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THERESA M. KELLEY “Botanical Figura” Introduction T his essay responds, in a different key, to a body of transformative scholarship that Anne Mellor has done much to shape as a scholar and a mentor to other scholars who work on how women write and how they figure in Romanticism.1 In what follows, I return to the question of figurality and women by reading texts and images in which women, matter, and plants are aligned either as figures or persons and sometimes both. In the first part of this essay, I describe the seventeenthcentury unraveling of an ancient argument about women and matter and then linger with its textual presence in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the second part I ask how several plant images created by women artists in the decades just before and after 1800 offer visual challenges to what might be called the long and stubborn afterlife of the older claim that women are to matter as men are to form and thought. The artists I consider, Mary Delany, Fran­ ces Beaufort Edgeworth, and Katherine Charteris Grey, were all amateur (most women artists were at this time) and genteel. Who they were, as well as how they depicted plants, is critical to my understanding of what they accomplished, in practical and visual terms. I understand the visual-verbal axis of my argument as having a concep­ tual rather than histoncist through-line, by which I mean that although the itinerary of this essay looks genealogical, its persuasiveness depends on its relay between different media and centuries. I do so in part to ask how it may be possible to think about women creating botanical images as con­ ceptually informative rather than merely illustrative or decorative. This hypothesis challenges Immanuel Kant’s argument in the Critique of the Power ofJudgment that images, objects of experience, and sensible impres­ sions have to do with taste, whereas concepts require the power ofjudg­ ment. My thinking on this point owes much to Gilles Deleuze and, more recently, Kenneth M. Surin, who emphasize that images can be concept­ laden as well as formal contributions to thought.2 In making this claim for i. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters; Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780—1830; and Romanticism & Gender. 2. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans, and ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge: SiR, 53 (Fall 2014) 343 344 THERESA M. KELLEY botanical images created by several women artists, I suppose further that their identity as amateur artists participates in the conceptual work their images do. As my title indicates, my focus is the figurative embodiments of plants that Milton’s poem introduces and these later women artists depict. The term Jigura, meaning both rhetorical figure and dynamic material shape, sutures the two poles of my argument. The seventeenth-century Puritan understanding offgura that Ann Kibbey has described turns on this double­ ness, whereby figures have a material ground and matter becomes figure.3 The Puritan understanding offigura registers one way that ancient and early modern oppositions between matter and form or thought, women and men, and flesh and spirit became unraveled in early modern thought. In the botanical art of Delany, Grey, and Edgeworth, the work of figura in­ cludes both the image of the plant, the material referent that each of these artists in distinctive ways invokes on paper, and the conceptual work that identifying plants as species implies. It is critical to my argument that these artists practiced this conceptual relay between specimens and species names wherever possible. My argument is necessarily speculative in the connections it posits be­ tween seventeenth-century materialism and Romantic-era botanical art by these three women artists. Milton’s Paradise Lost unquestionably re­ sponds to, then reworks, the seventeenth-century philosophical debate about matter and mind or soul. Delany, Edgeworth, and Grey do not refer to Milton or corpuscular philosophy. Yet what they do as artists who de­ pict plant matter echoes a lively Romantic-era debate about matter and forms of life and, behind that, the earlier debate about matter and mind. My claim is not that these artists commented on this debate, but rather...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 343-368
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-19
Open Access
No
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