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California Painters

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2 3 

“And what is your religion?” I asked him. “I think it is California”, he replied (from an interview with Gottardo Piazzoni conducted by Max Stern)

California has long been a land that has inspired the imagination, from the time of the first Native Americans, through the tumultuous years of settlement, to the present. The story of art in California has many fascinating chapters: the Age of Exploration, the Spanish and Mexican periods, The Gold Rush, the Missions, the Railroad, the ‘Golden Age’ of Landscape Painting, the influence of European art, the evolution of two distinct centers of art in Southern and Northern California, the Great Depression, World War II and postwar to Modernism and beyond. Despite the state’s ‘late start’ on the national artistic scene, California painters have always been among the top ranks of American artists, and in the 1960s it might be argued they even took the lead for the country.

Spanish and Mexican Periods

During the years of Spanish control (1769-1822) twenty-one missions were established in California, along with presidios and towns for settlers.  The priests were not only good businessmen, they were also educated and often artistically sensitive. During the period of Spanish domination, art was primarily made for, or at, the various missions, and was most often the painted decoration of the interior of the churches. It was during this period that artists such as Jose Cardero (1768-1791) and Louis Choris (1795-1828) who accompanied expeditions, recorded views of the land, the presidios, and the population. Mexican revolutionaries broke Spain’s hold on California, and it became an empire in 1821. Rancho owners became the land’s aristocracy, but their tastes ran more to decorative arts, and pictorial art was kept alive mainly by artists coming from outside California with scientific expeditions, or by gentlemen travelers. Continuing interest in ‘mission art’ is reflected, however, in the work of late 19th-century resident painters including Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894), Christian Jorgensen (1860-1935), William Lees Judson (1842-1928), Manuel Valencia (1856-1935), as well as into the 20th century with Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), see ‘nocturnes’, Florence Upson Young (1872-1974), Ellen Farr (1840-1907), and Minnie Tingle (1874-1926).

When war was declared between the United States and Mexico in 1846, some of the military engagements were recorded.  Accompanying one U.S. battalion were artists John Mix Stanley (1814-1872) and William Hemsley Emory (1811-1887) who created pictures of people and places of that period. In 1847 California came under U.S. jurisdiction, and the first noted artist to arrive after the land had come under United States protection was Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885). Since most artists arrived by ship, their views are often confined to areas not far from the coast. For example, French engineer Jean-Jacques Vioget (1799-1855) painted early landscapes of the Klamath River and Mount Shasta; Alfred Thomas Agate (1812-1846) painted the upper Sacramento River; William Henry Meyers (1815-?) made drawings of San Diego and San Pedro; and  James Madison Alden (1834-1922) traveled up and down the West Coast for almost a decade recording scenes from the Coast Survey ship on which he served.

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted artists from the East Coast, some to prospect, others to create illustrations for magazines and books. Money was also earned by making panoramas, which were scenes painted on long rolls of canvas that could be viewed like today’s motion pictures. One of the most notable in this medium was Henry Miller (active 1856-1857). The most important result from such profit-from-art ideas was the development of a professional resident art community in San Francisco. Immigrant artists began to turn out oils and watercolors in a full range of subjects, displaying styles from the cities from which they had come. Particularly well-known artists of the Gold Rush era are German born Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), Alburtus Del Orient Browere (1814-1887), who made extended trips from his native New York, and Ernest Narjot (1826-1898) who came from France in search of gold in 1849. Narjot settled in San Francisco to paint, becoming one of the most accomplished artists in the city. An outstanding portraitist was William Smith Jewett (1812-1873), as was Nahl.

Statehood and the Railroads

In 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. By 1860, San Francisco was entering a 20-year economic boom with a developing upper class that patronized art. Portraits of prominent citizens were important in pictures commemorating historic occasions, such as the painting by Thomas Hill (1829-1908) commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with Leland Stanford at its center. Aside from his portraiture, Hill is best known for his views of Yosemite Valley.

Several highly talented artists moved to the city and organizations such as the California Art Union, the Bohemian Club, the Graphic Club, and The San Francisco Art Association, formed to encourage the fine arts. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, artists could move more easily between the two coasts, and California’s magnificent landscapes were a great attraction for painters. The year 1874 marked the establishment of California’s first art school, The School of Design, in San Francisco.

