Mother Earth Living

The Botanical Art of Anne Ophelia Dowden

By Linda Ligon
April/May 1993
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The studio is a simple room, illuminated by the eastern light of the Colorado plains. A drawing table by the large, sheet-draped window holds a deliberate clutter of pencils and brushes and tubes of pigment. Page proofs of the book she has just finished are stacked neatly on a shelf alongside 18 volumes that she has illustrated and, in many cases, written as well. More than four decades of research paintings, sketches, and final renderings are filed away in cabinets. In this modest room, ­devoid of distractions yet not quite austere, Anne Ophelia Dowden paints.

She had always meant to paint, and her delight in nature dates back to earli­est childhood, but that art and ­nature could intersect in such an important way in her life came as a rather late but welcome surprise. As a child, Anne Ophelia Todd roamed the meadows and canyons west of Boulder, Colorado, with her sister, Edith, watching and wondering and collecting and playing fantasy games. Their father headed the department of clinical pathology at the University of Colorado’s medical school, and her parents and other members of the science faculty encouraged the children’s interest in nature, patiently identifying and explaining their discoveries. At the same time, her parents supported her affinity for fine art, providing private lessons and eventually sending her to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1927.

Graduating during the depths of the Great Depression, Anne Ophelia went to New York to seek work as a book illustrator. Trudging the streets with a portfolio in a city where even established artists were hard pressed to find work was fruitless; after a few months, she took a part-time teaching job at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and continued to study at the Art Students League and the Beaux Arts ­Institute of Design.

Associations at the Beaux Arts led to the opportunity to design and execute a commissioned mural for a building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934; five of the students who worked on that project, including Anne Ophelia, went on to form the American Design Group. For 15 years, they designed wallpaper and drapery fabric—which of course included a great many florals—for the high-end decorators’ market. At the same time, Anne Ophelia began to teach at Manhattanville College in Manhattan as the head (and for a time the only member) of the art department, a ­position she held for 21 years.

The Work I Had Been Moving Toward

In a life made up of intertwining strands, marriage provided important continuity. Raymond Dowden had been a fellow student at Carnegie Tech and remained in Pittsburgh teaching after his future bride left for New York. They saw each other during summer residencies at the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation on Long Island and were married in 1934. Their relationship was limited largely to ­summers and weekends together for two years until Ray took a job at Cooper Union in Manhattan, where he eventually became head of the art department, a position he held for 30 years.

The Dowdens’ life together became a blend of teaching during the school year, working on freelance projects together in the studio, and traveling in the western states and occasionally abroad during summer vacations. During World War II, the couple spent several summers doing field labor at the Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Michigan, an institution founded by their friend Floyd Starr. Anne Ophelia’s ingrained interest in nature was piqued by the weeds they toiled to eliminate from the vegetable plots—weeds that she knew had been important sources of food and medicine for earlier Americans. She made paintings of them as time allowed.

These “weed” paintings became the research material from which she produced a series of fully documented color plates depicting edible wild plants, some of which were published in Life magazine in 1952. Other assignments for Life followed; and ­finally, in 1955, at the age of 48, Anne Ophelia resigned from Manhattanville, gave up her textile design work, and became a botanical illustrator—“the work I had been moving toward all my life,” she says.

Delectable Secrets

In a recently written autobiographical sketch, Anne Ophelia notes that the great botanist Linnaeus classified not only plants, but also botanists: one kind on his list of species is “much given to exclamations of wonder.” “I guess I am an example of that species,” she says. This sense of wonder pervades her work. Her paintings not only record the physical appearance of plants, but probe their most intricate secrets. Seed cases, reproductive parts, and other subtle –details are exquisitely depicted and given visual importance in the overall presentation. “Pulling blossoms apart to learn their innermost structure or sitting hours in a marsh beside an orchid . . . brings me close to the ­natural world I love,” she says.

Nor does her work treat plants as isolated specimens. The interdependence of plants, insects, and other animals (including humans) has been a constant theme in her work, beginning in 1963 with Look at a Flower (Crowell, 1963). A recent work, The Clover and the Bee: A Book of Pollination (Crowell, 1990), is aimed at a young audience but would charm anyone with its revelations about the ways in which flowers and insects interact. “Ever since I learned about these things for myself, I have wanted to let other people in on the delectable secrets, and in all my books I have hoped that I could make young people aware of this entertainment that is so close around them,” she says. “After the fun, they will begin to understand the relationships of all the earth’s small organisms and then recognize the great accumulated forces that shape our lives on this planet.”

