Advanced Search

Nature Study of Two Mullein Plants

Not on view

Nature Study of Two Mullein Plants

Artist: John Henry Hill (American, 1839-1922)

Date: 1856
Medium: Graphite with brown crayon on grayish brown-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 9 3/8 × 12 3/16in. (23.8 × 31cm)
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "J. H. Hill / 1856 / 1st / june[e?]" An Illegible (graphite?) inscription on the verso, lower left
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 89.3
Text Entries

If the last digit of the date on the MWPI drawing is reliable, the work is a very early example of the profound impact that the English art critic John Ruskin had on the art of John Henry Hill.(1) Around 1855 Hill stopped painting conventional picturesque landscapes and began making works inspired by Ruskin’s conviction that divine truths were to be found in the close study of nature. “Among the subjects which he particularly enjoyed, and which he always treated with peculiar success,” Charles Herbert Moore noted, “were weedy banks, and masses of garden flowers, wild flowers and grasses. These he always portrayed in their natural growth, the work being done out of doors.”(2)

The impact that Ruskin’s ideas had on pictorial composition is evident in a comparison of Hill’s depiction of two mullein plants with Thomas Cole’s of twenty years earlier. Whereas Cole’s ground-level view bestows a sense of monumentality to the mullein, Hill drew his plants from a higher vantage point, using short graphite strokes to out-line characteristic shapes and strong value contrasts to indicate forms.(3) HiIl’s “magisterial gaze” makes the plants appear more humble.(4) This point of view is appropriate for an artist who, guided by Ruskin’s dictum that aesthetics and morality were linked, sought spiritual truths in carefully drawn, out-of—door nature studies.


1. The 6 appears to have been written with a sharper graphite point and is darker in value than the other numbers in the date.

2. C[harIes] H[erbert] M[oore], “An Artist's Memorial,” in ]. Henry Hill, John William Hill. An Artist’s Memorial (New York: n. p., 1888), 7.

3. Cole’s small painting, Black Birds on Mullein Stalks (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn.), is illustrated in Ella M. Foshay, Mr. Luman Reeds Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 119. It is discussed as a symbol for the element air in Ellwood C. Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole:  Ambition and Imagination (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988), 177.

4. Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting, c. 1830-1865 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 21,



No known copyright restrictions.