About USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection


The Collection

The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is one of the most unique collections in the Rare and Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library (NAL). As a historic botanical resource, it documents new fruit and nut varieties, and specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The collection spans the years 1886 to 1942. The majority of the paintings were created between 1894 and 1916. The plant specimens represented by these artworks originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. There are 7,497 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, and 79 wax models created by approximately 21 artists.

Lithographs of the watercolor paintings were created to illustrate USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other publications distributed to growers and gardeners across America.

Today, the collection is preserved in NAL's Rare and Special Collections, where it serves as an important research tool for a variety of users, including horticulturists, historians, artists, and publishers. In 2010 and 2011, the entire printed collection was digitized to improve public access to this valuable resource, and to better preserve the paintings by reducing the need for researchers to handle them.

What is Pomology?

Pomology, the science of fruit breeding and production, has been an important area of research since the early years of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). During the mid-1800s, farmers were expanding fruit growing programs in response to rising demand. At the same time, horticulturists from USDA and agricultural colleges were developing new fruit varieties, often incorporating specimens from foreign plant collection expeditions. In response to this increased interest and activity, USDA established the Division of Pomology in 1886. An important focus of the division was to publish illustrated accounts of new varieties and to disseminate research findings to fruit growers and breeders.

To make the research publications more useful, exact representations of the fruit were required so that varieties could be accurately identified and studied. USDA commissioned artists to create watercolor illustrations of newly introduced cultivars at a time when the methods and technologies needed to print color photographs were still on the horizon.

The Artists

In 1886, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Division of Pomology to oversee the collection and distribution of new varieties of fruits, and to disseminate information to fruit growers and breeders. USDA commissioned artists to create technically accurate illustrations of newly introduced cultivars for the division's publications. In 1887, William H. Prestele was appointed as the first artist for the Division of Pomology. Henry E. Van Deman, division chief, explained the importance of Prestele's appointment in his 1887 Report of the Pomologist:

Up to August 1, when Mr. Prestele took his place here, there was no one to make drawings of fruits which were being daily received for study and comparison...but since then a part of the drawings have been made in India ink, and others have been reproduced in water-colors, all in the most skillful manner, showing the natural size, shape, and color of both exterior and interior of the fruit, with the leaves and twigs characteristic of each. These are invaluable for comparison and reference, and a portion for publication.

Over the years, other artists were also assigned to the division and their watercolors were used for lithographic reproductions in USDA publications and as scientific documentation of research results. Although some of the watercolor paintings are not signed, we know of 21 artists (nine of whom were women) who contributed to this important resource.