‘Botticelli: Heroines and Heroes’ Review: Harrowing Scenes of Women’s Sacrifice

Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500) Photo: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


Murder, rape and suicide are not generally terms that we associate with Botticelli. His most famous paintings, “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus,” both at the Uffizi in Florence, evoke a world of ethereal beauty, wood nymphs, and gently flowing garments. But in “Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes,” a small show currently on view here in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that comprises six paintings by Botticelli and two of his drawings, another side of the artist emerges. In the two panels at the heart of the exhibition, depicting the ancient stories of Lucretia and Virginia, Botticelli artfully orchestrates violent stories of women’s sacrifice. The Lucretia panel is the Gardner’s own, and was the first Botticelli in America.

The protagonists of these stories are held up as heroines. But they are troubling ones, given their fates. Worse still, they were frequently the subject of paintings presented to brides, as a way of encouraging virtue and honor.

Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Through May 19

In the case of Lucretia, she had the misfortune of attracting the lascivious gaze of the king’s son, Tarquin. He rapes her, and in her shame she kills herself. On the panel’s left edge, we see Lucretia’s dismay when she sees Tarquin, sword in hand, on her doorstep. The right edge shows the aftermath of her rape, when she collapses into the arms of her father, Spurius Lucretius, her husband, Collatinus, and his friend Brutus. In the center of the composition her lifeless body is laid out at the base of a column, surrounded by soldiers led by Brutus, who raises his sword. The emphasis on the soldiers at the center of the composition and the staging of the action in a public square rather than an interior point to a political reading of the narrative. Specifically, outrage at Lucretia’s fate stirred the soldiers to rise up and overthrow their tyrant king, paving the way for the establishment of the Roman Republic.

Virginia’s story, shown in a pendant panel from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, also ends badly for her but well for the Romans. She is abducted by the henchmen of a powerful judge, who wishes to claim her as his slave. She collapses in tears before the judge, while her fiancé and father attempt to rescue her and fail. Her father, realizing the consequences of his failure, chooses to murder his daughter rather than allow the judge to take her. The story ends with her father’s soldiers vowing to overthrow the corrupt judge, and the revolution results in the restoration of the Roman Republic.

Botticelli’s ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500) Photo: Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

The message is clear: Attracting the lustful attention of a powerful man can have dire consequences. Although the contemporary resonances are hard to miss, the stories are dense, and even in Botticelli’s hands they are not easy to read visually. To bridge the gap, curator Nathaniel Silver commissioned a graphic novelist, Karl Stevens, to reimagine the stories on his own terms.

This is a bold move, and Botticelli is a tough act to follow for anyone, much less a graphic artist. Putting a small contemporary ink drawing next to a Renaissance painting wouldn’t be fair to either one, and the curator worked around this by enlarging the drawings and printing them, so that they appear in the guise of didactic panels rather than as art. While effective, they are also visually jarring and might have worked better on a nearby but separate wall. Nonetheless, Mr. Stevens does a wonderful job in bringing the stories to life in a contemporary idiom, as well as in envisioning the action from the viewpoints of Lucretia and Virginia.

Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c. 1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c. 1500) Photo: Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Whether in a Renaissance or contemporary guise, the stories are gruesome. But the paintings are beautiful and beautifully composed, every inch of their surfaces filled with delightful details, whether animated horses, spry demons, or richly colored architecture. In Botticelli’s hands, neither story is directly violent: The rape, suicide and murder happen “offstage.” Yet their beauty poses something of an ethical problem. What exactly are we enjoying in looking at them?

While these two panels, believed to have been commissioned by Giudantonio Vespucci on the occasion of his son’s wedding, and never before displayed together in a museum, are the centerpiece of the show, it also includes three other similarly shaped panels by Botticelli, as well as an unfinished and larger fourth panel. The three panels depict scenes from the life of St. Zenobius, and provide further illustration of Botticelli’s deft navigation of complex narrative scenes. The relation between these panels and the stories of Lucretia and Virginia is an unexpected one: All of them are spalliere, a distinctive type of furnishing in a Renaissance home, designed to be displayed at eye level, sometimes above storage chests. The last panel, an unfinished “Adoration of the Magi” from the Uffizi, provides some insight into Botticelli’s process and technique.

