The wildflower paintings of elizabeth hollowell saunders

California has long provided an abundance of subjects for botanical artists, with its wildflowers having an irresistible allure. The state’s first guide to wildflowers, published in 1897, included many highly detailed black and white drawings by Margaret Warriner Buck (Desert Breeze, May 2017). From 1908 to 1918, the prolific A. R. Valentin painted hundreds of portraits of California’s flowers (Desert Breeze, March 2015). Margaret Armstrong, an artist from the East Coast, painted many of the state’s flowers for her 1915 Field Book of Western Wildflowers (Desert Breeze, June 2016), and Mary Vaux Walcott, another traveling artist from the East, included many of the state’s flowers in her 5-volume North American Wildflowers (Desert Breeze, May 2014). All of these artists produced realistic and detailed portrayals of the state’s spectacular flowers.

One California artist, a transplant from Pennsylvania, created a unique style of painting that displayed a graceful, elegant Art Nouveau design style while retaining the precision and detail of more traditional botanical art. Elizabeth Hollowell Saunders (1861-1910) lived in California for only four years before her death, and sadly her output of these remarkable paintings was limited.

Elizabeth Hollowell studied art in Philadelphia where she became an ardent naturalist as well as an accomplished painter. To pursue her interest in nature, she joined a walking club where she met Charles Francis Saunders (1859–1941). Saunders had little interest in botany when they met until he attended a lecture by botanist Joseph Rothrock, noted forester and author of the botanical report for the U.S.G.S. Wheeler Survey (Desert Breeze July 2015). Saunders attended several more of the botanist’s lectures and later wrote to Rothrock that “the pursuit of botany has ever since been one of my keenest pleasures.”

In 1902, Hollowell and Saunders married and traveled to California, in part to improve Elizabeth’s health. One of their first outings was an exploration of the desert around Palm Springs. A friend wrote that their trip must have been “one grand fiesta, a kind of wildflower intoxication without the effects of bootlegging or headache.”

Two books followed their trip to California. Saunders published his first book, In a Poppy Garden, in 1903. It was a small volume of poetry with each poem preceded by a small illustration by Elizabeth. Two years later, twelve of her watercolor sketches of wildflowers were published as a portfolio with descriptions of the plants written by Charles.

The couple left Philadelphia and moved permanently to Santa Barbara, in 1906. They both developed a keen interest in photography, traveling throughout the state to photograph its botanical bounty.

After Elizabeth’s death, in 1910, Saunders devoted himself to writing, mostly about California and the Southwest. The man who previously had no use for botany wrote seven books about plants, the first of which was With the Flowers and Trees in California (1914). The book is dedicated to Elizabeth and includes several of her watercolor sketches of wildflowers. Also illustrating the book are many of their photographs of plants, including two color plates showing fields of orange poppies and pink sand verbena. Saunders even includes a photograph of the Chilean monkey puzzle tree (Desert Breeze, February 2020) and devotes two pages to discussing the Araucarias that had been planted in California

In the book’s preface, Saunders describes California as “ … the State which, of all our Commonwealths, is to Flora the most hospitable and by her the most favored …”.

All twelve wildflower watercolors by Elizabeth Hollowell Saunders can be seen in this gallery. —Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the May 2021 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.