The California Legacy of A. R. Valentien

21 06 2008

I covet Rookwood Pottery. Started in the Mount Adams area of Cincinatti, Ohio in 1880 by Marie Longsworth Nichols, Rookwood is a highly collectible maker of Arts and Crafts, Victorian and Deco pottery, treasured for their classical shapes, masterful design and their botanical motifs. In 1905, Rookwood Pottery entered into production, relying more heavily on molds and mass production, losing the individual signatures of the artists who has carefully painted the botanical elements onto the piece.

One of these artists, Albert R. Valentien, is the subject of a show at the Indiana University Art Museum, Albert Valentien’s Flora of California. Valentien was the chief director at Rookwood Pottery from 1881 through 1905. It was there that he met his wife Anna, a fellow artist at the Pottery, accomplished in leatherwork and jewelry. In 1907 the duo moved from Ohio to San Diego, California, a county that has more biodiversity than any other county in the whole of North America.

In 1908, Valentien met Ellen Browning Scripps who, having never been married, had amassed a fortune starting the Detroit Evening News in 1873 and the Cleveland Press in 1878 with her brother James. Scripps worked diligently on both projects, often providing a large amount of material and keeping a keen eye on the financial state of both papers. She had a keen eye for business and was a lifelong saver. Her fortunes were compounded when her brother George passed on in 1900 and left her a large sum of money. Having retired to California in 1896, Scripps engaged in a philanthropic life, building hospitals, beginning colleges and and funneling money into community-building projects. Scripps charged Valentien with documenting he wildflowers of California, a task which she would fund and would take him ten years.

A decade after Scripps and Valentien began the project, they had amassed 1,094 sheets of paintings covering 1,500 species. Valentien has organized the sheets into twenty-two leather folios which were kept in Scripp’s library. The ultimate goal of the project was for a selection of the paintings to be shared with the public in book form, a goal never reached. Scripps had just finished building Scripps College and was, for the first time in her life, in debt. The cost of printing the books was too much and Valentien died of a heart attack in 1925 in San Diego, having never seen his massive body of work shared in any way with the public.

When Scripps passed away in 1932, the entirety of the collection was passed on to the San Diego Natural History Museum, where it languished in wooden cabinets due to a lack of money to build an exhibition around these pieces. In 1997, Margaret N. Dykens joined the museum staff as Director of the research library and began thinking of how to present the project of sharing these works with the public. Donors were secured in 1999 and the project began moving forward.

The Irving Museum provided a lot of support for the project, paying for the construction and publication of the book and paying for much of the travel costs involved in sharing this body of work, the largest collection of work by Valentien in the world, with the public.

The paintings themselves are breathtaking, fully embodying the skill and aesthetic sense that make his Rookwood pieces desirable. Valentien would do several sketches of each plant before embarking on constructing a final representation and there is an insane amount of detail placed into each and every painting. Each painting is done on an acidic (imagine the curator’s stress!) gray-green paper; white flowers were Valentien’s favorite to paint. Despite a lack of training as a botanist, his paintings are botanically accurate down to the tiniest detail; as the collection was being cataloged and preserved, the nomenclature of each plant was speedily identified by the detail Valentien paid to his subjects. His plant subjects live on his page, infused with life through careful attention to detail and a passion for the work. It is obviously a work of love; it is only sad to think that Valentien died before the public had the opportunity to enjoy his work.

Albert Valentien’s Flora of California runs through August 17th at the Indiana University Art Museum. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 – 5:00 and Sundays from noon to 5:00.

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