From top: Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500), a detail of the work, and his ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500). Preparatory study for Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi.’ ‘Men Conversing and Two Magi’
From top: Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500), a detail of the work, and his ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500). Preparatory study for Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi.’ ‘Men Conversing and Two Magi’ Photo: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

These are all fascinating paintings. But the point Mr. Silver makes about them in the catalog, that they demonstrate the revolutionary character of the spalliere format in shaping the look of European history paintings to come, may be hard for anyone but specialists to grasp in the galleries themselves. In any case, many visitors, once they have delved into the stories of Lucretia and Virginia, may have a hard time thinking about anything else. In these two panels alone, there is much to excite contemporary viewers, intrigue and repel them.

Appeared in the February 20, 2019, print edition as ‘Harrowing Scenes of Women’s Sacrifice.’

Fashion World Recalls an Influential Legend

Karl Lagerfeld, seen walking the runway at the end of his spring 2013 ready-to-wear show for Chanel in October 2012, was an irreverent and energetic creator.
Karl Lagerfeld, seen walking the runway at the end of his spring 2013 ready-to-wear show for Chanel in October 2012, was an irreverent and energetic creator. Photo: charles platiau/Reuters

Karl Lagerfeld was remembered Tuesday as a protean and peripatetic designer whose boundless creativity was rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history.

News of Mr. Lagerfeld’s death cast a pall over fashion week, now under way in Milan before heading to Paris. The irreverent and energetic creator, whose career included work for Chanel, Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, was 85 years old.

Mr. Lagerfeld embraced pop culture well before others in luxury fashion did. He became a celebrity in his own right, globe-trotting in his white ponytail, fingerless gloves, dark glasses, high collared white shirt and fitted black jacket and trousers.

Olivier Rousteing, the 33-year-old creative director of Balmain, said that as a youngster, he admired how Mr. Lagerfeld exploded couture’s appeal with his larger-than-life personality and designs, including a 2004 collaboration with fast-fashion retailer H&M that sold out in hours. “He was a figure that anyone knew outside of the fashion scene,” Mr. Rousteing said.

Mr. Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer at a Chanel haute-couture show in Paris in July 1990. The designer, whose career also included work for Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, became a celebrity in his own right.
Mr. Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer at a Chanel haute-couture show in Paris in July 1990. The designer, whose career also included work for Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, became a celebrity in his own right. Photo: ARNAL/PICOT/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

With Chanel especially, Mr. Lagerfeld mounted shows that were extravagant spectacles. He lavished attention on craftsmanship and spared no expense on sets that replicated everything from space stations to beaches and supermarkets.

“He was fashion’s direct and only link left to the golden age of couture in the post-war era,” said Pamela Golbin, the former chief curator of fashion and textiles at Paris museum Les Arts Décoratifs. His longevity and ability to stay relevant were notable, she said. “You can choose any decade, there are just so many ‘wow’ moments.”

A statement from Ralph Lauren, a generational peer of Mr. Lagerfeld’s, praised the designer as “the modern couturier committed to the artistry of those traditions, but always with an eye for everyday life” and noted his “influence way beyond the world of fashion.”

“His impact has been huge, particularly with regard to the work he’s done at Chanel,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“He just turbocharged the house and made it super exciting.”

—Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

“After [Coco] Chanel died in ’71, the house really lost any cachet it had before. He just turbocharged the house and made it super exciting and relevant again and kept it at the pinnacle of luxury fashion through the decades and up to the present,” said Ms. Steele. “It was an enormous success story from the beginning and he kept it longer than almost anyone else, meanwhile juggling a million other projects,” referring to his work with Fendi, a namesake collection, photography, and magazine editing, among other pursuits and collaborations.

His success with injecting inventive modern touches to iconic Chanel designs such as the tweed suit, “was instrumental in reminding other investors there was a lot of capital latent in these great names of fashion,” Dr. Steele said.

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Mr. Lagerfeld also championed diversity, and in the 1980s was an early supporter of supermodel Veronica Webb. “He was someone who took the risks and reinvented a genre,” Ms. Webb said. “Not only did he help to convince the fashion world that I could be a star, that black girls and brown girls were symbols of elegance and aspiration, but personally he helped give me the confidence so that I can walk into any door that I wanted to.”

Friends remembered Mr. Lagerfeld’s bracing candor and wit. Fluent in several languages, he was never at a loss for a biting epigram or tart observation.

