The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1978, Volume 24, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Graduate student in Art History at San Diego State University

Images from the article

IN THE collections of the San Diego History Center is a small but significant group of lithographs and paintings dating from the second half of the nineteenth century. They constitute an important visual record that complements the Society’s extensive collection of historic photographs and can assist the local historian in tracing developments during this period of rapid expansion in San Diego. Indeed, works of art are of particular value in that they tend to reflect the major concerns of an age, both in choice (or omission) of certain subjects or themes, and the manner in which such themes are depicted.1

Following the discovery of gold near Sacramento and the admission of California as the 31st state in the Union, eastern artists were attracted, along with the many thousands of others, by the lure of the West. The opening of the West exercised a fascination over the American imagination that continues to the present day. In the introductory essay to The Arts in America: The Nineteenth Century, Wendell Garrett states that “nature and the individual—the wilderness image and the rise of the common man, the two great themes of the nineteenth century—turned painting in this period to landscapes and portraits.” 2

Translated into local terms, we find that some of the earliest artistic efforts in San Diego consist of lithographic views of points of interest, usually executed by illustrators who accompanied government armies during the Mexican-American War or the government-sponsored surveying expeditions.3 Examples of such work include a lithograph of Old Town in 1846 from Emory’s Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth in Missouri to San Diego in California4and the “Cave Couts” drawing of “Mission San Diego,” done while he was on military duty here in 1849-1850.5 As the San Diego Mission suffered earthquake damage in 1812 and was secularized in 1834, this drawing and other early views of the California missions constitute an important pictorial record of the mission period in California history.6

During the period from 1850 to 1880, many artists were employed by eastern lithographic firms to produce bird’s-eye views of the new western towns. This lucrative field was soon entered by companies centered in San Francisco, of which Britton & Rey and A. L. Bancroft & Co. were the largest.7 A recent exhibition held at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas presented a wide selection of these nineteenth century lithographic images of the urban West. Included from the Library and Manuscripts Collection of the San Diego History Center was a “Bird’s-Eye View of Coronado Beach, San Diego Bay, and the City of San Diego, California in the Distance,” by E. S. Moore.8

A. E. Mathews was another eastern artist who spent the winter of 1872-1873 “in San Diego making sketches of the city and the harbor.”9 Mathews was born in England in 1831, but travelled to the United States with his family at an early age, was raised in Ohio, and served in the Civil War. After the war, he settled in Denver, and produced a number of western views, including a series of Pencil Sketches of Colorado, published in 1866, and Pencil Sketches of Montana in 1868.10 In an evaluation of Mathews’ output, John W. Reps of the Amon Carter Museum states that he “drew in a rather mechanical style, and his prints are not very rewarding if looked at as works of art. They are, however, of considerable historic importance, recording as they do scenes from the first decade of the settlement of Nebraska and the opening up of Colorado and Montana.”11

Mathews’ California views are considered rare,12 and so it is of particular interest that the San Diego Historical Society Library and Manuscripts Collection includes a copy of the lithograph entitled “San Diego, California. Terminus of the Texas Pacific Railway. From the Peninsula Looking East Across the Bay. 1873,”13 published by the A. L. Bancroft & Co. In the lower margin is also included the following information:

The Bay which is in the form of a cresent, is 18 miles long, and from one to two miles wide. Depth of water 22 feet at low tide in the shallowest place, ranging to 70 feet. Distance to the nearest mountain twenty miles. To the mountains on the left 45 miles. Population in 1873, 3,000. Culerwell’s Wharf is seen in the centre of the picture: length, 1,300 feet. The Pacific Mail S.S. Co.’s Wharf is represented on the right: length, 1,700 feet.

From an announcement made in April of 1873, we know that Mathews presented the local newspaper with a set of lithographed views of San Diego, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara that were not well received. His perspective was termed “exceedingly defective,” in that the mountain ranges appear too close to the city, “crowding San Diego into the bay.”14 Another interesting criticism was his choice of “an unfortunate point of observation” which “presents to the view the least populous portion—New Town.”15 Perhaps the additional information in the lower margin was an attempt to rectify these defects that would certainly hinder the sale of the prints to the local townspeople, and render his venture a financial disaster.

