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Darlingtonia Californica
(California Pitcher Plant)
, 1909-18
Watercolor and gouache
© San Diego Natural
History Museum

Plant Portraits:
The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien

August 3, 2007 - January 6, 2008

The Field Museum of Natural History
1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605-2496
tel.: (312) 922-9410
hours: 9a-5p daily; last admission at 4p

To reflect on the botanic watercolors of A.R. Valentien is to reflect on virtuosity, a virtuosity that brings vitality and freshness to these early 20th-century watercolors of California botanical specimens. Forty works in watercolor and gouache, each approx. 14 x 17 in., are on display. One wishes there were more, many more, for to peruse Valentien's body of botanic work is a pleasure akin to that of a long amble through the woods and fields, and the printed catalogue which accompanies these paintings is a pale substitute for the authentic works. Forty paintings, too, represent only a tiny fraction of this extensive endeavor, labored upon by the artist for a nine-year period from 1909-18. Funded by a wealthy philanthropist, he was commissioned to paint every native species of California's diverse natural habitats. He traversed the length and breadth of the state, from the maritime environments to the mountains; in the end, his watercolors brought vivid life to over 1,500 California species. Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien now places select works on public view.

The aim of botanical illustration is to represent faithfully the particulars of the specimen under consideration, including accurate depiction of the plant's disposition of stems, leaves, roots and seeds; accuracy of color and surface qualities; and the attempts to incorporate observations from a variety of fresh specimens into a single image that may serve a holotype, or standard specimen by which all others may be identified. Accompanying this is the need to pare away distractions by isolating the specimen visually. Science is dispassionate: its purpose here is to record distinctive features, without which it is useless. But fine botanical illustration has its roots in beauty and elegance as well. Though its scientific origins lay in the passions of the wealthy for funding expeditions to locate and trade in exotic plants, side by side came the privilege of presenting one's findings in the manner of a connoisseur: accurate depictions presented with a delicacy of technique and depth of color that reflected the refined taste of its patron. The antecedents to Valentien's work are actually twofold: on the one hand the passion for amateur botanic illustration as a proper pastime for gentlefolk; on the other, the great botanical lithographs and chromolithographs of the 19th century, such as the floral works of French illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté, or the Aroideae Maximilianae by Heinrich Wilhelm Schott (Vienna: C. Gerold's Sohn, 1879), catalogue of an 1859 botanic expedition by Ferdinand-Joseph Maximilian, second son of the Archduke of Austria.

Valentien was neither. Neither an amateur, gentleman painter -- his California work was a second career after a twenty-five-year stint as artist and, eventually, head decorator at the celebrated Rookwood Pottery in Ohio. Nor was he party to that age of aristocratic privilege in lavishly illustrating one's expeditions with fine lithography, although European botanic illustration provides the background against which his work may be measured, and as the exhibition catalogue notes, it is possible that through his work at Rookwood, he may have been exposed to traditional botanic images as source material for pottery designs. His achievement is rather an amalgamation of three things: a late and all but final impulse of the American desire for an acculturation emulating European models; a rare, if not unique New World endeavor to survey the entire flora of a specific area in botanic illustration, not simply specimens with possible commercial value; and finally, the talent and skill, not to mention the dedication, to execute such a commission for over nearly a decade in works of considerable freshness and delicacy. Each could form an interesting vantage point for study, but it is the latter which is perhaps most immediately accessible in viewing Valentien's botanic paintings.

One of the most immediate and striking elements of these paintings is Valentien's command of color gradation and finish in reflecting the most subtle color characteristics of his specimens. This brings out the realistic differences of leaves, needles, stems, even those of similar species, as seen in the muted blue-green needles of the Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood) as compared with the brighter green of those of Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). Accompanying this is his ability to conjure texture, as in the smoky puffs of down, tucked delicately between and in distinct contrast to the sharp, spiny burrs of the thistle-head of Cirsium occidentale (Western Thistle). In other specimens he captures the nuances of color of the same leaf in light and shade, the difference between its top or underside, and the subtle variations of its color as the contours present the surface of the leaf in different orientations. Such fidelity demands consummate skill, a steady hand, awareness of light, and ability to make the medium of watercolor and gouache bend to the artist's will in hue and opacity. Counterbalancing these are Valentien's meticulous observation of the most minute details, such as the tiny red hairs on the sepals of the Romneya trichocalyx (Matilija Poppy).

