Martin, Maria (1796–1863)

views updated

Martin, Maria (1796–1863)

One of the best nature artists of the 19th century who created flower and plant backgrounds for many of Audubon's bird paintings, including some of the most popular prints from Birds of America . Name variations: Maria (Martin) Bachman. Born on July 3, 1796, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on December 27, 1863, in Columbia, South Carolina; daughter of John Nicholas Martin (a Lutheran minister) and Rebecca Murray Martin (a widow, maiden name unknown); married her widowed brother-in-law, John Bachman (a Lutheran minister and naturalist), in 1848; no children.

Maria Martin was born in 1796, in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1827, as an unmarried adult, she went to live in, and assist with, the household of her older sister Harriet Bachman . Harriet, who was married to John Bachman, a minister and ardent naturalist, had 14 children and was often ill; Maria handled most of the tasks involved in running the house and caring for the children. Whether she had ever received any formal education is unknown, but she was by all accounts extremely intelligent and well read, with particular interests in literature, art, and natural history.

Maria met ornithologist and painter John James Audubon during his 1831 visit to Charleston. By 1833, he had taught her to paint birds, and she was supplying backgrounds for his watercolors of American birds. Audubon generally painted his birds on blank canvases, leaving the backgrounds to be painted in later, either by himself or by an assistant, and Martin occasionally worked directly on his canvases. Her drawings are notable for their combination of scientific accuracy and artistic judgment, as well as for their seamless blending of bird with background. "Miss Martin, with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing…. [T]heinsects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen," wrote Audubon.

Martin was the sole woman among his three principal assistants. She created the backgrounds for many of the prints in his Birds of America (the "Elephant Folio," engraved and printed in England), and also supplied paintings for the American editions of the prints issued by Audubon's sons. In addition, she contributed drawings of Carolina reptiles to John Edward Holbrook, who used them in his five-volume work North American Herpetology (1836–1842).

Two years after the death of her sister in 1846, Martin married her brother-in-law John Bachman. She assisted him in his collaboration with the Audubons, furnishing studies providing the color and form of various details for Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1846–54). According to family tradition, Martin also contributed paintings of occasional plants. Audubon named a subspecies of hairy woodpecker, Picus martinae (also called the Maria's woodpecker), after her, and they remained friends until his death in 1851.

By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Maria Martin was caring for four motherless grandnieces. She also plunged into war work, and her health declined. After Charleston was shelled, she fled with her grandnieces to Columbia, where she died in 1863 and was buried in the graveyard of Ebenezer Church.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 505–506.

Kass-Simon, G., Patricia Farnes, and Deborah Nash, eds. Women of Science, Righting the Record. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women, A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Dover, 1980.

suggested reading:

Audubon, John James. Ornithological Biography. 5 vols., 1831–39.

Bachman, C.L. John Bachman. 1888.

Coffin, Annie Roulhac. Art Quarterly. Autumn 1960.

——. New York Historical Society Quarterly. January 1965.

Corning, Howard, ed. Letters of John James Audubon, 1826–1840. 1930.

Herrick, Francis H. Audubon the Naturalist. 2 vols. 1917.


Charleston Museum, Charleston, S.C., has family papers, including original sketches, watercolors, etc. by Maria Martin, in the possession of her nine great-grandnieces in Charleston.

Beth Champagne , journalist and freelance writer, West Barnet, Vermont

About this article

Martin, Maria (1796–1863)

Updated About content Print Article