SPOTLIGHT The Chemistry Notebook of Maxfield Parrish
Image credit: Haverford College Library, Haverford, PA, Special Collections, Coll. no. 1018, Maxfield Parrish collection.
By Raphael Rosen , Contributor
When you’re interested in the intersection of art and science, you can be struck by amazement at any time, in the unlikeliest of places. For me, my moment of revelation came in 2003, in The Booksmith, a neighborhood bookstore on San Francisco’s Haight Street. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been caught so off-guard. I had been working at the Exploratoriumfor two years and was being exposed to SciArt wonders every day. (The Exploratorium is San Francisco’s museum of science, art, and human perception. It was founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the architects of the atomic bomb. To get a sense of the Exploratorium’s atmosphere, imagine walking into a cavernous warehouse and encountering multimedia clocks, BioArt exhibits exploring how society perceives genetic manipulation, and a simple exhibit that lets one experience the visceral, almost orgasmic pleasure of rotating a giant ball bearing.) But on this day, on my stroll through one of San Francisco’s quirkier regions, I was looking forward to simply ducking into a bookstore and wiling away the hours browsing the shelves.
I began by flipping through some oversized art books, the kind that seem to weigh a ton but whose large, lustrous pictures make the heavy lifting worthwhile. I eventually came to a book about the American painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, who made work in the early 20th century. As I recall, it was a survey of his life and works. At the time, what I knew of his work was limited to what I had seen on dorm-room posters: images of fairies and nymphs bathed in an ethereal light. Otherwise, I knew nothing about Parrish, either as a man or as an artist. Everything changed when I turned a page and saw images of Maxfield Parrish’s chemistry notebook from his days at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania. Interspersed among chemical equations and descriptions of lab experiments were fanciful watercolors of elf-like creatures. Some held dripping candles beneath bubbling beakers. Others peeked out from behind glass tubing, or struck a wry pose beneath descriptions of lab procedures. Parrish had even written up his experiment results in immaculate calligraphy.
I knew then that I had to know more about this notebook. What drove Parrish to draw what he drew? What other illustrations did the notebook contain? Was Parrish part of a larger history of chemistry-based art, or art-infused chemistry? And most importantly, when could I see the notebook in person? I would have to wait ten years to answer my questions.
Chemistry is not the first realm of science that one would expect to produce good art. When I think of SciArt, I think of disciplines like paleontology and ecology that feature charismatic animals or picturesque landscapes. My mind drifts to the bird paintings of John James Audubon, the lively dinosaur drawings of paleontologist Robert Bakker, or the clear diagrams in Gray’s Anatomy. And few science artifacts are as full of SciArt as field notebooks. In fact, Michael Canfield, of Harvard University, recently wrote a book on the subject. Field Notes on Science & Nature explores the significance of the field notebook in the history of science, showing how scientists in different fields used their notebooks to sketch, scribble, and record ideas.
The lab notebooks in chemistry, though, aren’t in the same category. “Lab notebooks, at least as far as my general perception indicates, are much more stereotyped and follow more strict ‘scientific’ guidelines than field notebooks do,” says Canfield. “That is, when you look at the notebooks of scientists and naturalists, there is a huge range of approaches, from free form to regimented. Lab notebooks tend to have less of this.”
“That’s why the Parrish notebook is so jarring.”
But not everyone feels that chemistry and art are foreign to each other. “In general, chemists draw a lot,” says Roald Hoffmann, Nobel-Prize-winning chemist and professor emeritus at Cornell University, who also writes poetry and has been involved with book, television, and musical projects that bring science to a general audience. In fact, 20-40% of chemistry research articles consist of drawings, he says. Today, they are done by computer, but according to Hoffmann, they once were rendered by hand, using India ink. Chemists were even known to hire draftsmen to complete the necessary drawings.
ChemArt has been included in more than just academic research. Consider Lucy Rider Meyer, who in 1887 published Real Fairy Folks or Fairy Land of Chemistry, a book that depicted atoms as mythical, human-like beings with properties that the layman could easily understand. In Meyer’s telling, oxygen fairies have two arms, while hydrogen fairies only have one. Thus, in a kind of Victorian parlor dance, one oxygen fairy can pair up with two hydrogen fairies, forming water. A crucial aspect of the book, though, is the drawings. The chemical fairies are depicted as having wings and Peter Pan tunics, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. Without the artwork, the metaphor Meyer was using would not be nearly as effective.