“Karl was so much more than our greatest and most prolific designer— his creative genius was breathtaking and to be his friend was an exceptional gift,” Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and artistic director of Conde Nast said in a statement. “Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure, and he was deeply kind.”

The True Confessions of a Serial Houseplant Killer

PLANT PARENTHOOD How to make peace with having a black thumb.
PLANT PARENTHOOD How to make peace with having a black thumb. Photo: Illustration by Serge Bloch; istockphoto (plant)

DESPITE MY BEST EFFORTS, I keep killing my houseplants. “Please don’t leave me, cranky little man,” I implored the other day, stroking a plant’s wrinkly, desiccated limb. But it was too late. One of Mr. Fern’s crispy brown leaves fell to the floor, and another old friend was gone for good.

Mr. Fern had fabulous fronds when I brought him home and put him on the mantel, where he added feathery elegance to the living room. But a few months later as I was dumping his remains into the compost bin alongside other victims—including Fiddle-Leaf Frank, Mr. Fern Sr. and Robert (a finicky begonia)—I realized I had to face the truth: I’m a serial plant murderer.

This confession, by the way, comes from a person whose job is to keep plants alive. I not only love the look of greenery as décor, I’m the editor of Gardenista, a horticulture website. I dispense advice like “Don’t overwater your plants” daily. If I can’t keep my houseplants alive, what hope is there for my readers?

My epiphany is coming just as houseplants are having a moment. Sales of plants are up. Nearly one-third of all American households grew houseplants in 2017, and the $1.6 billion they spent on them was a 29% increase over the previous year, according to a nationwide survey by Garden Research, a Vermont market analyst. Not since the 1970s have interior designers accessorized clients’ homes with so many potted plants. On Instagram, it’s getting hard to see the furniture through the foliage.

But not at my house.

“People are starting to call me the angel of death,” I told Prof. Stanley Kays, a horticulturalist at the University of Georgia.

“Everybody kills a lot of houseplants,” he said. “Of course, the industry isn’t extremely upset. Growers can sell them again and again.”

“So why do we keep buying them?” I asked.

“People think plants in a house improve the air,” he said.

Don’t they?

‘Maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur to think you can sustain a fern indoors.’

“Maybe. But to aerate the house, your best bet is to open a window,” he said. There’s no proof houseplants significantly improve air quality in homes. That’s because studies that show plants absorb airborne toxins have been conducted in sealed laboratories, not a typical house, he said, where the indoor air exchanges with the air outdoors every hour.

That said, Prof. Kays has his own houseplant collection. “If you’re a horticulturalist, it’s practically required,” he said. “You are probably overwatering yours.”

Maybe I should set all my plants free. Every indoor plant would rather live outside in its native habitat. Unless you’re a horticulturalist like Prof. Kays, maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur to think you can sustain a fern for any length of time indoors.

“Don’t look at it like that,” said Eliza Blank, co-founder of The Sill, a houseplant seller with two shops in Manhattan and a third in Los Angeles. “Houseplants aren’t going away, because they connect us to nature.”

When Ms. Blank launched The Sill in 2012 (as a houseplant-delivery service), “there was already a movement to embrace nature,” she said. “People had chicken coops in their backyards. That wasn’t going to last. But finding a way to return to nature is just going to get more important.”

If you feel so guilty about killing a plant that you don’t want to try again, you’re missing the point, Ms. Blank said. “We have customers who buy a plant because it will look good on a bookshelf, and it dies in three months. The next plant they buy, when they see the health start to degrade, they put it in a sunny window,” said Ms. Blank. “Having plants is a process, and hopefully you learn something from the experience.”

Comedians on Their Foliage Failings

“I don’t have the knack for growing houseplants. I bought a hanging fern and the rope died.” —Milton Berle

“I like to tease my plants. I water them with ice cubes.” —Steven Wright

“I have no plants in my house. They won’t live for me. Some of them don’t even wait to die, they commit suicide.” —Jerry Seinfeld

“My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.” —Mitch Hedberg

This view, it turns out, is shared by my friend Margot’s mother, Estelle Guralnick, who may possibly own the world’s oldest living houseplant. Her husband, Eugene, who introduced her to gardening when they were newlyweds in the 1950s, brought a monstera home one night.

