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The Valentien Project

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, and 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, thanks to the commitment and wonderful generosity of Eleanor and Jerome Navarra, the Valentien Project, which would entail photographing, conserving, cataloging, and eventually exhibiting the collection, began.

The Valentien watercolor collection has been a treasured part of the Museum's holdings since 1933, when they were donated to the Museum Library from Miss Scripps' estate. Through all these years, the collection has been seen by only a few fortunate people, who longed to share the breathtaking freshness and liveliness of these "plant portraits," as Mr. Valentien called them, with the public.

The History of the Paintings

Albert Valentien and his wife Anna, an artist and sculptor in her own right, first came to California from Ohio in 1903. They stayed in Dulzura with Anna's brother, Charles, and for nine months, Albert painted wildflowers of the surrounding area. The resulting 135 paintings were exhibited at the State Normal School in San Diego, where it is believed Miss Ellen Browning Scripps saw them. These paintings were purchased by an anonymous patron who donated them to the Cincinnati Art Museum, which still owns approximately 100 of them. Mr. Valentien finally quit his job at Rookwood Pottery in 1905, exhibited his flower paintings in various cities including New York and Washington, DC and moved to San Diego for good in 1908.

Having seen the quality of Valentien's work, Miss Scripps commissioned him to paint all the wildflowers of California, beginning in 1908. For the next 10 years, Valentien, assisted by his wife and other collectors, traveled around the state, collecting plants and painting them. After completing the wildflowers, he expanded his project to include grasses, ferns, and trees as well. In addition to botanical accuracy and detail, his paintings display a wonderful freshness and spontaneity, in part probably due to his training as a pottery decorator.

Nemophila maculata (Five-spot)Painted by Albert Valentien, © San Diego Natural History Museum

He painted his plant portraits in a 14 x 20 inch format on light gray paper, so that white flowers would show up well. Each specimen painted was later pressed and sent to Prof. H. M. Hall at University of California, Berkeley, for identification. He mounted each painting on dressed linen, and labeled them himself. There are 1094 individual sheets, many of them depicting more than one species. These were bound into 22 portfolios. He completed his work in 1918, and was very disappointed to find they would not be published. Albert Valentien died in San Diego of a heart attack in 1925. In March of 1933 the entire collection was donated to the San Diego Natural History Museum by Robert P. Scripps, executor of Miss Scripps' estate.

Preserving the Paintings

Our first priority was to secure an archival photographic copy of each of these original artworks, as well as transparencies to use in future reproductions. Accurately reproducing paintings of the delicacy, subtlety, and vibrancy of these represents a great challenge. One of the most arresting features of the paintings is the consistently perfect rendition of color of the flowers and other plant parts; Mr. Valentien had an unerring sense of color and we are very eager to reveal that in the photographs as well. Fortunately, we had one of the top fine art reproduction photographers in the San Diego area, Philipp Scholz Rittermann, working on this project. In December, 1999, Philipp made three 4 x 5 transparencies for each of the 1094 paintings. This allows us to have one archival copy stored for safe-keeping, one "working" copy, and one copy dedicated for future use in book reproduction. Before beginning, Philipp evaluated four different types of film for this project, and continued throughout the process to check the negatives to verify that they are as close as possible to the original artwork.

Concurrent with Philipp's photography, to minimize handling, Janet Ruggles, paper conservator at Balboa Art and Conservation Center, assessed the condition and conservation needs of the paintings. She made recommendations as to the proper treatment, storage, and care for the artworks. The paintings were being stored in acid-free archival boxes in a wooden flat-file storage cabinet, but as part of this project, two new, custom-made, metal storage files were purchased for the paintings, and the paintings have been completely rehoused.

Mammilaria dioica (Fish-hook cactus)  Painted by Albert Valentien, © San Diego Natural History Museum

We are also working on a computer database of the Valentien watercolors, including the plant's correct scientific name, current range in California, whether it is an endangered or threatened species, flowering season, and other special notes. This database is being created primarily by volunteer Annette Winner. When this database is complete, a person will be able to sort through the images, make selections of ones of particular interest, all without handling the paintings at all. We also hope to construct a special case for rotating display of selected paintings.

In each painting, Valentien rendered the organic wholeness of stem, leaf, flower or fruit with a fluid and seemingly effortless grace that literally takes your breath away. When you see the white crinkled petals of the Matilija 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, and we feel we are seeing them anew, as Mr. Valentien saw them, almost a hundred years ago.

About the Artist

Albert Robert Valentien

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 owned by such museums as the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Museum of Decorative Arts (Copenhagen), the National Museum (Sevres), and many others. In 1900 he received the gold medal at the Paris Exposition for his work at Rookwood. His works in ceramics, as well as his paintings and still-lifes, are considered very valuable by collectors.

In 1884 Rookwood hired Anna Marie Bookprinter, an artist and sculptor in her own right, and three years later, Anna and Albert 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 a 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 moved permanently to San Diego in 1908.

Albert Robert Valentien; photos courtesy of the San Diego History Center

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 or 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 in chaparral, desert, and 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 1094 sheets that depicted 1500 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 breathtakingly vibrant and full of spontaneity.

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 formats, his work was never published. This obviously 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.