These critical comments also indicate the extent to which accurate representation was considered more important than artistic composition.16 In a sense, illustrators like Mathews functioned more as the “reporters and cameramen”17 than as creative artists. Significantly, Mathews recorded an important moment in San Diego history—the “Tom Scott” boom of 1872— when property values soared and speculation in real estate was widespread, all based on the promise of the Texas Pacific Railroad to make San Diego its Pacific terminus.18

The promises of the railroad never materialized, and San Diego’s first real estate boom burst. However, Mathews’ lithograph captured the heady atmosphere of anticipation and managed to include an amazing amount of minute detail in the overall layout of streets and location of buildings. Without the aid of street labels, one researcher was able to identify such well-known landmarks as the Horton House on D Street (Broadway) between 3rd and 4th Streets, Horton’s Garden Block at 2nd and 3rd Streets, the double residence of Mac Donald and Gail Levy Chase at 11th and D Streets, the Bayview Hotel at 12th and I Streets, and the military barracks at the foot of Market Street. Sailing in the bay are several small boats, a sidewheel steamer, and larger ocean-going schooners, creating the impression of an active commercial port. The neat one and two story structures are carefully placed on a regular grid street pattern so typical of new Western towns, all depicted in Mathews’ precise drawing style that adds to the impression of an orderly, yet bustling town.19

Considering the real estate mania over the promised coming of the Texas Pacific Railroad, it is quite likely that local businessmen would have purchased this view by Mathews as part of a campaign to advertise the city’s potential as a commercial center and as a pleasant place to reside. Reps of the Amon Carter Museum lists the various uses of such lithographs first as wall decorations for home or business offices, hotel lobbies or official buildings, and second, as a logical form of townsite promotion, purchased by local officials or the railroad companies as a means to advertise the city in other parts of the country.20 In addition, Harry Peters, author of California on Stone, states that many of the nineteenth century lithographic views of California show hard usage and damage, because they were sold to be folded and sent back east.21 In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Mathews’ view of San Diego in the San Diego Historical Society’s collection shows two strong vertical creases, having been folded in thirds as one would fold a business letter.

Soon these factual views by the lithographers were supplemented by more artistic renderings of landscapes in watercolor or oils. For example, H. C. Ford, a landscape painter originally from New York and Chicago, settled in Santa Barbara in 1875 and completed a series of Etchings of the Franciscan Missions of California, published in 1883 and exhibited in the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893,22 Although the San Diego Historical Society’s collection does not include an etching of the Mission San Diego by Ford, it does include a signed watercolor of the Mission San Fernando. Apparently, Ford made watercolor sketches that served as the basis for his better known series of etchings, and a group of these paintings has been collected by the Stanford University Museum in Palo Alto.23

Perhaps the most famous of the early western landscape painters was Albert Bierstadt, who first went west in 1859, followed later by Thomas Moran. Joshua Taylor, director of the National Collection of Fine Arts and author of America as Art, characterizes Bierstadt’s “soaring peaks and vast reaches of the Rockies” as symbolizing the expansive aspirations of the American public.24 Thomas Moran, who eventually settled in southern California25 produced minutely detailed canvases exalting the majestic beauty of Yellowstone and the canyons of Colorado. Reproductions of such views were sold widely as wall decorations for those who could not afford original works and frequently appeared gracing the walls of hotel lobbies. In fact, the collection of the San Diego Historical Society includes reproductions of works by both these artists, indicating that their work was available to local people and that local artists would probably have been aware of their well-known style.

In terms of local scenery, however, most early landscape artists seem to have been drawn to two basic views: the picturesque mission and the tranquil bay, often with a view of Point Loma in the distance. The attitude is less dramatic and grandiose than that of Bierstadt or Moran, emphasizing instead a true rendering and the pleasure associated with the recognition of familiar surroundings.