“I named it Monsterioso, and it only had two little leaves when my husband picked it up at an A&P supermarket on his way from work,” she told me the other day.

Ms. Guralnick doesn’t live with Monsterioso anymore. After a stroke three years ago (“Thank God it didn’t affect my marbles, but it did affect everything on my right side”), she decided to move permanently to an assisted-living facility in Cambridge, Mass. By then the houseplant—which nowadays looks more like a tree—was too big to move with her.

It still thrives in a sunny spot in the nearby apartment she keeps for her visiting children. It is sending restless roots over the lip of the pot to explore the living room. “It has roots like tiny fingers that destroyed a small scatter rug I had,” she said fondly. “Some of the roots were really embedded.”

Since the stroke, Ms. Guralnick has built a new collection of houseplants. “Nothing that needs too much maintenance. With the wheelchair, it’s hard to maneuver,” she said.

She has orchids she found discarded outside other residents’ rooms after they stopped blooming (“I get them to bloom again in three months”), geraniums, succulents and scented paperwhites (“very sweet this time of year”). Oh, and a ponytail palm. Plus a new monstera, tabletop size.

I told Ms. Guralnick that I am a houseplant failure.

“Stop saying that,” she said. “That’s like saying you’re giving up on the miracle of life. Nothing is more independent and inexorable than Mother Nature. Don’t you think it’s very exciting to see plants grow?”

She offered some tips: “Try something easy. Succulents are good. And don’t overwater. Do you know what that means?”

“Maybe not,” I admitted.

“Use common sense. Use your fingers to test the soil, and only water when it’s dry,” she said. I started to feel cautiously optimistic.

“Maybe I’ll get another fern,” I said.

“I would like a report in six months,” Ms. Guralnick said, adding that in the meantime she will be coaxing more orchids to bloom. “I can’t wait to see what they produce.”

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Carnival in Haiti: The Most Raucous Bash in the Caribbean

Carnival in the Haitian town of Jacmel is both visual feast and street theater.
Carnival in the Haitian town of Jacmel is both visual feast and street theater. Illustration: LAURA GREENAN

THE BEST TRIPS, we’re often told, are never planned. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I harbor doubts born of having booked many last-minute journeys whose exciting “spontaneity” devolved into the remorse particular to eight-hour layovers and airport dinners wrought by poor planning.

No trip, however, is so memorable as the impromptu leap that actually pans out. That’s true, anyway, of the one that brought me for the first time to a country I’d been aiming to visit for years but hadn’t—until I got a phone call asking if, by chance, I could be there in 16 hours.

The country was Haiti. The call was a kind of summons. It came five years ago from a writer friend in California who said that some musicians he knew, members of a band whose records I’d loved since college, were planning to visit Haiti. They nurtured old ties there and wanted to take part in the country’s famous carnival. They were open to bringing along a writer, to describe the experience for a magazine he helped edit. Would I like to join them? There is, to a question like that, only one reply.

I booked a ticket that took me, briefly, to the Dominican Republic, where I met my musician hosts and boarded a small plane. We flew above the dusty streets in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, over denuded mountains and then, minutes later, down toward Haiti’s lovely southern coast.

‘Jacmel is famed for the great papier-mâché masks its artisans craft.’

The town of Jacmel is set around a turquoise bay. In colonial days, Jacmel was a prosperous coffee port, and the wrought-iron balconies of its handsome homes evoke New Orleans—the city to which its wealthy fled after Haiti’s revolution. But Carnival in Jacmel little resembles the Big Easy’s Mardi Gras. It little resembles Carnival anywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to witness Rio’s samba troupes and the steel bands of Trinidad. But nothing in my experience has matched the astonishment we felt in Jacmel. After driving into town from the airport, we swam through happy crowds on teeming streets and made our way onto the wooden roof of a restaurant overlooking the town’s main drag.

Before the trip, I had read that Jacmel is famed for the great papier-mâché masks its artisans craft from scraps of cardboard and glue. But knowing this didn’t prepare me for the sight of hundreds of revelers donning these masks—many dwarfed by them—parading down the town’s Avenue Barranquilla.

Among those animals and creatures of myth were flamingos and toucans, zebras and ghouls. A team of giraffes paused to make way for a giant bat. A group of girls and boys, clad in black and white and purple and red, honored various lwa—deities—of Haitian voodoo.

