Object of the Month

“Summer flowers … sprung from the earth in such haste and abundance as to tell of infinite treasures beneath”: the Brook Farm watercolors of Marianne Dwight

Brook Farm watercolors Watercolor on paper

Brook Farm watercolors

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    This elegant volume featuring twenty watercolor sketches from nature and two contemporary views of Brook Farm was created by Marianne Dwight during her time at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Dwight painted flowers, birds, and autumn leaves, which in 1845 were gathered into books to be sold for the benefit of the community. The entire volume is available for browsing online; (please follow the available links).

    Who was Marianne Dwight?

    Marianne Dwight was born 4 April 1816, the daughter of Dr. John Dwight and Mary (Corey) Dwight. Her father was a graduate of Harvard College (Class of 1800) and had studied for the ministry before becoming a physician in Boston. In 1844, Dr. Dwight and his family, including adult children John Sullivan, Marianne, and Frances Ellen took up residence at Brook Farm. John Sullivan Dwight taught music and Latin classes assisted by his sister Marianne, but she soon found another occupation to fill her days and bring much needed cash into the community.

    "The Fancy Group"

    All members of the Brook Farm community were expected to contribute to the whole through their labors and women were no exception. According to Sterling Delano, Marianne Dwight, her mother Mary, founder Sophia Ripley, and other women established a "Fancy Group" to make "caps, cap-tabs, collars, capes, under-sleeves, and other similar articles" to sell in Boston. Dwight informed her friend Anna Q. T. Parsons that the enterprise brought "considerable money" into the community. But by 1845, painting was to occupy many of her waking hours at Brook Farm.

    In February of 1845, Marianne wrote to her friend Anna, "I keep very busy, painting six or seven hours a day … I have more demands for lampshades and other fancy things than I can at present supply." Chronicler of Brook Farm Lindsay Swift noted that demand for Dwight's watercolors was high and it was "not unusual for her to spend eight hours a day in her little studio at the Pilgrim House, autumn leaves supplying her with material for work when the flowers had passed by." Indeed, by that fall, she had hatched a plan to create books like the one featured here, writing to Parsons, "I have now a plan … of making some little books for sale … They are to be picture books—wild flowers, birds, and I know not yet what variety."

    Finding love at Brook Farm

    Life at Brook Farm was not all hard work for Marianne. In August of 1845, she wrote to her friend Anna assuring her that "our friend shall not have the honor of preventing me from writing to you … you speak of a crisis of which I do not think—or if such a thought comes, I banish it." The friend of whom she wrote was a fellow resident of Brook Farm, John Orvis (1816-1897) and by November, a letter to Anna implies that he has proposed to Marianne, although Marianne does not write of "those subjects now of the deepest moment to me," preferring to save those topics for a face to face conversation. John Orvis and Marianne Dwight were married at Brook Farm on Christmas Eve 1846 by William Ellery Channing. Although theirs was the only wedding actually performed at Brook Farm, John Thomas Codman notes in his Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs that he knew of fourteen marriages that emanated from friendships established at Brook Farm, "not an unhappy marriage among them all."

    Life after Brook Farm

    The Dwight family remained at Brook Farm until October 1847. After the dissolution of the community, Marianne and John Orvis settled in Jamaica Plain and had two children: Christel, born in 1848, and Helen, born in 1850. John Orvis continued his career as a lecturer for reform causes and for a time sold sewing machines; he also served as the president of the New England Equity Insurance Co. John Orvis died in 1897, four years before Marianne. The two are buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

    What was Brook Farm?

    The Utopian community of Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was founded in 1841 by former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia as an experiment in cooperative living inspired by Transcendentalist philosophy. Residents of the community shared in the work of farming, education, and other labor—men and women alike were paid for their work and participants could largely choose their occupation. Unfortunately, financial and other problems plagued Brook Farm from the beginning. The 192 acres of land purchased by Ripley were unsuited to agriculture (and many of the residents were unused to agricultural work); smallpox hit the community in 1845; and in 1846 fire destroyed the Phalanstery, a large building nearing completion at Brook Farm. These and other issues led to the community's dissolution in March of 1847. The property and buildings were sold at auction in August of that year.

    Brook Farm Artifacts at the MHS

    In addition to Marianne Dwight's watercolors featured here, the Massachusetts Historical Society has a number of Brook Farm related artifacts. These include a cane cut and carved at Brook Farm by resident William Butterfield and given to his brother Jonathan; a doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families; and a pewter oil lamp attributed to Ephraim Capen, the only known pewterer to join Brook Farm.

    The Society also has two contemporary paintings of Brook Farm by artist Josiah Wolcott: Brook Farm and Brook Farm with Rainbow.

    For Further Reading

    Brook Farm records, 1842-1901.

    This collection, held by the MHS, includes records of the activities of Brook Farm as well as letters from Marianne Dwight (later Orvis) to her friend Anna Q. T. Parsons (with a few in return) and to Dwight's brother Frank, describing the daily life at the farm.

    Codman, John Thomas. Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs. Boston: Arena Publishing, 1894.

    Delano, Sterling F. Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Dwight, Benjamin W. The History of the Descendants of John Dwight of Dedham, Mass., vol. 2. New York: John F. Trow & Son, 1874.

    Myerson, Joel. Brook Farm: An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide. New York: Garland Pub., 1978. 

    This bibliography contains a detailed account of MHS’s Brook Farm records including an item-by-item inventory of the Marianne Dwight-Anna Q. T. Parsons correspondence.

    Orvis, Marianne Dwight. Letters from Brook Farm. 1844-1847 Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Vassar College, 1928.

    Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

    Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors. New York: Corinth Books, 1961.