The USDA’s Pomological Watercolor Collection

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Fine art and government bureaucracy rarely intersect. And in the times they do, you’d imagine the results would be terrible, right? Wrong!

Case in point: the massive collection of Pomological Watercolors commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1886. Pomology is the branch of botany that studies and cultivates fruit (we didn’t know that either), and in an effort to document the thousands of fruits and nuts that existed in America at the time, the USDA enlisted 21 watercolor artists to create a colossal one-of-a-kind botanical resource.

Over a span of 56 years, this group of artists created around 7,500 individual works, the majority of which are watercolors, but includes both sculpture and line drawing as well. Each piece of art generally covers both the inside and outside of the fruit, rendered in astoundingly delicate detail, with beautifully shaded skins and intricate interiors. And to add to the overall charm of the collection, some renderings even have imperfections, like bruises, bug bites, or wilting.

“Showing the natural size, shape, and color of both exterior and interior of the fruit, with the leaves and twigs characteristic of each,” Henry E. Van Deman, chief of the Division of Pomology, said in 1887, “[the paintings] are invaluable for comparison and reference, and a portion for publication.”

The gigantic collection has been digitized and made freely available online. They even let you download high-res files directly from their site! And if you’re thinking of making your own watercolor fruit study, we suggest heading over to Case for Making to kit yourself out.