With roving “rara” bands propelling the parade with trumpet-line horns, this moving visual feast would have been stunning even if I hadn’t attempted to parse what it meant. As I stood transfixed for hours with some new Haitian friends, they did their best to keep up with my torrent of questions about what I was seeing—a kind of street theater, whose characters acted out events from this place’s recent and distant past.

One group of revelers pushed wheelbarrows loaded with others playing dead, and it wasn’t hard to glean the connection to the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that struck the area. Less easy for the outsider to interpret were the paraders who portrayed historical figures from the age of Haiti’s Revolution, or stood in for the dark-grey pigs known as cochon creole—a hearty species that was killed off en masse by U.S. aid workers, to devastating effect to Haiti’s peasants, after a 1980s swine-flu outbreak. But they all danced along to the music, turning history’s pain and its pride alike into ravishing art for today.

The weekend that followed included a raucous concert, in the town’s main square, performed by the visiting rock stars and several Haitian groups. Our time in Jacmel also featured encounters with local activists and aid workers wiser than those pig-killers in the ’80s—more than enough to fill a magazine article. But I left Haiti’s south coast with much more than that. History may have been what drew me to Haiti, but what defined my first visit there—and has seen me return as often as I can—are the hard-won beauties of its present. They’re the reason that whenever people ask me whether they should visit Haiti if they have the chance, I give some simple advice: Go.

Carnival in Haiti: The Most Raucous Bash in the Caribbean

More in Off Duty Travel

Do AirPods Make You Look Rich? These Millennials Think So

WILL KELLOGG regards his headphones with a degree of shame. In New York City, where people proudly brandish their bright-white wireless AirPods, he listens to music through a “do they even make those anymore?” wirebound set. As the 26-year-old administrator for a Brooklyn theater company confessed: “I still use corded headphones.” In late December, he vented his perceived aural inferiority in a Twitter missive, framing a recent quote by Catherine Zeta-Jones—“I will not apologize for being rich, beautiful and famous”—as something AirPod owners might say to a poor soul like him.


A Ford Thunderbird From the Good-Time 1950s

Phil Hoon’s 1955 Ford Thunderbird, photographed in his backyard in Chestertown, Md. Ford created the car to compete with Chevrolet’s new Corvette..
Phil Hoon’s 1955 Ford Thunderbird, photographed in his backyard in Chestertown, Md. Ford created the car to compete with Chevrolet’s new Corvette.. Photo: Matt Roth for The Wall Street Journal

Phil Hoon, 65, an attorney from Chestertown, Md., on his 1955 Ford Thunderbird, as told to A.J. Baime.

In 1954, Ford Motor Company debuted the Thunderbird as a 1955 model. My grandfather was a Ford dealer at the time in the small town of Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I still live. His dealership got one T-Bird the first year the car came out and that is the car you see pictured here.

Originally, my grandfather sold the car to his lawyer, who owned it until 1974. When this lawyer grew elderly, he sold the car to my mother, who gave it to me in 1978. So the car has gone through three generations of my family. My two sons, both now in their 30s and living about an hour from me, grew up with this car in the garage. It was there before they were born, and they love it. I still drive the car in the town where it was first sold.

I am a fan of American history, and the Thunderbird holds a special place in that long story. During the early 1950s, Chevrolet developed the Corvette, and soon after, Ford debuted the Thunderbird to compete with the Corvette. These were the first real American sports cars. To me, the original Corvette was sportier, but the Thunderbird was more stately.

Photos: An Icon of the 1950s

An attorney shows off the 1955 Ford Thunderbird originally sold nearly 65 years ago from a dealership owned by his grandfather

Phil Hoon, 65, an attorney, with his 1955 Ford Thunderbird. This Thunderbird was originally sold in Chestertown, Md., nearly 65 years ago, from a dealership owned by Mr. Hoon’s grandfather.
Matt Roth for The Wall Street Journal

When these cars came out, there were very few Mercedes, Porsches, or any foreign cars on American roads. So the Thunderbird and the Corvette stood out. Elvis, Coca-Cola and the Ford T-Bird—these were emblems of the good-time 1950s. Gas was cheap back then, and while I have never measured, I would be surprised if my T-Bird got more than 14 miles a gallon.

