, and yet had never been described in the botanical literature.  He named it Globba sherwoodiana in honor of the noted collector of botanical art, Shirley Sherwood.


Divya, M., & Raman, T. R. S. (2018). Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore, IND: Nature Conservation Foundation.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.