Maria Martin Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina, may well have been the most influential woman on the American nineteenth century natural history horizon. Her life changed forever on October 16, 1831, the day John James Audubon joined the family of her brother-in-law and future husband, John Bachman, at their residence on Rutledge Avenue. The 35 year old spinster could not have foreseen that Audubon would awaken in her a talent as a painter she did not know she possessed. Her paintings and watercolor drawings of birds, flowers and insects would later appear in the second and fourth volumes of the Elephant Folio of Audubon's The Birds of America. Of the 435 pictures in this great work, more than fifty contain drawings of insects as well as birds.
Little is known about Maria's early years, as many records were destroyed by Sherman's March through the South. Maria was born July 6, 1796, the youngest of two daughters of Rebecca Solars and Jacob Martin. Her father's family forebears were French Huguenots who left France after the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and migrated to Switzerland and Bavaria before coming to the United States. Her great-grandfather, George Martin, arrived in America in 1750 and fathered twelve sons. John Nicholas Martin, Maria's grandfather, was ordained a Lutheran minister, and in November 1763 became the pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Charleston. Fifty-two years later on January 10, 1815, a young Lutheran clergyman and naturalist, John Bachman, arrived in Charleston from Schaghticoke, New York, to serve as the new pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church. Bachman took Harriet Martin-Maria's older sister--as his bride a year later.
Maria and her sister Harriet, daughters of John Jacob Martin, were well educated for their time. John's marriage to the widow Rebecca Solar, had provided his family with a decent dower that he nurtured into a fortune. Their daughters either attended a seminary for young ladies or were tutored at home. Judging from Maria's letters, she was a person well-read in classical literature, music, French, and the natural sciences, and she had taken drawing lessons. As the youngest daughter, Maria joined the Bachman household to take on the the task of caring for her ailing sister and the Bachman's eight children at the time of Audubon's arrival in Charleston.
Audubon brought into the Bachman family's household a sense that life is exciting and filled with fascinating experiences that stretch a person's mind and heart. Maria, her sister Harriet, the children and the servants were all caught up in Bachman's and Audubon's adventures in the fields surrounding Charleston, eager to show this or that valuable bird they had shot or that Audubon had sketched. Perhaps it was mere politeness that prompted Audubon to offer Maria a pencil and suggest that she draw a bird, but when he quickly saw she had talent, he encouraged and instructed her, keeping her well supplied with painting materials. In the summer while Audubon had gone north, Maria, at his suggestion, began to draw flowers. Wrote Dr. Bachman to Audubon, "Maria has figured for you the white hibiscus and also a red one, both natives and beautiful; a suanymus in seed in which our Sylvia is placed; the white nondescript rose; the gordonia, a begonia, etc." The result was Audubon begged for more of her flower paintings. He was, he assured Bachman, "extremely desirous of introducing them in my second volume."
After John James Audubon began using Maria's flower backgrounds for his bird paintings, Maria sought to widen her knowledge of insect life so she could paint butterflies, moths and caterpillars for Audubon's paintings. She began by copying nearly all of the illustrations by Peale, Le Sueur and others in Thomas Say's The Entomology of North America. Only six out of her fifty-four copies of Say's plates are missing - destroyed when Lucy Audubon's cottage burned to the ground in 1875. Two of Maria's sketchbooks which appear to date between 1833 and 1836 are located in the Archives of the Charleston Museum. They contain her copies of Say's plates and 27 of her originals.
Maria's study of Say's illustrations represents an important link to Audubon, but also to the new field of entomology in North America. Audubon's experiences as a taxidermist at the Western Museum in Cinncinnati, and his acquaintance with T.R. Peale and Thomas Say upon their visit there after their Western expedition, touched upon insects and Peale's drawings of them for Say's projected book -American Entomology. What this small coterie shared in common was an understanding that the winged brethren, going about their business, are largely on the lookout for insects.
Audubon's portraits of birds from the beginning included beetles, caterpillars, worms, spiders, flies, and other natural quarry which set his work apart from other bird painters. He paid Maria Martin the ultimate compliment when he wrote his son Victor from Charleston, December 23, 1833, "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing; the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen."