A few days before I left for the Amazon earlier this year, I was looking at the orchid in my living room and a vague recollection of an artist who had painted orchids and bromeliads came to my mind. I was not sure of her name. Margaret Mead? No, that was the anthropologist. I flipped through an Art History book I had on my coffee table, but could not find her. Some two weeks later, as I pushed my suitcase into a corner of my room at the Hotel Tropical, Manaus, a print of a stunning botanical illustration caught my eye. It was by Margaret Mee.
My mother, a painter and plant enthusiast herself, had brought Mee to my attention early in my teens but it was only in this moment that I became fully aware of the significance of this woman’s work and existence.
In 1951, Margaret Mee, an artist born 30 miles outside of London, England, came to São Paulo, Brazil, for the first time. She was 42. In biographies of Margaret, it is said that the reason for the trip was personal. She was going to look after her ailing sister Catherine, who had immigrated to Brazil after World War II. I suspect that her sister’s illness probably reinforced Margaret’s already existing interest in Brazil. She came from a family of travelers, she was an idealist and an artist, she had lived through two world wars. Brazil must have been a fascinating new frontier to explore, surely a tremendous source of artistic inspiration, possibly an escape from deeply austere post-war England. Her future husband, Greville, soon followed her.
A stay initially intended for three or four years, turned into decades. Margaret Mee produced one if not the finest collection of botanical illustrations of Brazilian flora, the majority of which depicting plants she found and painted during her 15 expeditions into the Amazon.
This was one gutsy woman. She did not simply paint from specimens in a botanical garden or from photographs. She travelled for several days into remote corners of the jungle on boats and on foot. She endured all kinds of danger, discomfort, disease, heat and maddening swarms of insects, to get the best possible look at her flowers, right there where they were alive in their own native environment. As artists will, she fell madly in love with her subject and not only produced a work of art of enormous significance, but also became a strong advocate for the protection of the Amazon.
By the time I stood in front of that print, I had already spent a few days in the rainforest surrounding the city of Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. I had gazed for long slow hours at the hypnotizing waters of the Rio Negro, where Margaret Mee’s ashes were once dispersed. I had been mesmerized by nature’s inventiveness in this region. I felt I understood her.
For more on Margaret Mee:
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection has a beautiful selection of Margaret Mee’s paintings. The Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Botany also has a nice catalog of illustrations by Mee. The documentary Margaret Mee e a Flor da Lua tells her life story.
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