Anne Ophelia Dowden: Author and Illustrator
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
“I suppose that if you have a rapport with growing things, it just makes you happy that there is so much of it —even the grass that grows in the cracks of the pavement”
Anne Ophelia Dowden wrote and illustrated twenty books in her nearly 100 years of life. Born in Denver, CO and raised in Boulder, then spending much of her time in New York City before returning back to her roots later in life, Anne was inspired by the natural world around her.
While some can be viewed in museum galleries, Anne Ophelia Dowden’s works are primarily found in children’s books, however, readers of Life, Natural History, Audubon and the Country Journal could also enjoy her realistic renderings of all kinds of plants. In addition to her botanical watercolors, Anne was known for her ability to turn complex botanical workings into clear, concise and easily understood prose. In fact, I challenge you to pick up one of her books, I have found many of mine at thrift stores, and see if you don’t learn something new from her children’s book.
In an interview with Leonard S. Marcus, Anne Ophelia Dowden revealed her interest in plants started at an early age in her Colorado neighborhood where she had biologists and botanists for neighbors. She remembers drawing plants when she was eight years old. Anne studied art at the Carnegie Institue of Technology as well as Arts Student League and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design.
Like many of us, when deciding on a career, Anne had trouble connecting her passion to a viable profession stating that even when she went to art school for illustration it never occurred to her to become a “nature illustrator.” Anne went on to teach Art at the Pratt Institute and at Manhattanville College where she founded the art department. It wasn’t until she was working drawing flower patterns for textile prints, as a side job for the American Design Group, and spent a summer drawing sketches for inspiration and research did she consider she could make a living drawing what she loved.
Anne’s first botanical drawings were a series of paintings of edible plants she sold to Life magazine, and then as she says “I gave up both teaching and drapery design and started really doing what I probably should have been doing in my early twenties.”
Unlike many of us, Anne was working during the Great Depression, and she decided to make this career shift at that time when even successful publishers still in business were risk averse, unwilling to take a chance on a new botanical illustrator deeming these types of works superfluous at the time. However, ingenuity and creative thinking prevailed and Anne happened upon the Children’s book route – children’s books can never be superfluous right?
While Anne was adept at not only explaining the intricate workings of plants and drawing them as well, she was interested in highlighting the people plant connection. Rather than just create guides to plants, Anne detailed their medicinal, economic and cultural significance, connecting the reader’s lives with the plants around them in a way a field guide just doesn’t do.
A transformative experience for Anne was working on a book to show urban youth that nature exists even there. Wild Green Things in the City: A Book About Weeds was the result of this effort, changing, I’m sure, the way many kids saw their city lots but it changed her as well. In doing research for the book Anne and her husband walked all around New York city looking for plants and amazed at all of the colors and diversity they found. Through this she was able to show that green life and the materials to support that life exist everywhere.
Anne was an environmentalist and took each opportunity she could in her book to draw attention to the plight of the environment and our role in the future of plants and green spaces. She wanted us to always know, from a young age that we are all connected.
“Well, of course, you can survive without knowing about plants. But you're losing, for one thing, a lot of pleasure. And I think it's much more than pleasure. It's knowing what life is all about, what the world is all about. And when you think of this tremendous interlocked system of life that's all over the earth —not to know about it, and not to have any feeling whatever for it, seems very sad. It's a tremendously important and beautiful thing.”
Hunt Institute Curator James White remarked that he considered Anne Ophelia Dowden “America’s leading botanical artist of the last century.” Upon her death, Anne’s cousin Martha stated that Anne’s life boiled down to “her compassion and curiosity about the world around her – from nature to people.”
While her parents encouraged their child’s interest in nature fromm a young age, allowing roaming of meadows and woods, patiently explaining what Anne and her sister were finding out there and encouraging drawing, even funding her art education at Carnegie Mellon, Anne was in her late 40s when she finally started making a living doing what she loved and was in her fifties when she started publishing books of her work.
“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. 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.”
NY Times Obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/arts/design/16dowden.html
Nature Into Art: An Interview with Anne Ophelia Dowden https://muse.jhu.edu/article/247406/pdf
Mother Earth Living: The Botanical Art of Anne Ophelia Dowden
University of Minnesota: The Anne Ophelia Dowden Papers