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Mary Vaux Walcott’s Moss Campion Blossoms Illustration


The "Audubon of Botany": Mary Vaux Walcott's Enduring Legacy


This blog delves into the artistic journey of this remarkable woman, often called the "Audubon of Botany," whose watercolors continue to captivate audiences over a century later.

Mary Vaux Walcott wasn't your typical woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in 1860 in Philadelphia, she defied expectations on all fronts. While society dictated a life of domesticity, Mary had a spirit of boundless curiosity, craved adventure, knowledge, and the thrill of exploration. This remarkable woman became a renowned botanical artist, a pioneering mountaineer, and a champion for scientific discovery and social justice. She carved a unique path that intertwined a love for art with a passion for the natural world. This blog delves into the artistic journey of this remarkable woman, the "Audubon of Botany," whose watercolors continue to captivate audiences over a century later.

Mary M. Vaux, and her brothers George Vaux, William S. Vaux, 1908

A Family United by Science and Adventure

Hailing from a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia, Mary's upbringing instilled in her a deep appreciation for nature and a dedication to learning. Despite her family's wealth, they embraced a simple Quaker lifestyle that valued education and exploration. Unlike many women of her era, Mary wasn't confined to domestic life. Her family's summer excursions to western Canada sparked a lifelong fascination with the rugged beauty of the Rockies and the delicate wildflowers that thrived there. However, life took an unexpected turn when Mary's mother passed away when she was just nineteen. With a strong sense of responsibility, Mary took on the role of caring for her two younger brothers.

Mary Vaux Walcott 1914

Capturing the Essence: The Art of Botanical Illustration

Mary's artistic talents blossomed early. Encouraged by her artistic uncle, she honed her skills in drawing and painting from a young age. At the age of eight, she received a set of watercolors and began capturing the delicate forms of wildflowers. Mary's artistic calling became clear: to document the captivating world of flora with scientific accuracy and artistic flair. She meticulously studied plant life, capturing their intricate details with an unwavering focus. Unlike traditional botanical illustrations, Mary's watercolors pulsated with life. Her subjects weren't merely specimens on a page; they were vibrant entities, their delicate textures, subtle color variations, and unique characteristics meticulously rendered.

Mary photographing wildflowers in western Canada from Smithsonian

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Magnolia Blossoms Illustration


A Life in Bloom: Art and Adventure Intertwined

Mary's artistic life was inextricably linked to her adventurous spirit. An ardent mountaineer, she scaled some of the most challenging peaks in the Canadian Rockies, often accompanied by her sketchbook and paints. At a time when women were discouraged from physical activities, she embraced mountaineering. She scaled challenging peaks, becoming the first documented woman to conquer a mountain over 10,000 feet – Mount Stephen in Canada – in 1900. These expeditions provided Mary with a firsthand understanding of the diverse ecosystems she depicted in her art. The rugged landscapes she traversed undoubtedly influenced her compositions, instilling in them a sense of scale and majesty that complemented the delicate beauty of her floral subjects.

Mary Vaux Walcott’s New Mexico Locust Blossoms Illustration

A Marriage of Minds and Exploration

In 1914, Mary's life took another exciting turn when she married renowned paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. Wolcott served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1907 to 1927. Their shared love for science and exploration made them perfect partners. Together, they continued their treks through the Canadian Rockies, with Mary meticulously documenting the wildflowers she encountered with her watercolors. Her paintings were not merely beautiful; they captured the botanical details with scientific precision.

Mary Vaux Walcott and Charles Doolittle Walcott, date unknown.

A Master of Technique: Watercolors that Breathe

Mary's watercolors were a testament to her dedication and technical mastery. She employed a layering technique, applying washes of transparent colors to build depth and realism. Her brushstrokes were both precise and expressive, capturing the delicate veins of a petal as well as the dynamic flow of a stem. The meticulous details in her paintings, from the stamen and pistil of a flower to the subtle variations in leaf texture, revealed a profound respect for the intricate workings of the natural world.

Wild Flowers of North America: Botanical Illustrations by Mary Vaux Walcott Hardcover

– Illustrated, October 11, 2022 by Pamela Henson (Editor)


Mary Vaux Walcott’s Trillium Flower Illustration


Beyond Accuracy: The Artistic Language of Flowers

While scientific accuracy remained paramount, Mary's artistry went beyond mere representation. Her compositions, often featuring a single flower against a stark background, exuded a sense of quiet drama. The play of light and shadow, the subtle gradation of colors, and the masterful use of negative space all contributed to a sense of awe and wonder. Mary's paintings weren't just illustrations; they were artistic interpretations that conveyed the essence of a flower's beauty and fragility.

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Crossvine Flowers Illustration

A Legacy of Inspiration: A Life of Exploration and Advocacy

Mary's artistic ambition and travels extended beyond personal gratification. She wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty - she actively participated in scientific research expeditions, documenting new plant discoveries through her watercolors. She passionately advocated for the study and conservation of wildflowers, using her art to raise awareness of their inherent value and beauty. She documented the impact of wildfires and the changing landscape, becoming an early advocate for environmental conservation. Mary, alongside her brothers, documented glacial recession – a groundbreaking practice well before climate change became a recognized issue.

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Alpine Fringed Galax Flower Illustration

Beyond the Canvas: A Life of Service

Mary's life wasn't all about scaling mountains and painting flowers. She was a woman of deep social conscience. In her later years, she served on the Federal Board of Indian Commissioners, traveling extensively through the American West to advocate for the rights of Native American communities.

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Bluebell Flower Illustration

Enduring Legacy: An Artist Who Transcended Time

Mary Vaux Walcott left behind a remarkable legacy. Her art continues to inspire naturalists and artists alike, with her paintings displayed in prestigious museums around the world. The Smithsonian Institution played a pivotal role in bringing Mary's work to the public. They published her landmark five-volume set, "North American Wild Flowers," in 1925. This publication not only showcased her art but also served as a valuable scientific resource. Also, Mary's illustrations were instrumental in developing a new printing technique known as the "Smithsonian Process." This innovative method allowed for the accurate reproduction of her detailed watercolors.

Her story serves as a testament to the power of defying societal expectations and pursuing one's passions. Whether scaling mountains, meticulously capturing the beauty of a wildflower, or advocating for social justice, Mary led a life of remarkable accomplishment that continues to inspire generations. Her story is a reminder that even amidst societal constraints, extraordinary things can be achieved.


Mrs. Walcott sketching a wildflower in watercolors on a frosty morning in camp. From The Smithsonian


 Further Exploration

This blog offers a glimpse into the captivating life and art of Mary Vaux Walcott. To delve deeper, consider exploring these resources:


Mary Vaux Walcott painting, c. 1930, photograph courtesy of Erin Younger