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Clarissa Munger Badger: Artist & Poet

Springtime, with the trees and gardens blossoming all around us, is a perfect time to remember Clarissa Munger Badger (1806-1889), the Madison artist and poet who excelled in the 19th-century world of botanical illustration.

From 1859 to 1867, Clarissa’s watercolor folios, along with her original poetry, were published as color lithographs bound into three volumes. The last of these three charming books, “Floral Belles from the Green House and Garden,” sold for $30 in its day - or about $475 in today’s currency.

Her publisher noted the images were “…painted from nature by the patient and laborious hand of the artist, and with such exquisite care and taste, and delicacy of touch as to vie with nature herself.”

The images in her “Wild Flowers Drawn and Colored from Nature” collection were judged to be among the best botanical illustrations of the era, even though, at the time, much greater attention was paid to the work of male illustrators. Badger’s poetry was much admired as well, and Emily Dickinson herself owned a copy of this delightful book.

The Madison Historical Society is the proud custodian of two of Clarissa’s bound books and a Floral Belles folio collection, donated by Mrs. J.C. Platt. Along with these treasures, the society owns a small array of framed and unframed works by Clarissa - and discovered a lovely painted silk bookmark tucked into the pages of one of her books.

Enthralled by these beautiful artifacts, the society’s Vice President Doe Boyle thoroughly researched Clarissa Munger Badger’s personal life history and her extraordinary artistic legacy.

Assisted by the Connecticut Historical Society and Madison Historical Society Executive Director Jennifer Simpson, Doe discovered that Clarissa’s direct descendants, living minutes from the historical society, held two cherished portraits of Clarissa and her husband, the Reverend Milton Badger. The oil portraits, finely painted in 1846 by noted portraitist Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796-1881), had been expertly conserved by Yale University Art Gallery conservator Andrew Petryn (1918-2013). Now both visages, treasured by their great-great-great-granddaughter, beam gently from a wall in a peaceful parlor just miles away.

With true generosity, the descendant allowed Doe and me to visit and to photograph the portraits and other artifacts created by Clarissa. A long, enjoyable afternoon of storytelling and reminiscences made for a mind-blowing day we will never forget!

With some diligent research after that excursion, Doe wrote a biographical sketch of Clarissa and her family that is now cited as a reference source for Badger’s Wikipedia entry. You can find Doe’s paper on the new Madison Historical Society website https://madisonhistory.org/key-figures/1151-2/.

Clarissa and her siblings Caroline (online at http://bit.ly/2pmkNms and in the Feb. 24 edition of the Shoreline Times), Amanda Ann and George Nicholas were raised in East Guilford in a home that still stands near the Neck River on the Boston Post Road. (In fact, that home will be featured in the historical society’s Fifth Annual Tour of Remarkable Homes on June 25.) Clarissa married Milton Badger, a minister in Andover, Mass. in 1828 and left Madison. People in Andover fondly remembered that she “… did much in Andover to awaken and cultivate aesthetic and literary taste among the young people.” The Badgers had five children, but only two sons, George and William, survived to adulthood. One of Clarissa’s most touching poems is “Willy’s Flowers,” about a young child who wanders toward a brook to pick wildflowers for his mother - and her panic when she realizes he is missing. A beautiful bouquet of wildflowers accompanies her poem, which seems to have an autobiographical flavor.

When Milton became the associate secretary of the American Home Missionary Society in 1835, the Badgers left Andover to live in New York City, where Jocelyn painted their portraits. They returned to Madison in 1869 due to Milton’s failing health. He died in 1873; she, 16 years later. Their graves are in Madison’s West Cemetery.

American poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” Certainly, Clarissa’s botanical artwork and poems continue to enlighten viewers. As we enter springtime 150 years after the publication of her last volume, we celebrate Clarissa with enormous pride.

The Badger portraits and all the artwork, poetry, and artifacts referenced in this article are in the historical society Flickr Album. If any readers believe they may be the local owners of other works by Clarissa, please be in touch with the Madison Historical Society. We would love to document her work as thoroughly as we can.