William Bartram, 1739-1823
William Bartram, an important American botanist, was a gentle and reclusive Quaker. Refusing appointments to teach botany or to accompany the Lewis and Clark expedition and never attending meetings of the American Philosophical Society, he was happiest with a quiet life of observation and drawing in the woods and in his father's garden. As his father, John Bartram, noted, "Botany and drawing [were] his darling delight." William's lasting fame is based on his richly descriptive account of a solitary journey that he made through the southern colonies in the 1770s, the Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, which was published in 1791.
Bartram had known Charles Willson Peale for years before Peale painted him for his museum collection in June 1808. One of Peale's most sympathetic likenesses, it reveals the subject's kindly disposition. The portrait represents a noteworthy American man of science, and may also express Peale's great interest in longevity and the achievements of old age, both Bartram's and his own. The flower emerging from Bartram's waistcoat is the fragrant Jasminum officinale, an exotic plant that had been naturalized in Europe for several centuries. It bears a resemblance to the equally fragrant Linnea borealis, a plant discovered by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and reproduced in his 1774 portrait by Alexander Roslin and engravings after it, similarly attached to his lapel. Peale may have intended a visual reference to the great botanist and founder of binomial nomenclature.
Title image: Culpeper-type microscope/ Courtesy National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.