Anne Dowden, 99; botanical artist and author

Times Staff Writer

Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, a botanical artist who wrote and illustrated a number of books and displayed her watercolors at museums and botanical gardens around the country, has died. She was 99.

Dowden died Jan. 4 in her sleep at Frasier Meadows Retirement Community in Boulder, Colo., according to Carolyn Crawford, a longtime friend.

A native of Denver, Dowden spent many years in New York City but returned to her home state in 1990. She was known for painting flowers, herbs and insects in precise anatomical detail, using only live blossoms as models. She also kept a large collection of beetles and bugs for her work, and once said she had spent six weeks painting the hairs on a bee’s leg for one of her works.

Several of her books won awards. “Look at a Flower” (1963) and “Wild Green Things in the City, A Book of Weeds” (1972) received awards from the American Library Assn. “The Blossom on the Bough, A Book of Trees” (1975) was named an outstanding book for children by the National Science Teachers Assn.


She also illustrated books written by others. “Shakespeare’s Flowers” by Jessica Kerr (1969) and “Roses” by Louis Untermeyer (1970) are among her best-known collaborations.

House Beautiful, Life, Natural History and Smithsonian magazines published her illustrations. Her work was exhibited at the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library and the Denver Museum of Art, among other places.

“Anne Ophelia has got to be the country’s leading botanical artist,” James White, curator of art at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which owns about 300 of Dowden’s watercolors and drawings, said in an interview with The Times last year.

She decided to be an artist at age 5, but for many years she supported herself by teaching. She moved to New York City in her 20s and taught at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She later joined the faculty of Manhattanville College, where she was the founding chairwoman of the art department. She remained there until the early 1950s.

For 15 years, starting in the mid-1930s, she designed botanical-print wallpaper and drapery fabrics for the American Design Group, which she co-founded.

Drawings and watercolors remained a sidelight until Dowden was close to age 50. Then, “I finally combined hobby and profession and began the work I like best,” she later recalled.

Many of her artworks appear in her nature books for young readers. To research them, she collected weeds in railroad yards, pulled flowers apart to study their insides, watched moths pollinate orchids and the like. “That kind of on-the-spot research taught me the botany I never studied in school,” Dowden wrote in a 2003 autobiographical essay for the journal “Children, Youth and Environments.”

In an interview she described how she researched “State Flowers” (1978). First, she wrote to state government offices. “I wanted to know the exact species” of each flower, she said in a 2002 interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She asked botanical gardens around the country to send her live examples of the blossoms she needed, because she never worked from slides or photographs.


“Anne Ophelia felt she had a more intimate acquaintance with the plants, drawing from live specimens,” said Crawford, a botanical artist, in a 2006 interview with The Times.

“When certain things were in bloom you didn’t see her,” Lotte Blaustein, another friend, told The Times last year. “Anne Ophelia knew a lot of people, but she wasn’t that social. Hers was a life of friendship by correspondence.”

She was born Anne Ophelia Todd on Sept. 17, 1907. As a child, “the study of nature was my absorbing hobby,” she wrote in her autobiographical essay of 2003.

As a teenager she made medical drawings for her father, James Todd, a pathologist.


She earned a bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie-Mellon University) before she moved to New York City.

She married Raymond Dowden, an art student whom she met at Carnegie, in 1934. In the early years of their marriage they were artists in residence in a summer program sponsored by Louis Comfort Tiffany on his Long Island estate. Tiffany spent weekends at the house and critiqued student work when he was there.

Dowden especially recalled “very hard work painting in the fields and woods every day, followed in late afternoons with swimming in the bay.”

Raymond Dowden joined the faculty of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City in the early 1930s and was head of the art department for more than 30 years.


He died in 1982. The couple had no children.

When Dowden moved to Colorado she continued to work on books. Watercolors for “Poisons in Our Path, Plants That Harm And Heal” (1994) were displayed at the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2002.

“If I’d been a painter only, I would have been an abstract painter,” Dowden said in an interview about the exhibit. “But I chose to convey information.”