When you drive the car, it is like an event. You don’t want to turn on the radio, because you want to hear the sound of the engine. The car has this beautiful, curved-glass windshield. It has no air conditioning and no seat belts, but it does have power steering and power brakes.

The first year of production, the car came in just a handful of colors, and while my car was originally a shade of blue, I had it painted snowshoe white, which was still one of the original colors. I have had the engine rebuilt and new tires put on, but aside from that, it is pretty much as it was, when it first rolled out of my grandfather’s dealership.

One funny thing about the car is the speedometer. It goes up to 150 mph. Ha! Can you imagine?

The Link Between Menopause and Alzheimer’s

Women make up nearly two-thirds of patients with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S., in part because they live longer than men. Now, researchers are exploring whether hormonal changes related to menopause affect the development of the disease.

“The truth is that Alzheimer’s is not a disease of old age, it’s a disease of middle age,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative in New York City, a research program aimed at reducing Alzheimer’s risk. “In reality, the brain changes start in mid-life.”

Roses Are Red, Orchids Are Addictive

The 2017 Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden.
The 2017 Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Photo: Wang Ying/Xinhua/Zuma Press
Flower power
Flower power

About a year ago, 11-year-old David Marcovici started collecting orchids. Since then, he’s amassed a few dozen that have turned the family kitchen into a mini-rainforest. His favorites are miniatures, which he calls his “little guys.”

He brought $267—all his savings—to spend at a recent orchid show in New Jersey. Then it was on to another show earlier this month. “God help us,” says his dad, Geno.

Orchid lovers really love their orchids. Many describe their hobby as an addiction. It has a name in many circles: Orchidelirium.

For the people who love orchid lovers, living with their obsession is a lesson in acceptance.

David Marcovici, 11, at an orchid show in New Jersey.
David Marcovici, 11, at an orchid show in New Jersey. Photo: Daniela Hernandez/The Wall Street Journal

Collectors will often go to extremes: Traveling far—and paying top dollar—for rare specimens; rescuing discarded plants off the street; determinedly collecting specimens of a species like children collecting Pokémon cards; and, often, turning their living spaces into veritable jungles.

In his Upper West Side apartment, Michael Riley wanted to recreate how orchids grow in nature. They hang from trees and rocks. They don’t grow in pots. To mimic the ecosystems he visited around the world, he outfitted two walls with plywood, a thick rubber membrane, and sheets of cork he bought through a specialty vendor. To the cork, he pins the plants’ roots, which he covers in moss to help them acclimate. An automated misting system, similar to those grocery stores use to keep produce wet, hangs near the ceiling.

“It’s a hobby gone wild,” he said.

His partner, Francisco Correa Mendoza, does a lot of plant care, but the pay is lousy, the couple jokes.

Orchids, among the planet’s most diverse family of plants, have long captured the imagination of hobbyists. In the Victorian Age, wealthy Europeans contracted orchid hunters who would travel to South America, Africa and Asia in search of rare specimens. Often collectors would instruct their envoys to misdirect competitors or destroy whatever they couldn’t take to prevent others from finding the same flowers.

Michael Riley fashioned his Upper West Side apartment in cork to allow his orchids to grow in a more natural environment.
Michael Riley fashioned his Upper West Side apartment in cork to allow his orchids to grow in a more natural environment. Photo: Daniela Hernandez/The Wall Street Journal

Now, the scouting is mostly reserved to online shops, auctions and orchid-show season, which roughly spans January to March.

At the same orchid show where Mr. Marcovici was chasing his son from vendor to vendor, Aga Montes was on the hunt for an Epicattleya Rene Marques, a yellow-and-fuschia dendrobium she says is hard to find.

“Ever since I saw it at the [New York Botanical] Garden, I wanted one,” said the 31-year-old chemist, who was dressed in orchid-embroidered pants. “And of course I won’t steal from the Garden.”

She bought two from a Taiwanese retailer. Each plant was $30. By the time she hit that stand, she’d already dropped more than $100.

