Volume 20, Issue 3 | Autumn 2021

American Art History Digitally
sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art
Impossible Garden: A Contemporary Artist’s Digital Engagement with Women Artist-Naturalists of the Long Nineteenth Century and Beyond

by Emma Steinkraus, with Carey Gibbons and Allan McLeod

Editor’s Introduction|Interactive Feature|Interview|Project Narrative

Editor’s Introduction by Carey Gibbons

The editors of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide first encountered Impossible Garden, the contemporary art installation that forms the basis of this digital art history project, through a prerecorded virtual presentation delivered by its author, Emma Steinkraus, at the College Art Association’s annual conference from February 10 to 13, 2021. The paper, titled “Lady Botanizers: A Survey of Pre-20th Century Women in Scientific Illustration,” was included in the session “Science, Gender, and the Decorative in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” We were particularly intrigued by Steinkraus’s work, as it creatively appropriates botanical and natural history illustrations made by women artists, for the most part during the long nineteenth century, in North America, Europe, and Asia. We thought it would fit well within our American Art History Digitally series, sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art, not only given the transatlantic, cross-cultural connections throughout Steinkraus’s work but also because of the original art historical research that forms its foundation. NCAW’s web developer, Allan McLeod, and I worked closely with Steinkraus to transform the physical installation of Impossible Garden into an interactive, annotated digital art history project, offering a dynamic new form of engagement with her work not possible within a gallery setting.

Rather than including a scholarly article alongside an interactive digital component, as we have done for our prior digital art history projects, I conducted an extended interview with Steinkraus, probing her motivations and artistic process. Also included is a project narrative, which presents a closer look at the transition from gallery installation to digital art history project. The project encourages a rethinking of botanical and natural history illustrations by contextualizing them within the realms of biography (specifically the lives of women), feminist discourse, social history, colonialism, and environmentalism, while exploring why and how nineteenth-century art continues to be a source of inspiration for artists and scholars today.