Although the Texas Pacific venture never materialized, San Diego experienced a second period of rapid growth during the 1880’s, again associated with the extension of the California Southern line to San Diego in 1885.26 The population skyrocketed and the boom attracted artists as well as businessmen. It was during the 1880’s that the San Diego Union began to carry notices of local art activities and exhibitions. Artists were listed separately in the San Diego Business Directories, varying from six entries in 1886 to twelve in 1889. One unusual notice from March of 1882 indicates the exciting atmosphere of the age:

Extraordinary inducements, intense excitements, immense crowds, and everything harmonious at the great slaughter of Oil Paintings last night. The house was crowded with ladies and gentlemen of the first families and about one-half of the collection was disposed of at ruinous prices to the artists, as in several instances pictures were sold for less than the cost of the gilt frames.27

Although not a local artist, Frank L. Heath from Santa Cruz is noted as “spending the winter in this city making sketches of the scenery of the country about”28 in January of 1887. Heath was trained at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco and exhibited widely at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1894, the St. Louis World’s Fair, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.29 Currently on display at the San Diego History Center’s Serra Museum is a large canvas by Heath of Mission Valley from a north hill looking southwest towards Presidio Hill and Old Town as it appeared in 1888.30 The point of view chosen is almost identical to a photograph of Mission Valley probably taken in 1887 by C. W. Judd, a local photographer.

By comparing the photograph and the painting, we find some interesting differences between the camera’s all-inclusive eye and the artist’s more selective one. Even though the two are amazingly similar overall, Heath has eliminated several small shacks in the foreground and generally cleaned up the appearance of the remaining buildings. He has emphasized the Serra Palm, clearly visible in Old Town, and has depicted the details on the horizon, like the Point Loma Lighthouse, as they would appear on a clear, sunny day. Two additions include several tiny people walking on a path to the bridge and a train puffing along the tracks of the California Southern that can be seen on the right. Although perhaps not as honest as the camera’s view, Heath has captured a nice feeling for the scene, particularly in the effective contrast of scrubby hilltop brush against the lush green of the valley below and in the tranquil beauty of the bay as it stretches out to the ocean.

Apparently Heath’s landscapes met with local approval, as evidenced by the following notice in the San Diego Union in 1887:

Invitations have been issued by F. L. Heath, the landscape painter,. . .for a private showing of his lately completed painting of Point Loma from Coronado Beach and the Coronado Islands. . . . The former painting is a large work, giving a sunset view of Point Loma from a place a short distance north of the pavilion on Coronado Beach. It abounds in the vigorous and marked colors for which the sunsets of this southern coast are remarkable. It is admirably drawn, and the entire picture is eminently true. . . . Mr. Heath also has some small and neat pictures of La Jolla and other places on the coast. He has a very large collection of Pacific Coast views, principally marine, and the collection is worth many a visit. . . . 31

Heath’s paintings have historic as well as artistic merit, in that they are extremely useful in judging the appearance and character of San Diego and his native Santa Cruz in this period of the 1880’s, not only as they appeared in actuality but also as they appeared in the minds of the inhabitants of the day. In a sense, Heath’s landscapes translated into visual terms the image of San Diego as an attractive commercial center and healthful residential community. These two main themes were first stated by Director McKenny’s introductory statement to the San Diego Business Directory of 1878 and have been often repeated ever since:

San Diego County. Situated 446 miles from San Francisco near the Southern extremity of the state. The beautiful bay on which it is situated is one of the finest harbors in the world, and many predict for it a great future as a commercial center. The locality is distinguished for the salubrity of the climate, making it very desirable as a place of residence. . . .32

In this later period of expansive activity, therefore, landscapes functioned as advertisements for the area in a manner similar to the lithographs so popular in the 1870’s. In fact, one of the earliest paintings executed by Charles A. Fries, known as the dean of San Diego artists, was a view of the bay from Point Loma in 1898. This painting, purchased by the Theosophical Society for $100, was widely used by the Chamber of Commerce in advertising leaflets and later accompanied poet Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s “Toast to San Diego” in a welcoming brochure to the Pacific Fleet in 1919.33

Finally, a group of late nineteenth century portraits of local personalities helps to complete the images of this era in San Diego history. Like the landscapes, these portraits can be compared with contemporaneous photographs also in the collection of the San Diego History Center. Taken together, these visual sources provide an illuminating look at those men and women who left a lasting impression on the future development of San Diego.

