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Unearthing a treasure

In San Diego, A.R. Valentien's botanical portraits finally see the light of day.

March 29, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

It took an impassioned sponsor to bring A.R. Valentien's "Plant Portraits" into the world nearly 100 years ago. It's taken another patron and the fortuitous appointment of a botanically minded librarian to bring the paintings, for the first time, into public view.

"These were little treasures that really needed to get out," says Eleanor Navarra, who, with her husband, Jerome, underwrote the exhibition "Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien" at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Her counterpart a century ago was the esteemed benefactor Ellen Browning Scripps, who in 1908 commissioned artist Albert Robert Valentien to create a painted record of California's wildflowers. The project consumed Valentien's energy for most of the next 10 years, during which he expanded his scope to include grasses, ferns and trees. The final count: 1,094 watercolor and gouache paintings of roughly 1,500 species.

Scripps didn't like referring to her financial largess as philanthropy. Instead, she saw her support of projects like Valentien's -- and on up to the development of a hospital, college and research institution -- as investments in knowledge and in humanity. Unlike so many gifts she made in her lifetime, from which the public reaped huge benefit, however, the Valentien project stayed locked away. She kept the paintings in her La Jolla home and, upon her death in 1932, bequeathed them to the natural history museum's research library. They've remained there ever since, sheltered between leather portfolio covers.

"It made me want to cry that it was all stuffed away and nobody could see it," recalls Margaret Dykens, director of the research library since 1997. "I've felt almost missionary zeal to make this happen."

The paintings, on 13-by-20-inch sheets of pale gray paper, are quiet beauties, meticulously observed and gracefully rendered. With an eye for taxonomic clarity, Valentien isolated his subjects against a neutral ground rather than representing the plants in context. To maximize the information delivered, he usually showed all the constituent parts of a species, from roots to blossom, and the blossom itself at several stages -- tightly closed, barely open and in full majesty, in profile and head-on.

Acutely sensitive to nuances of color and texture, Valentien painted convincingly waxy leaves, hairy stems, fibrous root balls, papery petals, the rusty tips of sycamore leaves, the fiery blossoms of the ocotillo, the cottony white clusters of the chamise flower. Valentien, born in Cincinnati in 1862, had early training as an artist but no scientific background at all, making the accuracy of his renderings all the more impressive.

"He had an incredible eye for detail," Dykens notes. "It didn't matter whether he was painting a poppy or a dragonfly. He had the eye of an artist for all of the critical details of that organism, whatever it was. Consequently, there are only a few out of the 1,500 species he painted that we've been unable to identify."

His powers of observation were honed during the 24 years he spent as chief decorator at Rookwood Pottery, a position he landed in 1881, when he was 19. Rookwood had opened just the year before, in the upswing of the Arts and Crafts movement in the U.S. Before long, it became known as the country's premier art pottery, dedicated to handcrafted objects of beauty informed by the arts of Asia as well as Art Nouveau.

Botanical themes were mainstays at Rookwood, and its artists regularly drew from fresh specimens. The pottery gained a reputation for its painterly approach, and Valentien himself was widely recognized for the fluidity and beauty of his work.

In 1899, Valentien and his wife, Anna, an artist who also worked for Rookwood, traveled to Europe for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Rookwood was awarded the top prize in pottery, and Valentien's designs earned him a gold medal.

While abroad and recuperating from an illness, Valentien began to sketch the wildflowers of Germany's Black Forest. The subject captivated him enough that he picked it up again in 1903, during an extended visit to his brother-in-law in rural San Diego County. He made a series of 150 flower paintings there, which were exhibited locally and praised in the newspaper for their "truthfulness and patient accuracy."

That exhibition, it's presumed, is where Scripps was introduced to Valentien's work. A natural history buff who made a habit of sleeping outdoors on a porch overlooking the ocean, Scripps must have liked what she saw. In 1908, she gave Valentien the support and go-ahead to survey the state's wildflowers. By then, the artist and his wife had resigned from Rookwood and moved to San Diego.

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