Written by Daria D’Arienzo
Orra White Hitchcock’s Life, Art and the Connecticut River Valley
“One of our most distinguished naturalists…”
—Stephen W. Williams, M.D., 1849
Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) is one of the hidden gems of the Connecticut River Valley. Few people know her name. More should. She was a remarkable woman—a wife, mother, teacher, scientist and artist—balancing all those things in the mid 19th century. Orra is the valley’s “earliest and most often published woman artist.” Recently more has come to light about her life and art.
When Orra is recognized it is usually through the work of her husband, the noted geologist Edward Hitchcock (1793-1863), native of Deerfield, pastor at Conway, professor and then president of Amherst College. Orra made hundreds and hundreds of illustrations for Edward’s scientific publications, including detailed landscapes of the Connecticut River Valley for his Massachusetts geological survey volumes, as well as striking custom designed charts that illustrated his local discoveries and his classroom lectures. She made beautiful drawings of native flowers and grasses and delicate watercolors of small local mushrooms. Her work is a remarkable chronicle of our scenic and botanically and geologically diverse valley.
Orra White Hitchcock was a local girl. She was born on March 8, 1796 to Ruth Sherman and Jarib White of South Amherst. She was the only daughter to survive in this prosperous farming family, and was taught along with her two brothers.
Orra was a prodigy, excelling in the natural sciences, and her artistic talent blossomed early. From 1813 to 1817, as Preceptress, Orra taught the young girls at Deerfield Academy the sciences and the fine and decorative arts.
Orra met Edward Hitchcock in Deerfield. From about 1817 to 1821, Edward and Orra crisscrossed the local countryside, Edward collecting flowers and grasses for a conventional herbarium and Orra creating watercolor drawings of the plants for a painted herbarium, Herbarium parvum, pictum. Orra was a scientist in her own right, earning the reputation as one of the valleys “most distinguished naturalists.” Orra’s first published work was a wood engraving of the “Falls on Connecticut River, at Gill, Mass.”, a drawing she created for Edward’s article in Port Folio in December 1818.
Orra White married Edward Hitchcock on May 31, 1821. Their honeymoon was spent creating a small album and catalogue of native mushrooms, Fungi selecti picti. The couple moved first to Conway where Edward served as pastor and then in 1826 to Amherst, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Following the traditional role for women, Orra married, soothed her hypochondriac and somewhat despondent husband, raised 6 surviving children, kept the house, the gardens, entertained and undertook community service and attended church regularly. But she also taught her own children botany and art, gave art lessons to visiting students and travelled with Edward, including a trip south to Virginia in 1847 and five months in Europe in 1850.
Throughout it all Orra made drawings for more than 200 plates and 1000 woodcut illustrations for Edwards’ various professional publications. Many appear in the 1833 Report on the Geology of Massachusetts and its successor, the 1841 Final Report. The large and dramatic classroom charts of geologic strata, prehistoric beasts, fossils and dinosaur footprints she drew, most between 1828 and 1840, took up thousands of feet of cloth. Edward considered them “indispensable aids.” She also made time for her own decorative artwork.
In 1855, Orra suffered a fall from which she never fully recovered. Orra White Hitchcock died on May 26, 1863 at age 67. She is buried in West Cemetery, Amherst, under a marker that reads “Wife and Mother.” Today, we remember this remarkable woman as an artist who captured the spirit of the Connecticut River Valley in her unique work.
The current revival of interest in Orra White Hitchcock and her work is marked by a series of recent publications that chronicle her life and art: “The ‘Union of the Beautiful with the Useful’: Through the Eyes of Orra White Hitchcock,” by Daria D’Arienzo in the Massachusetts Review, Summer 2010; Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Art and Science, exhibition at the Mead Art Museum (January-May 2011) and catalogue by Robert Herbert and Daria D’Arienzo; A Woman of Amherst: The Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850, transcribed and edited by Robert Herbert and a related exhibition about Orra and her daughter, also a botanical illustrator, at the Smith College Library Mortimer Rare Book Room, From a Botanical Family: Emily Hitchcock Terry (1838-1921) through May, 2011.