Concerning the Wild Flower
Paintings of Alice Chittenden
Perhaps it was Alice Eastwood who suggested to Alice Chittenden that she do a series of California wild flowers in oils. Mrs. Chittenden was an early-day member of the California Botanical Club and a close friend of Alice Eastwood. The flower studies were painted over a period of years as material became available. Much of this material was supplied by Miss Eastwood and was garnered from study material from meetings of the Botanical Club or obtained on Club field trips. (The weekly field trips were the usual activity of the club before Miss Eastwood broke her leg in 1931; after that field trips were rare and meetings were held in the Academy herbarium).
It was not long after I first worked at the Academy in 1929-1930 that I heard about the wild flower paintings from Miss Eastwood. She considered them the finest set of flower pictures for several reasons: (1) they were in oil, so the colors would not fade as they might if in watercolor; (2) usually only single species was shown in each picture; (3) often both flowers and fruits for a given species were shown in a single picture. It was Miss Eastwood’s hope and expectation that eventually the collection would come to the Academy as part of its botanical treasures.
At the time I arrived on the Academy scene a second collection of California wild flower paintings was also commanding attention. This was a beautiful watercolor series by Ethel Wickes. It too had been done over a period of years, and Miss Eastwood had helped Miss Wickes with her collection, particularly in identifying the flowers. Miss Eastwood admired the Wickes studies but did not prefer them, since they were in watercolor, and since often the flowers were depicted in bouquets of several species in each picture. Whereas Miss Eastwood favored the Chittenden oils, Mr. Frank Tose, Head of the Department of Exhibits, preferred the Wickes watercolors. Mr. Tose arranged an Academy exhibit of the Wickes pictures in the long gallery of the North American Hall after Mrs. Fitzhugh remove the long-time loan exhibit of American Indian materials. It was Mr. Tose’s hope that the Academy would acquire the Wickes collection; he did not want the Chittenden collection. I was with Mr. Tose when he visited Mrs. Chittenden’s studio flat on Green Street when she showed us her paintings. As an artist, Mr. Tose preferred Miss Wickes’ style.
Then came Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Since a Japanese attack on the mainland was expected, the next day was spent storing Academy records and types in the vault in the Fish Department on the ground floor of the Simpson African Hall. On that day Mrs. Chittenden arranged with Miss Eastwood to have the wild flower paintings also put in the academy vault. I cannot recall how or by whom they were brought to the academy but the two wooden boxes containing the Chittenden wild flowers were in the Academy vault by evening Dec. 8, 1941.
The wild flower pictures remained in the Fish Department Vault for many years. Meanwhile Mrs. Chittenden died and the wild flower pictures became part of her estate. Later the collection was moved from the vault to the Academy Library where it was taken care of by the librarian, Miss Veronica Sexton. At that time (probably in the early 1960’s), a friend of Mrs. Chittenden’s granddaughter made an attempt to raise a fund to purchase the paintings for the Academy. However, the needs of the Botany Department seemed more urgent so neither the Department nor the Academy favored diverting considerable financial help from the departmental needs to the cost of the Chittenden collection which was “considerable”.
When it was apparent that the Academy would not vigorously sponsor the acquisition of the collection, the trustee of the estate, the family, and their friends arranged to have the collection taken to the California Historical Society on Jackson Street. Here an outstanding exhibit of the paintings was prepared, the first in over 20 years, and it became generally known that the collection was for sale. I participated in arrangements for the exhibit by bringing the botanical nomenclature up-to-date as of that time.
With the purchase of the pictures by Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, it is to be counted the high good fortune of California Botany and Art that the collection has been kept intact with assurances of its future care and preservation. Otherwise, as was the case of the Ethel Wickes collections, the Chittenden wild flowers might have been dispersed helter-skelter for whatever price a picture might bring and California would have been deprived of one of its outstanding artistic and botanical treasures.
- John Thomas Howell –