In the later 19th century, the city also attracted a number of ‘bohemians’, a term applied to persons who flouted bourgeois norms and enjoyed vagabond lifestyles. Bohemian artists found inspiration in San Francisco subjects, as well as the California wilderness. In 1873, two Frenchmen, Paul Frenzeny (1840-1902), who had been with the French cavalry in Mexico, and Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), who had fought in the Franco-Prussian war, were hired by Harper Brothers to sketch the American frontier for the magazine. Together they traveled on horseback from Denver to San Francisco, where both became active in the art community and became members of the Bohemian Club. The Bohemian Club, a men’s club founded in 1872, was originally a fellowship of journalists and other writers, but later expanded to include artists, musicians, and others interested in the fine arts. Tavernier and Jules Francois Pages (1833-1910) were founders of the Palette Club, a dissident group that in early 1884 rebelled against the dictates of the San Francisco Art Association. Pages’ studio was often a meeting place for San Francisco painters such as Julian Rix (1850-1903), Charles Dormon Robinson (1847-1933), Joseph Strong (1852-1899), and Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816-1892), as well as his good friend, Tavernier. Later, Tavernier founded the first art colony in the Monterey area, where he was joined by Frenzeny as well as Rix, Strong, Peters, and others.

The most nationally recognized landscapist to come to California at that time was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) who was born in Germany, but was raised in Massachusetts. Bierstadt is especially noted for his paintings of Yosemite, as is English-born Thomas Hill. William Keith (1838-1911) painted Yosemite too, and while there met poet-naturalist John Muir, beginning a relationship that shaped his art. The subjects of painters such as Bierstadt, Hill, and Keith were often sublime panoramic views of the California wilderness, revealing the grandeur and drama of nature, in a style some term Romantic Realism. Other active landscapists of the period were Frederick Ferdinand Schafer (1839-1927), William Hahn (1829-1887), and Hermann Herzog (1832-1932), who rose to prominence in the 1870s.

With time, California artists moved away from grand panoramas and dramatic wilderness, and more towards pictures of lowland activities or intimate genre scenes. Albertus D.O. Browere (1814-1887) depicted fishermen. George Albert Frost (1843-1907) painted the mansion of W.C. Ralston. Marine paintings were created by Charles Nahl (1818-1878), Raymond Dabb Yelland (1848-1900), William A. Coulter (1849-1936), Joseph Lee (1827-1880), and Charles Dormon Robinson (1847-1933), thus reflecting the importance of the Pacific Ocean in the growth of the state. Some, such as Nahl, Browere, and Norton Bush (1834-1894) painted pictures of the tropics, having traveled the Isthmus of Panama en route to California. The fashion for the tropics sold well, both to romantics stimulated by their exotic themes, and to patrons as momentos of their own trips.

European Influences

During the 1870s and 1880s many of San Francisco’s artists went to Europe for advanced study at the popular centers of Dusseldorf and Munich. This European exposure changed their art, and those decades were the ‘glory days’ for the production of subjects such as history, still life, and genre, that were promoted in those German art centers. Some of the artists reflecting these influences include historical painters Toby Rosenthal (1848-1917) and Domenico Tojetti (1806-1892), still life painter Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816-1892), and Theodore Wores (1859-1939), who studied in Munich and once back in San Francisco often painted Chinatown subjects. California genre painters generally presented a carefree and bucolic way of life, with scenes of the industrial world and poverty rarely depicted.

Although Paris was a magnet for art students with means, few could pass the rigorous entrance exams at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which included fluency in French language. The most popular alternative was the Academie Julian, an open-enrollment school, which attracted large numbers of foreigners from many nations, including Americans from California such as Guy Rose and Charles Rollo Peters. Other Californians who studied in Paris were Thomas Hill and Ferdinand Kaufmann. Due to restrictions regarding models, female students had their own studios at Julian's. Among the California women artists who studied there were Matilda Lotz (1858-1923) who painted landscapes and portraits including Chinatown scenes; Elizabeth Strong (1855-1941) a painter of landscapes as well as animals; Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) who painted townscapes, including Monterey; muralist and landscape painter Florence Lundborg (1871-1949); and portrait and genre painter Anna Klumpke (1856-1942).

Still-life painter Emil Carlsen (1853-1932) studied in France as well as Munich, and as a teacher at the San Francisco School of Design had strong impact. Edwin Deakin (1838-1923) created landscapes of ruins and historic architecture, as well as exceptional floral still-lifes, often of roses, which he cultivated at his Berkeley home. Alice Chittenden (1859-1944) was one of San Francisco’s most talented still-life painters at the end of the century.  Interestingly, it was Chittenden, along with Maren Froelich (1868-1921), who in 1898 first broke the all-male monopoly at the Bohemian Club’s annual art exhibition. At the other end of the state, Frenchman and floral painter Paul De Longpre (1855-1911) lived in Los Angeles at the turn of the century on what is now Hollywood Boulevard, in a Moorish mansion where he flew both the French and American flags. There he planted thousands of roses and other flowers and is renowned for his mastery in painting them.

