Many of us are familiar with Rebecca Merrilees’ work from the indispensable field guide Trees of North America, which she illustrated 34 years ago. It is probably on all of our bookshelves, dog-eared and soft with age. During her 75-year career, Merrilees was a book illustrator, art teacher, and fine artist. Her illustrations are scientifically correct and highly realistic, while her fine art often plays with surrealism.
Both of these approaches are on display in her untitled painting of the Berlin Mountains behind her Vermont home, in which she captured the light, depth, and topography of this grand and rugged vista. The small tundra plants in the foreground are meticulously rendered and regionally accurate; the boulder convincingly anchors the vast expanse with its massive weight. At first glance, it is a faithful and objective depiction of an existing landscape.
But there is a surrealistic flavor to this piece as well. The boulder is odd here – where did it come from? It looks uncannily like a head lying on its side, with two eyes, a nose, and a chin. Has it been here since the last ice age, witnessing this sweeping scene? Louis Agassiz, the renowned eighteenth century natural historian, suggested that, geologically, New England was the oldest spot on the Earth’s surface. This painting certainly helps us contemplate the long, slow passage of time.
Merrilees was a pioneer in commercial art, and she was the first woman to illustrate the cover of Reader’s Digest, in 1961. Her contributions to the natural sciences, to education, and to the fine arts are many and lasting. Merrilees died in November, 2012, at the age of 90, a few months after a 75-year retrospective of her work – her first solo show.
Rebecca Merrilees was educated at The American School of Design, Pratt Institute, and Skowhegan School of Painting. She was a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists. Her work can be seen at the The Waskowmium in Burlington, Vermont, and in Northfield, Vermont, at the Brown Public Library and Norwich University.