The realistic standards of nineteenth century portraiture required first and foremost a convincing likeness; however, as Joshua Taylor points out, “a portrait is a kind of evaluation. It reveals not just the likeness of an individual, but the place the person depicted holds in our consciousness.”34 This is particularly true in the case of Alonzo E. Horton, popularly known as “Father” Horton. Two portraits in oil of Horton are included in the collection of the San Diego History Center. The first is particularly interesting, because it is signed by a local artist, W. Thurston Black.

We can follow Black’s career through listings in the San Diego Business Directories and notices in the San Diego Union. First mention of Black is made in 1885 in the Union:

Portrait Painting; W. Thurston Black of New York City, is now in San Diego for a short time and would be pleased to show a few specimens of his work to those who would favor him with a call; portraits painted in oil from life or from photographs of any kind of type of deceased persons; room no. 25 and 26, Backesto Block.35

Black is listed as a portrait painter in the Business Directories from 1886 through 1894, and seems to have been successful at his work, for in 1892-93, his name is printed in larger, darker type than the others. In addition, he received a favorable notice in the Union for a portrait of Bryant Howard, whose features he “reproduced in a commendable perfection, the expression is very life-like”36 This portrait was framed and placed on display in Dagget & Wilfield’s show window, apparently a common practice to advertise one’s work and elicit new commissions.37

In 1895, Black is no longer listed in the Business Directory, and in 1897, there is included an entry for a Mrs. W. T. Black of the same address at 944 12th Street, leading one to assume that Black was in ill health or passed away sometime during 1895 or 1896. This assumption is further confirmed by the following reference in the Union to the purchase of a portrait of Alonzo E. Horton painted by Black.

A fine portrait of A. E. Horton, the “father of San Diego,” which was painted by the late Thurston Black several years ago, was purchased by the directors of the chamber of commerce from Mrs. Black; the picture, which is a very good likeness, will be appropriately framed and given a prominent place on the wall in the directors’ room.38

This notice reveals several important facts: first, W. Thurston Black painted the portrait of Horton sometime in the early 1890’s and second, that Horton was already considered the “father of San Diego” during his own lifetime, to be accorded a place of honor by prominently displaying his portrait most appropriately in the official enclave of business leadership—the meeting room of the directors of the chamber of commerce. This practice follows the tradition of displaying oil portraits of civic and business leaders in federal and state buildings, beginning in the United States with the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.39 Like Washington, Horton was considered a “founding father,” and Black’s portrait reflects the dignity and sobriety of such an image. Horton is depicted in a dark business suit, carrying a pocket watch on a gold chain; his face has a decidedly determined set to the mouth, a furrowed brow, and a full white beard; he looks out alertly at the spectator. Obviously this is the image of a stern, yet fair man, still vigorous despite his seventy-odd years.

The second portrait of Horton is almost identical to the one by Black, differing only slightly in overall size and placement of the figure on the canvas. For example, the chain of the watch is somewhat longer. The technique, however, is less polished than Black’s highly finished style, in which the individual brushstrokes are barely distinguishable. In the second work, the texture of the canvas appears through the paint in the background, while the paint is more thickly applied in the face area. It is likely, therefore, that this second painting is by another artist, either another portrait of Horton from approximately the same age or even a copy of the portrait by Black. As the work by Black met with such approval, it is possible that copies could have been made, perhaps to hang in the Horton home. This second, unsigned work did hang in the parlor of the Florence Hotel, built by Horton’s brother-in-law, William W. Bowers, in 1884. It appears in a photograph of the parlor probably taken by Joseph C. Parker sometime between the late 1880’s to the mid 1890’s40 It has been identified as the unsigned portrait and not the one by Black on the basis of the frame, for the paintings themselves would appear virtually identical in a photograph. This second portrait was included in the Panama-California Exposition in 1915,41 and the Black portrait in the 1950 Exhibition of Historic Art held in San Diego during the Centennial Celebration.42

