A peek into our collections, one object at a time

Mary Vaux Walcott, a Natural Artist

December 8, 2023
Social Media Share Tools
Lodgepole Pine
Mary Vaux Walcott, Lodgepole Pine (Pinus Contorta murrayana), 1921, watercolor on paper, sheet: 10 x 7 in. (25.5 x 17.9 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist, 1970.355.439

One summer a botanist asked her to paint a rare blooming arnica, and this encouraged her to concentrate on botanical illustration.

In 1913, she met Charles Doolittle Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, when he was conducting geological research. They were married a year later. The couple spent from three to four months each season in the Canadian Rockies. During these summers, Mary Vaux Walcott painted hundreds of watercolor studies of native flowers.

At the urging of botanists and wildflower enthusiasts, a selection of 400 of her illustrations was published between 1925 and 1929 by the Smithsonian in a five-volume edition titled North American Wild Flowers. In 1935, she contributed the illustrations to the volume North American Pitcher Plants, also published by the Smithsonian. Her work was instrumental in the development of a new technique for printing that came to be known as the Smithsonian Process.

View more of Walcott’s art on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website and learn more about her and the Smithsonian Process in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ blog “Unbound.”  

A reprint of North American Wild Flowers, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Prestel Publishing, was published in 2022 and edited by Pamela Henson, the historian for the history of the Smithsonian. Read an interview with Henson in “Unbound.”