The Botanical Art of Anne Ophelia Dowden


| April/May 1993



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.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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