San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[BRCC San Diego Natural History Museum: Research Library]
The Valentien Watercolor Project

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.

Painting of Mammilaria dioica (Fish-hook cactus), 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.


The Artist

The History of the Paintings

Exhibiting the Paintings: Plant Portraits

The Valentien Watercolor Project

A.R. Valentien signature

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