Julian Walbridge Rix was one of the first California painters to be influenced by the Barbizon style. He too sketched outside and painted his works inside his studio but his strong colors and his muscular use of his palette knife were uniquely his own. His abilities and works were the envy of San Francisco painters. Yet, when the art market collapsed in San Francisco, he moved first to Paterson, New Jersey, and then to New York City where he continued to so improve and grow as a Tonalist painter that he was placed, by the New York Times, in the company of George Inness and Homer Martin, as the future of landscape painting in America.
Born in Peacham, Vermont in 1850, Rix's family moved to San Francisco a year later where his father became a successful lawyer and judge. There is an 1855 daguerreotype in the Oakland Museum that shows the Judge's new house in San Francisco with the family, including Julian and his dog. But when his mother died, he was sent back to Vermont to live with relatives.
Returning, Rix clerked in his father’s office but hated it. He wanted to be an artist but his father disapproved. He did allow him to work for a house and sign painting firm. In addition to his well painted signs, young Rix started to support himself by selling paintings of the California Coast. By 1873, local critics saw great promise in the young artist. After a year long painting trip to New England and New York in 1874, he came back to San Francisco to study briefly at the California School of Design with Virgil Williams and to learn from the criticism of established artist Thomas Hill. Rix was asked to join the prestigious Bohemian Club in 1876. There he learned from fellow artists and Bohemians Jules Tavernier, Joseph D. Strong, Jr. and Raymond D. Yelland. When Tavernier and others joined the poet Charles Stoddard in Monterey, Rix also joined the art colony there. Upon their return to the city in 1879, Rix taught painting and Tavernier and Rix shared a studio for a while. Joe Strong’s wife Isobel wrote fondly of Rix: "A big, fair New Englander, [he] taught us to cook codfish and Boston brown bread." He had long flowing side- whiskers, was a bachelor and was called the “Adonis of the profession.”
Soon thereafter, the market for art declined significantly in California. To increase sales, artists wanted to be included in public exhibits. The San Francisco Art Association had two exhibits a year. Having a painting hung at eye level was the favored position. But not all paintings could be so shown. Rix was held in such high esteem by his peers that the association appointed Rix and the noted San Franciscan still-life painter, Samuel Marsden Brookes, to be the "hanging committee" to choose which works would be exhibited at eye-level.
Financial woes, the end of a two year romance with fellow artist and sketching partner Nellie Hopps (1855 – 1956) and a weariness of the Bohemian life style made Rix consider moving east. Clearly he reached out to family for help but was turned down as shown by his will. In it he left almost everything to people other than his family “in recognition of many acts of kindness extended to me throughout my life when I had not other friends, and when my near relatives and family did not put forth a helping hand to me.”
Help did come from William Ryle (1845 - 1906) of Paterson, N.J., then the silk capital of America. In 1880, this wealthy banker son of Silk Baron John Ryle, visited San Francisco. Ryle’s father was known as the Silk King and his fortune and power were tremendous. William not only held stock in the family silk business, he also ran the Silk City Safe Deposit and Trust Company in Paterson. William collected art and even painted a bit. Ryle immediately liked Rix and his work and invited him back east, offering him room in his country estate in West Caldwell, New Jersey, until Rix found a place of his own. Ryle also probably offered him a trip to Europe as an added inducement. Upon announcing his departure, a local magazine, The Californian, predicted a great future for him in cities with a more cosmopolitan outlook on art than San Francisco. It noted that the Bohemian lifestyle of city artists ruined them and implied Rix needed to leave to succeed. And Ryle was there to help him.
Rix would be Ryle’s close friend and patron until Rix died. Rix worked in NYC and, at first, lived in Paterson, then Passaic and later at 80 West 40th Street in NYC where he had his studio. He had a summer studio on Ryles' country estate (a drawing by Ryle of the house is in Lambert Castle, Paterson) and was the godfather to the Ryles’ daughter, Margaret Rix Ryles.
Once he was back east, Rix dropped the Bohemian lifestyle, gave up drinking and smoking and threw himself into his work. His reputation and career took off. He received critical acclaim in the NYC newspapers. His paintings sold the moment he finished them. He often exhibited at the National Academy of Design. He had a one man show at the Schaus Gallery in 1889 which elicited a rave review from the New York Times. He socialized with the most prominent men in NYC and became a member and later a director, along with Tonalist Henry Ward Ranger, of the Lotos Club that had member art exhibits twice each year. Rix exhibited there with fellow Tonalists Georg Bogert, Bruce Crane, and Ranger. Rix also managed to stay involved in the San Franciscan art scene and he continued sending his works in the San Francisco Art Association's exhibits where they elicited praise from the local press.
Rix also was nationally known for his etchings. One of his most popular etchings was published in the 1888 book, Picturesque California, The Rocky Mountains and The Pacific Slope which was edited and also had passages written by John Muir, first president of the Sierra Club, naturalist, conservationist, writer, and explorer of the Sierra Nevada. Rix's etching was entitled Source of the Sacramento from the chapter, Mt. Shasta.
By 1901, when Rix took what would be his final trip back to San Francisco, his health was waning. There he had had a long visit with painter William Keith and likely visited the Bohemian Club where he remained a member. Rix returned to the east and, after kidney surgery in New York, he died in his 40th St. studio on November 24, 1903. He is buried in the Ryles’ plot in Paterson’s Cedar Lawn Cemetery. Rix’s will instructed the art connoisseur Thomas B. Clarke to examine all of his “paintings and destroy and burn any which, in his judgment is not worthy of the artist’s name.” In 1913, 196 of his paintings were sold from the William Ryle estate at a two day sale that brought in, in 2009 dollars, $703,781. That Ryle had so many of his works clearly demonstrates Ryle’s generosity in advancing his friend Rix’s career.
His New York Times obituary noted Rix’s national status as a landscape painter and his mastery of color. His works are in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, numerous museums in California, at the Passaic County New Jersey Historical Society’s Lambert Castle (including a painted palette), in the Paterson Free Public Library and elsewhere. The M.H. De Young Memorial Museum of San Francisco exhibited a collection of his plein air sketches in 1993. With the increasing interest in both the Monterey art colony and Tonalism, his name and history crops up in books and articles.
Shields, Artists at Continent’s End, UCal Press, 2006; Field, This Life I’ve Loved, Longmans, Green and Co., 1941; Hjalmarson, Artful Players, Artistic Life in Early San Francisco, Balcony Press, 1999; Simpson, notes to Plein Air Sketches by Julian Walbridge Rix, M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1993; Black, An American Landscapist in The Quarterly Illustrator, Harry C. Jones, 1893; The San Francisco Chronicle; The Californian magazine; The New York Times.
Text written and submitted by John McKinney