I've always been fascinated with botanical illustrations, so when the Field Museum announced it was featuring a show on plant portraits, I decided it was time for a visit. The day after Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to survey the ongoing construction of the new modern wing of the Art Institute, before heading to the Field Museum. It was a cold blustery day, and as we stood on an overpass adjacent to the new wing, a train sped below us and in seconds entered the network of tunnels under the nearly 25-acre Millenium Park across the street. Designed by Renzo Piano, the new wing will increase the Art Institute's gallery space by about 30%, adding 65,000 SF of new galleries, and include a 15,000-SF education center. As we walked along Monroe Street just in front of the construction site, covering about half a city block, we tried to imagine the bridge that would span from the top of the new wing arching over Monroe Street and gradually blending in with the landscape at Millenium Park.
On Michigan Avenue, we took a cab to the Field Museum, which is part of Chicago's Museum Campus near the lakefront along Lake Shore Drive. Founded in 1906 and established at its current location in 1921, the Field Museum of Natural History was rated the number one largest cultural attraction in Chicago with 2.1 million visitors in 2006 according to Crain's Chicago Business. The Museum's curatorial and scientific staffs work in the fields of Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology. We like the Museum because of its location in downtown Chicago, the permanent and special exhibits, and just the cozy familiarity of the place (how easily Sue the 13-foot high, 42-foot long T-rex model grows on you).
One of the special exhibits is Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien. The exhibit is located in a small gallery surrounded by the permanent exhibits in Nature Walk, which displays animal specimens in their natural habitats. Albert R. Valentien (1862-1925) spent 10 years traveling throughout California, painting every specimen of plant and wildflower that he could gather and completed 1,094 watercolors of nearly 1,500 species, including many that are rare and on the endangered species list. Organized by the San Diego Natural History Museum in collaboration with the Irvine Museum, the exhibit presents 40 of his best watercolor paintings.
?We discussed the matter of making a work on California Wild Flowers, and made up our minds right then and there, that if the opportunity offered, to turn out for publication in colors and natural size, such a work as could be used by institutions of learning and might be appreciated by almost anyone, both from a scientific and artistic standpoint. In this I have tried to combine the two. While not a botanist, knowing absolutely nothing about botany, I have simply painted what I saw and how I saw it.? ? Albert Valentien
For someone who was not a botanist, Albert Valentien produced beautiful detailed renditions of California plants and wildflowers. One hundred years ago, Valentien could not have foreseen the devastation to the environment that we are witnessing today due to population growth and its uncontrolled encroachment on the natural environment. At a time when we are concerned about global warming and curtailing the destruction of the world's biodiversity, Valentien's work reminds us that over time if we don't take the correct measures, we could lose the natural beauty that surrounds us. Artists today are beginning to turn to nature for inspiration and to focus on depicting endangered species to bring attention to their plight. One hundred years from now, will people be able to say that people today did all they could to save the biodiversity of the planet?
Amy A. Rudberg is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. She recently created ArtStyle Blog, A Voice for Artists in Chicago (http://www.chicagoarts-lifestyle.com/).