Chemistry art has also found a home in advertising. The Hercules Powder Company, formed in 1882 in Delaware as a company specializing in chemicals and munitions, ran a series of colorful, illustrated ads in the first half of the 20th century, says Andrew Mangravite, archivist at the Othmer Library of Chemical History at Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Foundation. Hercules published calendars with commissioned drawings by artists, including N.C. Wyeth. And, a quick search on the Internet reveals a series of World War II-era print ads touting a range of Hercules’s chemical products. One colorful print, measuring 9.5” x 12”, shows a bare-chested man in a lush rainforest, manipulating some kind of machinery, or perhaps rubber. In the background a WW II-era fighter jet looks poised to leap into the sky. The ad’s text proclaims Hercules’s ability to produce a range of chemicals - including cellulose acetate and ethyl cellulose - used to manufacture cellulose plastics.
Fast forward to 2013. My quest for the Parrish notebook had been on hold for years, and I was a freelance science journalist in New York City. One day, while going over in my mind what I could write about next, I realized that Haverford, Pennsylvania was only a few hours’ drive away from Manhattan. I quickly made a phone call and talked with Diana Peterson, Haverford's Manuscripts Librarian and College Archivist. Could I drive down and talk with her, and possibly flip through the lab notebook for myself? Yes, I could.
If you haven’t been to Haverford, you owe it to yourself to go. Founded in 1833 as the Haverford School by Quakers from New York and Philadelphia, the college is one of the earliest institutions founded by the Religious Society of Friends in the United States. It is nonsectarian now, but Quaker elements still infuse its ethos, an example of which is its honor code, one of the oldest in the nation. Also, the tree-lined drive up to the main campus is particularly spectacular.
Parrish himself was a Philadelphia Quaker, and enrolled at Haverford in 1888. He stayed for only three years, though, at which point he left to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His course of study included English, history, analytical geometry, and German, but unfortunately, studying art was not considered respectable. According to Parrish, art was “looked upon with suspicion, as maybe related distantly to graven images and the like.”
“Everybody wants to see this,” said Diana Peterson as she lead me to a special viewing room in the college’s library and placed a plain conservator’s box on a round table. She opened the box and pulled out the Parrish notebook. It was surprisingly small, with a dark brown cover that looked old. I opened the book and almost immediately saw Parrish’s hand-written signature.
On the inside cover, Parrish had written a note explaining his decision to donate the notebook to the college, presenting it to Professor Lyman Beecher Hall in 1910. (Hall had taught chemistry when Parrish was a student.) The handwriting was beautiful, a fluid, rounded hand with calligraphic flourishes. It was clearly the writing of a person who could imagine including more in his lab book than data, someone who could view the lab book as more than just a dry repository of numbers.
I flipped through the pages one by one, taking photos as I went. One page catalogued what happened during “Experiment 12,” when Parrish treated copper with dilute nitric acid. In his elegant handwriting, Parrish describes the steps of the experiment, but the eye is drawn to a watercolor drawing of an oversized test tube. Blue gunk has settled to the bottom, and from the top issues a sepia-toned vapor that wafts over the text. On the page for Experiment 37 Parrish notes a procedure in which he places some wood pieces in a “perfectly dry test-tube” and heats them. But the page’s highlight is the heading, made up of swooping letters and numbers, with the 3 and 7 merged into a stylized design that looks like Tolkien’s elvish script. The page for Experiment 78 features a plump beaker labeled “Nitric Acid and Tin,” spewing red watercolor smoke, while a dapper gentleman dressed in a plaid suit, straw hat, and monocle peers on from the side.
I never found out definitively whether Maxfield Parrish was especially interested in science, or whether it just gave him another opportunity to draw. There were, however, a few tantalizing hints. “Parrish was terribly interested in Haverford as a perfect nature garden,” said Peterson. “He was interested in nature, in Haverford’s plantings and architecture.” Parrish apparently also included some illustrations in his college physics notebook, but nothing as elaborate as his chemistry drawings. (Full disclosure: I did not have a chance to view the physics notebook. I will have to make that the subject of a future article.)
What did become clear in my quest, though, was the importance of visual imagery in the history of chemistry, and the importance of drawings to chemists. They are crucial not only to accurately depict the structure and behavior of both atoms and molecules, but also to make the inner workings of chemistry understandable. Chemists benefit from chemical art, but so does the public. “Parrish’s figures are metaphors for what takes place,” says Hoffmann. “They humanize the process.” I couldn’t agree more.