If the discipline is in accurately depicting the specimen, the artistry is in the disposition of elements within such discipline. Thus, as in Lathyrus vestitus (Wild Pea), Valentien spreads the pea-vine across the page in a sweeping arc, accommodating the rambling creeper to the dimensions of the paper and at the same time giving an idea of its growth and habit. In the tall nosegay of blossoms of Carpenteria California (Tree-Anemone) the liveliness springs from the allusion to a bright, definite light source, which flares the bell of the plant's blossom into pure white, defines its petals with delicate precision, and even permits the stamens to cast shadows, adding to the illusion of depth and reality. Valentien's selection of a neutral gray-buff paper vividly sets off the blossoms in their crisp whiteness, an effect impossible if the paper itself were pale.

In composing he fills the page and in a few instances, deliberately crowds the edges of the specimen out of the frame. Further naturalistic details add to the impression of observing a real specimen, including occasional areas of leaf browning or a smudge or two of dirt -- diligent reproduction, or the wit of an artist who labored over such specimens hourly and daily? In all, within these paintings is expressed a delight in evoking the particular spirit, the nonphysical characteristics beyond simple arrangement of the specimen on the page: not only the definitive or typical physical characteristics, but the liveliness of the plant's growth and habit, for example, whether assertive or delicate. These elements of animation are what crown Valentien's work with particular interest. He was clearly absorbed not only in rendering the details accurately, but in portraying the essence of the plant as well. The exuberant upward flourish of the Matilija Poppy, the windswept force of the Xylococcus bicolor (Mission Manzanita/Coast Manzanita) with its hard glossy leaves forcefully swept all in one direction, the slender meadow delicacy of Linum Lewisii (Flax). Even the relatively unshowy grasses have a captivating presence. Heracleum laratum (Cow Parsnip) is a common plant even today, related to Queen Anne's Lace and frequently found in roadsides and waste places. Here, its leaf is seen not only as a scientific rendering, but as a marvel of nature's architecture.

Valentien's paintings must be seen in the original to experience the nuances of the watercolor work, as well as some of the finer details, such as tiny hairs or minute evocations of texture. The accompanying exhibition catalogue, available in the Field Museum's gift shop, includes images of 185 additional Valentien botanical watercolors in addition to the 40 on display. For imagery it is merely an adequate reference. The printing process flattens out the subtle hues and reproduces the botanic portraits as pleasant, but only mildly remarkable illustrations. Brief essays give a further look into the endeavor itself, describing the funding of Valentien's work by California philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, giving details on the artist and his life, and including an essay on California's natural diversity.

From mountains to sea, Valentien scoured the diverse California habitats for specimens to complete his thorough study of the fauna in watercolor 'portraits'. He labored for nine years with the implied promise that his works would be issued in publication. Ultimately, Scripps decided against the high cost, and the intended book was never realized, a lifelong disappointment for the artist. The 1,200 watercolors went into Scripps's private collection, and were subsequently donated to the San Diego Natural History Museum at the time of her death in 1933. Scripps's reluctance to pour further funding into the botanical project was a harbinger of the modern era. By the early 1900s the great days of botanical illustration had drawn to a close, the impulse or even need for fine work supplanted by two new technologies, photography and the new, inexpensive four-color printing. Valentien's works were a rare New World feat, rarer for its unique conjunction of dedication, patronage, the perseverance in scouring the length and breadth of the state for a complete survey of specimens, and most of all, talent. It is that which endures. Biography and patronage are only footnotes. What gives these images lasting life is the artistry with which they were executed. Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien is on exhibit at the Field Museum through January 6, 2008. The touring exhibition is organized in conjunction with the San Diego Museum of Natural History. Captions beneath the watercolors briefly describe the habits and habitat of the illustrated specimens.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: The exhibition catalogue for Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

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