Botanica Collected

The Watercolors of Dr. Agustín Stahl 

By Pedro Acevedo-Rodriguez, Ph.D. 

Originally appeared  in The Botanical Artist – Volume 17, Issue 4

 

During my junior year at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, the library had a small exhibit on the recently acquired collection of botanical watercolors painted by Dr. Agustín Stahl (1842-1917). Not knowing much about Dr. Stahl (only that he was an illustrious Puerto Rican of the nineteenth century) I came out of the exhibit with a deep sense of admiration. The simplicity and the details portrayed in his paintings were a great source of inspiration. Years later, I wrote a book with my own illustrations, opening a door to a career in plant taxonomy and systematics. Three decades after my initial encounter with Dr. Stahl’s work, I revisited his watercolor collection to learn more about them and to divulge their existence to the world. 

Agustín Stahl studied medicine in Germany, returning to his native Puerto Rico in 1864, where he worked as a physician for more than fifty years in Bayamón. He also actively pursued the study of natural history, collecting thousands of plants, animals, and archeological artifacts for the creation of a natural history museum. In spite of the difficulties of traveling across the rugged roads, he explored vast areas of the island, combining his passion for natural history with his professional duties. Visits to rural patients usually resulted in new botanical collections, which he brought back home as subjects of his detailed botanical paintings. 

Agustina Stahl de Robinson, his daughter, once described this process as follows: “My father used to place the plants and flowers subject of his studies in a big vase that he had on his desk. He patiently proceeded to color the body of the flower, painting later leaves and stems, making sure that his colors exactly matched those of nature.” This was a practice that, according to her, went on for years, until more than 700 paintings were completed. 

Botanical knowledge in Puerto Rico in Stahl’s era was limited to a list of less than a thousand species (compared to 3000+ currently known) which were collected on the island during the few scattered scientific expeditions lead by European naturalists. Stahl’s studies represent the first serious attempt to document the entities of the Puerto Rican biota. His Estudios sobre la flora de Puerto Rico published in six fascicles from 1883 to 1888, constitutes the first full-fledged flora of the island. However, his flora was never finished, and the hundreds of illustrations and watercolors prepared to accompany his text were never published. The accompanying illustrations are examples of his careful and beautiful work. 

The history of this collection following Stahl’s death is obscure; the first notion of its existence came from their citation in Stahl’s flora. After Stahl’s death, the watercolors were discovered (1922-23) by Drs. C.E. Chardon and N.L. Britton at Stahl’s old desk at the Colegio Santa Rosa in Bayamón. The discovery was later reported by Dr. Chardon in 1924, but without any information on the total number of plates or their condition. Stahl’s belongings (including the watercolors) were acquired by the newly founded museum of Natural History at the Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture and Labor. The museum did not last too long, two decades later Stahl’s belongings were transferred to other governmental institutions. 

Now, of the 720 watercolor plates that are known to exist, 583 are at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, and 137 at the General Archive of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in San Juan. After more than 125 years, these paintings are showing signs of deterioration and consideration of their long term preservation has been discussed. In general, these watercolors are very accurate, esthetically pleasing, and most show detailed features that are important for the identification of the species. They portray a wide range of plants found in Puerto Rico, including native, endemics, and introduced species. 

The importance of these paintings goes beyond their artistic or aesthetic value. They constitute a snap shot of the botanical knowledge at the time, giving us a historical perspective of the Puerto Rican flora. Some of these paintings represent first or unique records of species in Puerto Rico, while several are the only voucher for new species proposed by Stahl. Stahl’s work is the first of this kind done by a native to Puerto Rico or the West Indies. He is commemorated by the monospecific Caesalpinoid genus Stahlia.

 In an effort to rescue Stahl’s artistic work, the Smithsonian Institution has provided the necessary funds to digitize and publish the known watercolors on the internet. These are available for viewing at the Department of Botany webpage at: http://botany.si.edu/Antilles/PRFlora/Stahl/index.cfm. The decision was also made to publicize Stahl’s contribution to botany in an exhibit showing replicas of his work. Ideally, the original watercolors would be exhibited, but because of their fragility, they would very likely be at risk of further deterioration. This idea presented us the opportunity of “restoring” Stahl’s work, showing a restored (albeit electronic version) art work. 

A grant from the Latino Initiative Program at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010 provided seed money to digitally restore a selected group of these images in order to produce a traveling exhibit. Restoration of these images has turned out to be a lengthy process, involving color manipulation and the removal of blemishes. Fiona Wilkinson, an associate biologist at the Smithsonian Institution, has been the expert in charge of this process, and so far has dedicated lengthy hours of tedious work into restoring this unique collection of watercolors, effectively deleting the deterioration caused by time and elements. Example of this process is shown here in the original and restored images of the pineapple. 

The first 90 restored images were shown in a traveling exhibit, some of which are shown in this article. The first exhibition took place in at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in San Juan Puerto Rico. The exhibit will be shown later in New York and other cities in the United States. We hope to raise the necessary funding to be able to restore the whole Stahl’s watercolor collection and publish them in book form. Information about purchasing replicas will be available through the website where Stahl’s work is exhibited. 

Dr. Pedro Acevedo-Rodríguez is a Research Botanist and Curator at the Smithsonian Deptartment of Botany and is a specialist on floristics of the West Indies and systematics of Sapindaceae

  • Banana Plant in its unrestored original condition
  • Malpighia infestissima, Wild Barbados Cherry
  • The original pineapple watercolor.
  • Restored pineapple watercolor
  • Dr. Agustín Stahl (1842-1917) scientist and artist