On a warm afternoon in 1988, a tippy double-decker boat poked its way through a narrow channel in a Brazilian forest flooded with runoff from the far-off Andes. The trees in this pristine swamp were lush with colorful plants. The most tantalizing was a swatch of flat red leaves clinging to a trunk about ten feet up.
When she sat on a chair on the boat’s top deck, Margaret Mee was at eye level with the plant. She was able to confirm that this was the moment she’d been anticipating for two and a half decades. The moonflower was about to bloom.
One of the century’s great botanical artists, Mee was 79 years old and on her 15th expedition into the Amazon basin to draw and paint rare plants. She was in fine health and spirits, and no one could have predicted the trip would be her last. Later that year she would be killed in a car accident in her native England, far from the more exotic threats of the Amazon.
Mee trained as an artist as a young woman in England but did not truly find her gift until she and her husband moved to Brazil in the early 1950s to care for her invalid sister. Mee was 43. The couple fell in love with the country and decided to stay. On weekends Mee and a friend took to hiking the coastal Atlantic forests near their homes in Sao Paulo. It was a misty wonderland of trees and flowers, and Mee was fascinated. She had painted landscapes and portraits back in England; now she began to concentrate on watercolor portraits of flowers. Soon the two friends were on an expedition in the Amazon basin, where lesser-known plants awaited.
It was virtually unprecedented at the time for women to travel without men in Amazonia, much of which was a scarcely explored frontier. They experienced plagues of insects, a severe food shortage, hazardous rapids, sudden storms, and unreliable guides. But the beauty, Mee thought, outweighed the dangers.
Back home she worked her field sketches into completed watercolors. By the time she completed a few more trips, local botanists and collectors began recognizing the value both of her artwork and of the live plants she brought back–many of which thrive today in botanical gardens.
Mee’s work, which goes on display at the Field Museum Friday, forms a bridge between the practical botanical art of the 18th and 19th centuries and the more embellished products of the modern era. In most of her early compositions, plants are laid out before a blank white background. The needs of science dictated that all the plant’s fundamental identifying characteristics be shown: flowers, fruits, seeds, leaves. Mee discovered several new plant species (a few of which were later named after her) and rediscovered some that had not been seen by scientists for decades. Some may have gone extinct since she documented them. Her paintings are an enduring record of plant distributions that will remain valuable to botanists for centuries to come.
But Mee heeded the needs of art, too, and hers is an oeuvre of seductive beauty. She specialized in painting the most vibrant and colorful tropical plants: bromeliads, orchids, cacti.
The balance between science and art is perhaps most finely poised in her later work, such as the painting of the moonflower. The white background has been filled in. A full moon illuminates gnarled trees in the background, while the plant’s flowers glow brilliant white against crimson leaves. It is an integrated scene, an ecological view.
Moonflowers–Selenicereus wittii–bloom only a few nights a year. When Mee finished her sketches at dawn after that night in 1988 she was tired but content. Yet the moment was bittersweet. Not only was Mee disturbed that her vigil by the flowers had apparently kept pollinators from visiting them, but the trip back along the Rio Negro was a stark reminder of the threats facing the moonflower and other residents of the Amazon. “We heard the sharp whine of a chainsaw as another settler carved out a home….The forest has changed considerably and the lovely plants I have painted along the Negro have disappeared,” she wrote later. “I can remember my excitement on my first journey there, when I moored my boat to a swartzia tree, full of perfumed white flowers, among the great trees on the banks. The changes have been disastrous, and the destruction and burning of the forests arouse fears for the future of our planet.”
“Margaret Mee: Return to the Amazon,” which includes 85 watercolors along with sketches, diaries, plant specimens, and Brazilian artifacts, opens Friday (and runs through April 30) at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt at Lake Shore Drive (312-922-9410). Entrance to the exhibit is included in the museum’s admission price ($7 for adults; $4 for children ages 3 to 17, students, and seniors).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/copyright the National Geographic Society/courtesy Ruth L.A/copyright RGB.