Poppies were her passion

February 2, 2007 § Leave a comment

Poppy Box | Lucia Mathews | Oakland Museum


It is hard now to imagine the fields of golden California poppies that once covered the hills and filled the valleys in the San Francisco Bay area — or the impact they had on local and visiting artists.

When Eschscholtzia Californica was first adopted as the state flower in 1890, it was an obvious choice. Poppies were so much a part of the consciousness of the state that an entire room was devoted to the golden blossom at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As a design motif, they showed up on china, textiles, stationery goods and playing cards, even in songs and poems about the state.

It is possible young Lucia Kleinhans found her love of the golden flower on the campus of Mills College in Oakland, where she studied, or in Golden Gate Park, which was sprinkled with the golden buds, and only a few blocks from her family’s home on Fell Street.

It seems more likely it was across the bay in Belvedere, where she spent time in the early 1890s sketching the open fields of flowers, plants and trees with one of her instructors from the California School of Design. They were not concentrating entirely on their artwork. The instructor was Arthur Mathews, who would become her husband and her artistic partner.

Poppies | Lucia Mathews

Arthur and Lucia had studios in the same building in San Francisco. Just a ferry boat ride away was Belvedere, filled with acres and acres of the golden cups. In the 1893 spring exhibition at the school, Lucia entered two watercolors entitled Morning Belvedere and simply Belvedere. Arthur submitted an oil painting he called A Bit of Belvedere.

At the school’s 1894 spring exhibition, Arthur submitted an oil painting titled In the Poppyfield. It portrayed a beautiful young woman resembling Lucia standing sideways in the foreground, with a golden field of poppies surrounding her.

That summer they were married.

Following the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, the two began Philopolis Press and the Furniture Shop. The flame flower, as some called it, emerged on the pages of the publications issued by the press and served as a recurring motif for many of the decorative objects produced by the shop.

No writing by Lucia Mathews remains that offers any clues about why she used the poppy so often in her work. What does exist is the legacy of the work she left behind: a box covered in a blaze of stylized vibrant poppies, some of her delicate frames, smaller wooden objects she made for friends, exhibition announcements and the printing plates used at Philopolis Press — all decorated with the golden flower.

Stephanie McCoy is the author of Brilliance in the Shadows, a biography of Lucia Kleinhans Mathews.

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