Here is another amazing female botanical artist in the tradition of Marianne North and Marian Ellis Rowan.
Berthe Hoola van Nooten (1817 - 1892) was the daughter of an Utrecht vicar. There is little on record about her young years, except that she was already fascinated by natural science and particularly skilled at flower painting.
In 1838 she married Dirk Hoola van Nooten. After their marriage, the couple travelled to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, where Dirk Hoola van Nooten worked as a judge. Berthe often travelled between Suriname and Batavia (now Jakarta) with her husband, and it was during these travels that her interest in botanical plants and painting grew. The records show that she sent cultivated plants back to botanical gardens in the Netherlands. These specimens were collected on trips through Suriname and Java with her husband.
Only nine years after her marriage and with five young children, van Nooten’s husband suddenly died in 1847, leaving her with large debts and a large young family. Unable to pay for the family’s journey back to the Netherlands, the young widow decided to take advantage of her compulsory banishment. Aware of the great interest in Europe for lavish illustrations of exotic fruit and flowers, she decided to produce watercolour plates depicting interesting plant species from Java. Would she have bothered creating professional works, had she not been so pressed financially? Probably not.
Cynometra Cauliflora or Nam Nam
After returning home to the Netherlands, she tried to get her watercolours publish but failed. It was only through the intervention and eventual patronage of the Netherlandish Queen Sophie Mathilde, who strongly supported the arts, that Berthe was finally able to get a selection of her paintings published in 1864. Queen Sophie, wife of the Dutch King William III, was no intellectual slouch. She corresponded with several European scholars, protected and stimulated the arts and supported her favourite causes, including the construction of public parks. But the records don’t say how Berthe came to the Queen’s attention.
The forty large plates in the book "Fleurs fruits et feuillages choisis de l’ile de Java" were printed in Belgium from Van Nooten's original sketches by the Belgian lithographer Pieter Depannemaeker, using the new technique of chromolithography. The exquisite colour-plates, often finished by hand, depicted a range of Java’s tropical splendour; its indigenous and introduced flowering trees, shrubs, decorative flowers and plants with edible fruits. Each brilliantly coloured plate was accompanied by a description of the plants and their culinary, medical and other uses in French and English.
BibliOdyssey blog has beautiful versions of some of the fruit illustrations. Botany Photo of the Day blog has an exquisite flower I have never seen before: torch ginger which was native to Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Visual Creative blog saw the arts works of famous Victorian women and dreamt of becoming a specialist in botanical illustration.
Van Nooten managed to accentuate the splendour of each species by adopting a style that combined great precision and clarity with a touch of neo-Baroque exuberance, revelling in the rich forms and colours of the tropics. Cynometra Cauliflora/Nam Nam for example, is native to South East Asia and is a small tree having a knotted trunk yielding edible light brown or greenish yellow flowered fruit.
Despite three editions of the work being published during her lifetime, Berthe Hoola van Nooten died in poverty in Batavia in 1892. So how did copies of the original publication get into Australian libraries? Apparently the books were acquired from Daphne van Nooten whose late husband was the artist’s great great nephew. Published some 16 years after the first edition, the 1880 editions held by the 3 Australian libraries (National Library of Australia in Canberra, the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne’s library) is regarded as an improved edition. In acquiring this publication, the libraries were aware of another C19th female artist whose work complemented those already held in Australia.
The Tropenmuseum is an anthropological museum located in Amsterdam and established in 1864 in order to show the Netherlands’ overseas possessions. The museum, operated by the Royal Tropical Institute, uses visual arts and photographic works for its exhibitions. Its two beautiful portraits of our artist are in the permanent collection.
Two recent specialist exhibitions should be noted. In Washington DC, Illustrating Nature: Three Centuries of Botanical Prints showcased the tremendous contributions women artists made to the development of botanical art from the C17th onwards. The 2001 exhibition, organised by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, featured 50 prints and four books by British and European artists. The illustrations of artists who completed works while travelling abroad make up a significant part of the exhibition, including Berthe Hoola Van Nooten.
Studio Botanika NY specialises in botanical and natural history prints from 1700 on. They are having a very special exhibit showing the work of women botanical illustrators, including Berthe Hoola van Nooten. They noted that it was typical for many women artists to sign their work only as: 'by a lady.' Victorian women were modest, reserved and not self-promoting; thus their contributions, however great, were rarely recognised. Those who did illustrate professionally were typically underpaid. However the time was right because, during the Victorian era, exploration became so common because the elite of society craved the most unusual plants. Plant breeding exploded, and vast conservatories were constructed to hold the plant oddities.
The Bluest Blue has a gorgeous botanical print by Augusta Innes Baker Withers (1792–1869). Now I must look for any published material about Ms Withers.
Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle
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