By contemporary standards, Marianne North led an extraordinarily creative and productive life.
Over the span of 15 years, she traveled to five continents and 17 countries, seeking out the most remote and hazardous parts of the tropics to paint exotic and undiscovered plants, presenting them in their jungle environments.
The achievement, however, is amplified by the fact she did this in the 1870s and 1880s, thus breaking with Victorian notions of middle-class, middle-age women as wives, mothers and homemakers.
North satisfied her desires for botanical questing in two ways: She was independently wealthy, and she did not marry, which would have handed ownership of her wealth and her destiny to a husband.
Instead, she sailed from England to the distant shores of Borneo, the Seychelles and Chile and produced more than 1,000 paintings, of pitcher plants, of red hot poker plants, orchids and ferns.
The Smithsonian Channel will tell her story Wednesday at 8 p.m., with “Victorian Rebel: Marianne North.” The glowing — perhaps even gushing — tribute is a worthy introduction to North’s life and legacy, but gird yourself for the hype. We are told that North was “a Victorian rebel in petticoats,” “a fearless pioneer,” “a feisty woman,” “a hidden treasure” and, in case you don’t get it, “a visionary” and “a Victorian trailblazer.” And that’s just in the first three minutes.
Along the way, actress Emilia Fox ventures into the rain forests of Borneo on the trail of a pitcher plant that North discovered and painted. (It is named after her.)
North grew up in a home her parents turned into a salon of sorts for various artists and writers, and this environment nurtured her own independent creative spirit. After her mother died, she became her father’s traveling companion and painted scenes from Africa and the Middle East. The botanical paintings she is known for, though, came after his death, when she used her inheritance to fund her botanical expeditions.
The odd thing about North is that she worked in oils rather than watercolor, the usual medium of botanical painters in the field. Oils are sticky and smudgy and cannot capture the fine details of a plant’s structure; but what is lost in botanical information is replaced with a greater sense of the ecological context of the subject. Her images showed birds and mammals and terrain, and this fed the growing Victorian awareness of the evolutionary connections between plants and animals.
North was acquainted with Charles Darwin, who advised her to go to Australia, which she did.
Fox ends the program at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where North funded the construction of a gallery to house more than 800 of her paintings, which literally cover entire walls.
The documentary is aired to mark Women’s History Month (stay tuned for “Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth”), and the message is that North, as a female artist, brought a sensitivity and emotional intelligence that a male artist could not. “I think Marianne North was happy to break artistic rules, was happy to break scientific rules in order to produce a vision very much her own,” art historian Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll tells Fox. “That is what’s so unique about her as a woman in the 19th century and what makes her very inspiring today.”
Ironically, the viewer doesn’t get a long, unmediated look at North’s paintings. The best capture the plant and its environment, and must have been a revelation to Londoners in the 1880s, but few rise to the technical level of the American artist Martin Johnson Heade, who was painting similar subjects around the same time.
Kew historian Ray Desmond wrote that “with a palette of bold and assertive colors, she painted with evident enjoyment, but one wishes, at times, she had applied more restraint.”
Ultimately, her prowess as a painter is secondary to the example of her life. Her gallery, visited by countless visitors since it opened in 1882, reveals a woman who directed her own life at a time when that was radical.
Von Zinnenburg Carroll puts it best when she tells Fox: “The absolute lack of any space in between the paintings echoes the way in which there was almost no space other than the paintings in her life.”