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



Almost 100 years ago, the artist Albert Valentien began a project that was ten years in the execution. He began his work in 1908 when he was commissioned by Ellen Browning Scripps to paint the wildflowers of California. The plan was to publish a book of the paintings when he finished. However, in the end, Miss Scripps decided the cost was too prohibitive and Valentien’s hope of seeing his work reproduced and admired by a large audience was dashed. In 2000, the San Diego Museum of Natural History, which had received the Valentien watercolors from Miss Scripps’s Estate, decided to embark on its own project to restore, photograph, catalogue, and exhibit these exquisite works. The resultant exhibition of 80 stunning watercolors of native California plants painted in the early 1900s is funded by Eleanor and Jerry Navarra and is being toured under the auspices of the Irvine Museum.

The Artist

Albert Robert Valentien was born in 1862 in Cincinnati and showed great artistic talent from an early age. By the age of 19, he was employed at the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, and he became the head decorator there, staying for 24 years. He created many beautiful ceramic pieces, some now in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and many others. In 1900, he received the Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition for his work at Rookwood.

In 1884 Rookwood hired Anna Maria Bookprinter, an artist and sculptor in her own right, and three years later Anna and Albert were married. As Rookwood employees, Anna and Albert traveled to Europe in 1899 to receive further art training and to prepare the Rookwood Pottery exhibit for the Paris Exposition of 1900. During their visit to the Black Forest in Germany, while Albert was recuperating from an illness, he began to paint the wildflowers of the region, which proved to be a turning point in his career.

Because they had heard about the natural beauty of California, they traveled west in 1903 to visit Anna’s brother near San Diego. Over the next eight months, Valentien painted 150 species of plants, and both artists fell in love with the area. They decided to resign from Rookwood and move permanently to San Diego in 1908.

Shortly after they arrived, Ellen Browning Scripps, a prominent San Diego philanthropist with an interest in natural history, commissioned Valentien to take on a monumental task-the painting of all the wildflowers and plants of California. He began work in 1908 and for the next ten years traveled all over the State, from the Mexican border to the northern California coast, collecting specimens in chaparral, deserts, mountains, by rivers, in canyons, and along the beaches and salt marshes. California at this time offered an unspoiled wealth of incredibly diverse plants and animals for an artist to study and depict. Valentien always painted from fresh specimens and by 1918 had completed 1,094 sheets that depicted 1,500 species altogether. Although he had initially focused on the wildflowers, he enlarged his scope to include trees, grasses, and ferns as well. His exquisite paintings were botanically accurate and meticulous in their execution, yet subtle and vibrant in their coloration and full of spontaneity, no doubt due to Valentien’s training as a pottery decorator.

In each painting, Valentien rendered the organic wholeness of stem, leaf, flower, or fruit with a fluid and seemingly effortless grace that almost takes your breath away. When you see the whole crinkled petals of the Matilij a poppy leap off the page, or the spines of the cactus appear so real they could hurt you, you realize why Albert Valentien called these “plant portraits.” Unlike many flower paintings that seem stiff or forced, these paintings capture the living essence of each plant. We feel we are seeing them anew, as Mr. Valentien saw them, almost a hundred years ago.

Valentien had assumed that his work would be published at its completion, but Miss Scripps decided that publication would be too costly, and although attempts were made to get some of the paintings included in various publications, this was never successful. Obviously, this was a grave disappointment to the artist. Valentien began to paint more landscapes in oil and explored other subjects. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1925.

The Paintings, and Their Conservation, and Documentation

Valentien painted his plant portraits in a 14” X 20” format on toned paper, so that white flowers painted in gouache would show up well. Each specimen painted was later pressed and sent to Professor H. M. Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, for identification. Valentien mounted each painting on dressed linen and labeled them himself. There are 1,094 individual sheets, many of them depicting more than one species. These were bound into 22 portfolios. In 1933 the entire collection was donated to the San Diego Natural History Museum by Robert P. Scripps, executor of Miss Scripps’s estate.

Since 2000, the San Diego Natural History Museum has undertaken to photograph, catalog, and conserve Valentien’s opus. The Museum engaged a top fine arts photographer, Phillip Scholz Rittermann, to take
4” x 5” transparencies of all the watercolors, and he did a masterful job in recording their nuances. The Balboa Art and Conservation Center was consulted regarding the proper treatment, storage, and care of the artworks. The Museum is constructing a computer database that will identify each plant’s correct scientific name, current range in California, whether it is an endangered or threatened species, flowering season, and other special notes. Finally, in collaboration with the Irvine Museum, the San Diego Museum of Natural History has produced the book, Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A. R. Valentien, which reproduces a selection of the watercolors in a manner that would have made Valentien proud.

The Wildling Art Museum would like to thank the San Diego Natural History Museum for lending us this exhibition and providing the images and adapted text for use within this monograph.

From the Executive Director

Botanic illustration has a long and world wide history. The primary objective of the botanic illustrator is always the documentation of species. But behind the most revered illustrations is the artistic impulse—to make the resultant work more than a scientific record, but a thing of beauty—comparable, but distinct, from the plant described.

