Henrietta Benson Homer (1809-84), originally from Bucksport, Maine, was a talented watercolorist who specialized in nature studies. The Museum holds thirty-one of Henrietta’s detailed watercolors, twenty-four of which are studies of flora, fauna, and insects. Henrietta is known as the mother of renowned American painter Winslow Homer, but her own artistic talent as a nature watercolorist is often overlooked, just as the contribution of women to the study of botany has largely gone unrecognized.
While women’s nature studies and botanical illustration have been historically under appreciated, many women’s systematically recorded observations in art, research, and collecting significantly contributed to scientific discovery and development. In fact, there was a rise in American females’ conspicuous participation in botanical studies during Henrietta’s lifetime.
Women have completed nature studies and illustrations since at least the seventeenth century, in part because watercolor was deemed a suitable artistic pastime for women. Trained in watercolor painting in private school during her youth, Henrietta composed nature watercolors that were intricately accurate in color and composition. Her watercolors were appreciated by her son Winslow who, after her death, exhibited her work in his Prout’s Neck studio as “the only paintings by another artist he ever collected.” Although both of Winslow’s parents encouraged him in his pursuits of the arts, his mother’s lessons, artistic talent, and interest in nature influenced his artistic practice, visible in his close observation of nature and his works’ intimate relationship with the natural environment. Henrietta’s watercolors were valued outside her family as well, as she often exhibited her paintings at the Brooklyn Art Association during the 1870s and 1880s.
You can view a selection of Henrietta Benson Homer’s watercolors at the Museum in the current exhibition, To Count Art an Intimate Friend: Highlights from Bowdoin Collections, 1794 to the Present and contemplate not only her contribution to her son’s artistic legacy, but her work in its own right and the overarching contribution of women to the development of science.