Centers of Art and New Styles

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, California art evolved through continuous innovation. San Francisco society struggled to define itself, and different styles of life coexisted in Northern California, varying between Victorian conservatism, to back-to-nature groups, as well as a lively bohemian community. The ‘California Decorative Style’ developed in the Bay Area at this time, as seen in lyrical tonalist compositions by Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) and Francis McComas (1875-1938). Tonalism, unlike the Impressionist free use of color, conveyed quiet mood and atmospheric effects, as is seen also in the work of Xavier Martinez (1869-1943), Thomas McGlynn (1878-1966), Henry Percy Gray (1869-1952), Granville Redmond (1871-1935), Giuseppe Cadenasso, (1858-1918), and Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945). Prior to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, many important artists of the next generation were students of Mathews at at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, including Martinez, McComas, Piazzoni, Armin Hansen (1886-1957), Clarence Hinkle (1880-1960), Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), and Maynard Dixon (1875-1946).

Three expositions, which also featured European works, were the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 in San Francisco (a portion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago), the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 held in San Francisco, and then in San Diego in 1915-1916. These events exposed the public to examples of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism. Bruce Nelson (1888-1952) was the silver medalist at the 1915 PPIE.

Beyond San Francisco, art centers emerged along the coast in places such as Carmel-Monterey, Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and San Diego.

Influenced by Impressionism, plein-air painting (painting outdoors) became the dominant style in the first decades of the 20th century, as represented in canvases by Maurice Braun, (1877-1941), Granville Redmond (1871-1935), William Wendt (1865-1946), and Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972). Guy Rose (1867-1925) is generally considered to be the state’s most accomplished Impressionist. In the work of these artists a new style emerged, a ‘California style’ of Impressionism with innovations that set it apart from that in Paris or New York. Some of this uniqueness may be attributed to ‘California light’ and the way it impacted artists. It may also be due to that fact that many California Impressionist painters, while working on the west coast, also studied at academies in other areas of the United States and abroad; they saw exhibitions, traveled, knew vast and open spaces and brought this experience to California art. Many of them were also teachers.

Some of the California women artists who advocated this shift in taste from the somber tones of the barbizon or decorative styles towards the brighter more vigorous themes of Impressionism were Donna Schuster (1883-1953), Henrietta Shore (1880-1963), and Euphemia Charlton Fortune (1885-1969), all of whom exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco.

Early California women Impressionists were Lucy Bacon (1857-1932), Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) and Mary Brady (1867-1940), the latter two both part of the colony at Giverny. Although she is less known than some other artists, Bacon’s story is an intriguing. She had attended art school at the Art Students' League and the National Academy of Design in New York before leaving for France in 1892. Apparently possessed of no small degree of determination and direction, she contacted Mary Cassatt for advice, and
wound up studying with Camille Pissaro, making her perhaps the only artist associated with California Impressionism to have studied with a French Impressionist. Bacon received a good deal of support in her adventures from her brother, Albert Vickery, a merchant in San Jose, California. Bacon was related by marriage to Robert K. Vickery of Vickery, Atkins and Torrey, an important gallery in San Francisco in the 1890s.


At the turn of the century, night scenes, or nocturnes, were popular with romantic-minded Victorians who were entranced by the mystery created when pale light, like that from the moon, obscured details. Among those who painted California nocturnes are: Sydney Laurence (1865-1940), Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), Will Sparks (1862-1937), Charles Walter Stetson (1858-1911), Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), and Granville Redmond (1871-1935).  Although he is best known for his paintings of Alaska, Sydney Laurence was Los Angeles based. He emphasized the enigma of California mission ruins in his nocturne work ‘Evening Star, Mission Capistrano’, where he dissolves the arcade of the mission in a fog, and adds a spiritual element via a single shining star, a feature frequently seen in his work. Pasadena painter Charles W. Stetson was taken with that region’s beautiful moonlight, as in his work ‘An Easter Offering’, where moonlight bathes one of the commercial fields of white calla lilies that once grew in the area. Frank Tenney Johnson, who settled in Alhambra, California, around 1930, specialized not in the inky versions of nocturnes produced by Tonalists such as Peters, but rather in blue-toned views of cowboys and cattle under a full moon. His subjects were quiet, such as pack trains wending their ways, night herders regarding their bedded-down cattle, or lone cowboys in philosophical contemplation.

Granville Redmond, who lived both in Northern and Southern California, painted not only his famous fields of poppies, but also enchanting coastal nocturnes. Tonalist painter Charles Rollo Peters, who was of the same generation and palette as Arthur Mathews, studied in Paris, where James Whistler had a studio. It is said that Whistler stated Peters was “the only artist other than himself who could paint nocturnes”. (California Painting, 450 Years, by Nancy Moure). After extensive touring throughout Europe, Peters returned to California, where he eventually settled on a large estate in Monterey. There the artist specialized in moonlit nocturnes featuring romantic depictions of Monterey's old Spanish missions and adobes painted in a deep tonal palette, often with his trademark of soft light showing through a window. These works earned for Peters the nicknames “The Poet of the Night” and “The Prince of Darkness”. Will Sparks also painted many pictures of crumbling humble adobes set in a moonlit landscape, which has caused his name to be linked with that of Charles Rollo Peters. Sparks' paintings reveal his particular fascination with twilight scenes that combine the effects of both natural and artificial sources of light.

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