Aga Montes was on the hunt for an Epicattleya Rene Marques with a yellow-and-fuschia dendrobium orchid at a New Jersey orchid show.
Aga Montes was on the hunt for an Epicattleya Rene Marques with a yellow-and-fuschia dendrobium orchid at a New Jersey orchid show. Photo: Daniela Hernandez/The Wall Street Journal

Her flowers take up an entire room in her three-bedroom home in New Jersey, with more sprinkled throughout the house. She stopped counting after she topped 100, in part because then her “hubby can’t say, ‘Well, you already have 500,’ ” she said.

He made her promise she’d keep his desk orchid-free. “He doesn’t mind it as long as he has room to sit,” she said.

Fans say growing orchids can be relaxing, plus it provides them with a sense of accomplishment and a community. While some orchids still have steep price tags, in recent decades, orchid collecting has taken root beyond the elites, thanks to technological advances that have made commercial growing cheaper and easier.

Phalaenopsis, or the “moth orchid,” which is the gateway plant for many modern collectors, often costs only about $10 at grocery stores.

Social media and the internet have also seeded new ways for orchidphiles to indulge. Orchids’ ornate and colorful flowers fit well into social media’s cult of pretty, according to growers. Younger fans call themselves plant parents and take to Instagram, YouTube and Facebook to show off their blooms, share growing tips and make new friends. The more popular ones, who can have thousands of followers, are known as “plantfluencers.”

“There’s this really nasty stigma out there…that orchids are hard,” said Chris Satch, who promotes the hashtag #orchidsareforeveryone to his roughly 3,800 Instagram followers. “It’s just retraining your mind to think, ‘What does this plant want?’ ”

About four years ago, a friend gave Mr. Satch a coconut orchid, a lush, blood-red flower that typically grows in Mexico and Central America and smells like coconut cream pie.

“It’s the best thing in the world to wake up to,” he said. “It gave me the orchid disease.”

Mr. Satch, 27, now shares his small New York City apartment with roughly 90 orchids—plus a human. His dendrobiums, oncidiums, cattleyas and other orchids inhabit the window sills in his bathroom, kitchen and living room. But his most prized plants, including an octopus orchid, he keeps in his bedroom on shelves he built himself, where they enjoy a humidifier and special light fixtures.

He had to bargain with his new roommate, Koko Lawson, to get the bedroom with the windows—for his orchids’ health, Ms. Lawson, 28, said. He pays a little more in rent. When the two moved in together a few months ago, Mr. Satch warned her about his plant obsession.

She asked him if it was “Jumanji-level,” to which he replied “sort of,” she recalled.

She accepted his plant family, but told him she wanted no part in taking care of them.

Will Wilson, 18, at an orchid show in New Jersey.
Will Wilson, 18, at an orchid show in New Jersey. Photo: Daniela Hernandez/The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Wilson keeps his collection in a spare bedroom.
Mr. Wilson keeps his collection in a spare bedroom. Photo: Will Wilson

Before Will Wilson moved to a bigger house outside New Haven, Conn., with his mom and stepdad, his orchids “took up every spare counter space we had,” he said. In their new place, his collection of nearly 300 orchids is mostly contained to a spare bedroom, though there is still some spillover.

“It was almost forced upon me. Not that I complained, of course,” said the 18-year-old high-schooler, who wants to study plant genetics in college.

The good news for family harmony is that his mom, Mary Ellen, is now collecting orchids, too. “I’ve been infected,” she joked.

The bad news: She wants to expand her collection of 40 orchids into the back of the house, and her husband “just doesn’t know it yet.”

Write to Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com

Phylicia Rashad Is Everybody’s Mom

Phylicia Rashad, right, and Susan Kelechi Watson in a scene from the NBC drama ‘This Is Us.’
Phylicia Rashad, right, and Susan Kelechi Watson in a scene from the NBC drama ‘This Is Us.’ Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Phylicia Rashad has two children, but she has acted as a mother to many more in a career defined by maternal roles.

It began 35 years ago with the introduction of Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” the paradigm-shifting sitcom that permanently imprinted Ms. Rashad on generations of viewers as a mother figure. From then on, her most memorable parts have formed a sort of mom-heavy family tree, though with much variation among the characters.

“Mothers are the same and yet they’re not. Know what I mean?” says the 70-year-old actress.