This was the second exhibition featuring the work of an historic, botanical illustrator mounted by the Wildling Art Museum. In 2001, the Museum exhibited the work of Sophie Alstrom Mitchell, a Victorian woman who lived in St. Helena, California, until her death in 1940. Her watercolors, depicting the native plants and wildflowers of the Napa Valley, were distinguished both for their botanic accuracy and their artistic sensibility.

The milieu in which Albert R. Valentien (1862-1925) worked was the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century, so the artistic qualities of his watercolors were quite intentional. We are moved by his perseverance and the high standards he set himself in a project that was never fully realized.

We were grateful to the Irvine Museum and the San Diego Natural History Museum for making this exquisite collection available to us. We want particularly to thank Mr. James Swinden, Vice-President; Dr. Jean Stern, Executive Director; and Merika Adams Gopaul, Assistant Director, of the Irvine Museum for their help in bringing this exhibition to the Wildling.

We are very pleased that Margaret Dykens, Director of the Research Library of the San Diego Natural History Museum and curator of the exhibition, can be present for the opening and to speak to our docents. Thanks also go to Bob Dycus, our exhibition designer and installer, to Jessica Reichman, for her registration assistance, and to my Assistant, Holly Cline, for her superb job in overseeing the design and publication of this monograph.

Elizabeth P. Knowles


All works were completed between
1908–1918 using watercolor on paper.
They were exhibited in rotation.

Adenostoma fasciculatum (Chamise)

Adiantum aleuticum (Five Finger Fern)

Aesculus californica (California Buckeye)

Anemopsis californica (Yerba Mansa)

Asarum caudatum

Balsamorhiza deltoidea (Balsam Root)

Berberis nervosa

Bergerocactus emoryi (Velvet Cactus)

Calochortus amabilis (Diogenes’ Lantern)

Calochortus splendens (Splendid Mariposa Lily)

Calochortus venustus var. eldorado

Calochortus venustus var. roseus

Calochortus venustus (Butterfly Mariposa)

Cardamine sp.

Carpenteria californica (Tree Anemone)

Ceanothus prostratus (Mahala Mat)

Ceanothus tomentosus (California Lilac)

Chilopsis linearis (Desert Willow)

Cirsium occidentale (Western Thistle)

Clematis pauciflora

Coreopsis sp.

Cornus nuttallii (Mountain Dogwood)

Cucurbita foetidissima (Calabazilla)

Cylindropuntia bigelovii (Teddy Bear Cholla)

Cylindropuntia wolfi i (Wolf’s Cholla)

Cylindropuntia wolfi i (Wolf’s Cholla)

Cynoglossum grande

Cypripedium montanum (Mountain Lady’s Slipper)

Darlingtonia californica (California Pitcher Plant)

Dodecatheon clevelandii

Dudleya pulverulenta

Equisetum telmateia (Giant Horsetail)

Eremalche rotundifolia (Desert Five-Spot)

Eschscholzia californica (California Poppy)

Ferocactus cylindraceus (California Barrel Cactus)

Fouquieria splendens (Ocotillo)

Heracleum lanatum (Cow Parsnip)

Hesperocallis undulata (Desert Lily)

Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)

Heuchera sanguinea (Alum Root)

Iris missouriensis (Western Blue Flag)

Lathyrus vestitus (Wild Sweet Pea)

Lewisia cotyledon var. howelli (Howell’s Lewisia)

Lilium humboldtii ssp. ocellatum (Humboldt Lily)

Lilium rubescens (Redwood Lily)

Lillium washingtonianum (Washington Lily)

Linum lewisii

Lysichiton americanum (Yellow Skunk Cabbage)

Malacothamnus fasciculatus (Chaparral Mallow)

Mentzelia lindleyi

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum (Crystalline Iceplant)

Minuartia californica

Nassella pulchra (Purple Needle-grass)

Opuntia basilaris (Beavertail Cactus)

Panicum capillare (Witchgrass)

Penstemon grinnellii

Penstemon heterophyllus

Phacelia grandiflora

Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa Pine)

Pinus radiata (Monterrey Pine)

Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore)

Poa annua (Annual Bluegrass)

Polypodium californicum (California Polypody)

Populus fremontii (Cottonwood, Alamo)

Quercus chrysolepis (Canyon Live Oak)

Quercus kelloggi (fall) (California Black Oak)

Quercus kelloggii (spring) (California Black Oak)

Quercus lobata (Valley Oak)

Rhododendron occidentale (Western Azalea)

Rhus integrifolia (Lemonadeberry)

Romneya coulteri (Coulter’s Matilij a Poppy)

Romneya trichocalyx (Hairy Matilij a Poppy)

Rosa californica (California Rose)

Rubus parvifl orus (Thimbleberry)

Sambucus mexicana (Blue Elderberry)

Sedum spathulifolium

Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood)

Xerophyllum tenax (Bear Grass)

Xylococcus bicolor

Zigadenus sp.