Slices of quince revealing tiny seed pockets, serrated dandelion leaves cradling spindly stems, and juicy elderberries growing in dense clusters are a few of the specimens that intrigued Elizabeth Blackwell (1699–c. 1758). An always passionate artist living during a time that saw a burgeoning interest in the natural world, Blackwell illustrated a thick, detailed compendium of approximately 500 plants and their properties to aid doctors and medical professionals in treatment.
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Titled A Curious Herbal: Elizabeth Blackwell’s Pioneering Masterpiece of Botanical Art, the book today is hailed for both its exquisitely detailed renderings and the fact that it’s the first of its kind created by a woman. Abbeville Press released the first modern edition earlier this year, finally granting Blackwell long-deserved recognition and offering today’s readers a chance to peek inside the vivid, botanical encyclopedia.
Artistically talented and ambitious, Blackwell first got the idea for A Curious Herbal when she needed to make money after her husband was jailed in a debtor’s prison. The project was all-encompassing, with the artist not only researching, drawing, hand-coloring the printing plates, and writing the descriptions for each specimen but also selling the book herself.
In addition to undertaking such a herculean amount of work, Blackwell was doing so at a time when women were largely barred from scientific institutions and medical professions. Given its commercial success, A Curious Herbal was not only a creative feat but also a social one, emphasizing the value of women’s knowledge and artistic output particularly as it related to male-dominated fields.
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