Ms. Rashad won a Tony Award in 2004 for her portrayal of Lena Younger, struggling on behalf of her children in “A Raisin in the Sun.” In the “Creed” movies, sequels to the “Rocky” saga, she tried to safeguard her boxer son. On TV, she was a power-hungry matriarch in “Empire,” scheming on behalf of her politician son. Even younger viewers know her as a matronly force, thanks to her cameo in the music video for Drake’s “In My Feelings” (now with 181 million YouTube views). From a balcony, she shooed the rapper away from her house and her daughter.

Ms. Rashad’s latest fictional mom is in the hit TV series “This Is Us,” an NBC drama that dives deeply into parent and sibling relationships. She appears in one episode, airing Tuesday. She plays an educator who clashes with her daughter (played by Susan Kelechi Watson).

Motherhood was just one factor in understanding the character. “Humanity,” Ms. Rashad says, is more important to doing her job. “What does this person want, in this moment and beyond? These are honest questions that you ask yourself in developing any role.”

Ms. Rashad, who was raised in Houston and studied fine arts at Howard University in Washington, D.C., played some mothers in her theater work before “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984. She says she had an advantage in such roles after giving birth to her first child, a son, in 1973.

From that point, she recalls, “I could look at actresses portraying mothers and I could see who was a mother and who wasn’t. It had nothing to do with their talent. There was a sense.”

Ms. Rashad, right, on opening Night of ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ on Broadway in 2004.
Ms. Rashad, right, on opening Night of ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ on Broadway in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

During her audition for the role of Clair Huxtable, she was startled by one scene’s resemblance to a real situation from her own life.

“When I read the script, I said, ‘Who’s been hiding in my closet!’ The scene was Theo [Malcolm-Jamal Warner] not having done his homework properly, and his room was a mess, and Clair was exasperated. And I was having that same discussion with my son, before I got that script.”

She recalls modeling Clair’s character on two women she admired: a former neighbor who became a state supreme court judge, and a family friend who worked with disabled people.

“They were both given to service, they loved music, and loved to dance and laugh. Both loved their husbands and adored their children, and were fierce about it,” she says.

As a mother of five, Clair Huxtable joined a long line of sitcom moms, but the character broke ground as an African-American lawyer and feminist. She was stern, but also intuitive and sexy, with a hard look as familiar as her peals of laughter.

“My best friend came to a taping and said, ‘Phylicia, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, taking these people’s money. You’re just up there being yourself,’” she says.

Ms. Rashad, left, and Raven-Symoné in a scene from ‘The Cosby Show.’
Ms. Rashad, left, and Raven-Symoné in a scene from ‘The Cosby Show.’ Photo: Everett Collection

When tens of millions of people were tuning in for each episode of “The Cosby Show,” Bill Cosby was sometimes referred to as “America’s Dad.” That standing was destroyed with his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, a crime for which he is serving up to 10 years in prison.

Ms. Rashad is in demand, with an as yet unrevealed role in an upcoming Tyler Perry project titled “A Fall From Grace” and another role as an instructor in a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network called “David Makes Man.”

None of her mother roles made her real-life role as a parent any simpler. “It’s easy when you’re scripted and the children are scripted too,” she says.

During the phone interview for this article, Ms. Rashad briefly paused to take a call from her son. He was checking to make sure she had arrived home safely after driving through a snow squall.

When she was carrying her second child, Ms. Rashad concealed her pregnancy on camera during tapings of “The Cosby Show.” Born in 1986, daughter Condola Rashad is an actress who stars on the Showtime drama “Billions.”

Ms. Rashad, left, with her daughter Condola Rashad, who is also an actress.
Ms. Rashad, left, with her daughter Condola Rashad, who is also an actress. Photo: Getty Images

Her mother recalls, “When she was a little girl, my daughter would say, ‘Mommy, there’s always something about every character you play that stays with you and you bring home.”

Not so in the case of Violet Weston, the fire-breathing matriarch of “August: Osage County,” whom Ms. Rashad played on Broadway in 2009. (“Violet did not get past the edge of my dressing room. She was madness,” the actress says.)

Her other less-than-perfect stage moms include: Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (a 2008 production directed by Ms. Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen) and Medea, the character in the Greek tragedy who kills her own children.

In 2004, when Ms. Rashad portrayed a 285-year-old soothsayer in the Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” she heard a theory about the unifying theme of her acting career.

After one performance, Ms. Rashad recalls, her mother, Vivian Ayers, a poet and playwright, told her, “No matter who you’re playing, you’re always being me.”

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com