The social and historical importance of plants has received her attention as well in such books as Plants of the Bible by Louis Untermeyer (1970), The Lore and Legends of Flowers by Robert Crowell (1982), and her own This Noble Harvest: A Chronicle of Herbs (Collins, 1979), whose illustrations appear on these pages. A lively blend of folklore, scientific observation, and recorded fact is carefully coordinated with the appropriate illustrations—a consequence of her designing her own books.

A Way of Working

Among the challenges of botanical illustration (given a well-developed talent) are obtaining live material to work from and keeping it fresh. Plants change constantly and may age rapidly. Although many illustrators today work from photographs or herbarium specimens, Anne Ophelia insists on working from fresh material to produce documentary research paintings. Thus, she has developed more than the average number of tricks for dealing with the ephemeral nature of her subject. Floating flowers in the bathtub so gravity won’t so quickly distort their form, propping them with paper towels in glass bowls for the same reason, and “working like crazy from April through June” are just a few of them.

Anne Ophelia’s final drawings are always adapted from the research paintings, which are made in the studio—“probably the world’s slowest way of working.” These preliminary paintings, of which she has made hundreds (see example on page 67), are remarkable for their accuracy and detail. “A painting can portray a plant in a way that is more ‘real’ than a photograph,” she says, because the artist can apply information gathered from studying the plant from many perspectives to the final rendering. And unlike a camera, an artist records selectively. Anne Ophelia’s research paintings are always made precisely life-size; each dimension of the plant is carefully checked with a well-used brass draftsman’s ­divider, and the magnification of expanded details is noted.

Creating a finished painting for publication from the research materials entails making pencil tracings of the relevant parts, editing out unneeded elements, and arranging to please the eye and accommodate the space available. Final paintings are often collages of several different plants and their various interesting parts; giving each its due importance while creating overall designs with good balance and visual flow is part of her concern.

Accuracy and composition are immediately striking elements in Anne Ophelia’s work, but a word must be said about her choice of medium. Almost from the beginning, her botanical illustrations—both research paintings and final renderings—have been done in transparent watercolor. This rather slow and demanding medium allows the artist to blend and build colors in subtle ways that create a strong sense of the actual transparency of petal or leaf. Poppies flame, rose petals glow softly, yet the tiniest hairs on a flower stem or the minuscule oil glands on the back of a rosemary leaf are delineated with precision. A finished piece may require several long days at the drawing table.

A large project such as a book requires a daunting amount of planning. Those plants for which Anne Ophelia has no research paintings on file must be ­obtained. She must consider when and where they grow and bloom, whether they can be shipped or must be visited in person, and how these considerations mesh with the publication schedule. In late winter, she lists all the species she will need for the following summer’s work. “Synchronizing my schedule with that of nature and my friends requires a lot of phone calls and a lot of correspondence,” she says. “The file of letters in preparation for a book is often bulkier than the manuscript itself.” The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has provided her with much material and grown specimens especially for her needs on occasion. The herbs for This Noble Harvest came from Gertrude and Philip Foster’s herb farm in western Connecticut, not far from Norfolk, where Ray Dowden headed Yale University’s summer art program for ten years.

To begin a second career and create such a substantial body of work after midlife is out of the ordinary. Anne Ophelia Dowden’s 18 (soon to be 19) books and numerous magazine stories are more than many illustrator/authors produce in a lifetime, and her hundreds of research paintings will provide study material for generations of botanists and artists to come. Yet for all its varied strands, her life has followed a path. Her latest work has the same sense of exploration and wonder as her childhood forays into the Colorado foothills. Her fascination with the processes of nature has always sought expression. Her many years as a teacher were groundwork for writing and illustrating books designed to inform and inspire. And always, there has been the painting.

Ray Dowden died in 1982, and after living for 60 years in Manhattan, Anne Ophelia recently returned to Boulder. A large window opposite the entry to her apartment overlooks her childhood haunts to the west, and her studio receives the clear light off the plains to the east. She is finding pleasure in being back in Colorado. Her book on poisonous plants, four years in the making, has been packed off to her editor; she pauses to consider the next project. “Working like this,” she says, “I am able to spend my days with paints and paper, as well as with the living things I love. And always I hope I can persuade other people to love them, too, especially potential young bot­anists who may eventually begin to make their own discoveries and utter their own exclamations of wonder.”


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