The late nineteenth century saw the arrival of several artists of national standing in San Diego, notably Ammi Merchant Farnham, who had studied in Germany, France and Italy and who was curator of the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts before settling in San Diego in 1888.43 Martin Petersen, Curator of Painting at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego, states that “the appearance of this artist, in the late nineteenth century, in Southern California, is significant in that it signalled the beginning of an era of quality work produced by artists who were familiar with international currents in the visual arts through both training and travel. Today contemporary criticism is directed at their academicism. However, academy attendance, plus absorption of European culture through travel, were part of the curriculum vita expected of any serious artist.”44 An example of Farnham’s work, a portrait of his mother, Phoebe Merchant Farnham, is included in the collection at the Fine Arts Gallery.45

By the turn of the century, San Diego could boast of small communities of artists in La Jolla and Coronado. Artists flocked to the Southern California region, often for health reasons or to retire, and frequently turned to landscape painting.46 This was the case with Charles A. Fries, who arrived in San Diego in 1898 and stayed on to produce some of his best work here. The work of Fries, however, and the other artists who gathered in San Diego to form the Contemporary Artists of San Diego in 1926,47 really belongs to a second phase of art development in Southern California.

To summarize, the development of artistic images of San Diego from 1850 to 1900, the early lithographic bird’s-eye views, drawn by travelling eastern artists, provide a wealth of factual detail about the original layout of New Town in the 1870’s. The next decade saw a number of artists settling in the Southern California region, with portraiture and landscape painting being the most accepted means of artistic expression. Both served as appropriate wall decorations for the newly built hotels and more lavish personal residences of successful businessmen, and in the case of the lithographs and landscapes, as advertisements for the attractive features of the area. Examples of these nineteenth century lithographs and paintings, which can be found in the collection of the San Diego History Center, constitute an important visual record that complements the Society’s extensive photographic collection, as well as written materials contained in its research library.


1. Sources that reflect this orientation include Oliver Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York, Rinehardt & Co., Inc., 1949) and Joshua C. Taylor, America as Art (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976).

2. Wendell D. Garrett, “A Century of Aspiration,” The Arts in America: The 19th Century (New York, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1969) p. 20.

3. This is not to ignore the earlier traditions of the Native American and Spanish colonial art that are also important aspects of the artistic heritage in San Diego, but these traditions are beyond the scope of this paper.

4. W. H. Emory, Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth in Missouri to San Diego in California (Washington, D.C., 1848) reproduced by W. W. Robinson, Panorama: A Picture History of Southern California (Los Angeles, Title Insurance and Trust Co., 1953) p. 3.

5. Cave Couts, “Mission San Diego,” drawing reproduced by Robinson, p. 12.

6. Harry T. Peters, California on Stone (New York, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1935) p.12.

7. 1bid., p. 12.

8. John W. Reps, Cities on Stone, Nineteenth Century Lithograph Images of the Urban West (Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum, 1976) p. 113.

9. San Diego Union, Dec. 22,1872, p. 3.

10. Robert Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West (New York, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1953) pp. 72-85 and plates 31-38.

11.Reps, p. 15.

12. Taft, p. 84 and Reps, p. 15, edit. note: “His California views are rare. Impressions of those of San Diego and Los Angeles are in the collection of the Nevada Historical Society, Reno, and that of Santa Barbara can be found in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.”

13. Attempts are being made to determine the authenticity of this print. The paper shows signs of deterioration and age, including two strong vertical fold marks and foxing along the edges and upper half. A conclusive opinion would require examination by an expert in the field.

14. San Diego Union, April 15, 1873, p. 3.

15.1bid., p. 3.

16. Reps, p. 10.

17. Peters, p. 7.

18. James R. Mills, San Diego: Where California Began (San Diego, San Diego Historical Society, 1976) p. 49.

19. Compare to “Bird’s-eye View of San Diego, California,” by E. S. Glover, lithograph published by the A. L. Bancroft & Co. in 1876, reproduced on the cover of The Journal of San Diego History, Summer, 1976, Vol. XXII, No. 3 for similar details including street names.

20. Reps, p. 32.

21.Peters, p. 8.

22. Nancy Moure, Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California Before 1930 (Los Angeles, Dustin Publications, 1975) p. 87.

23. Exhibition of Historic Art, California Centennial Celebration (San Diego, 1950) p. 11, includes reproduction.

24. Joshua C. Taylor, America as Art (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976) p. 124.

25. Moure, p. xiv.

26. Mills, p. 51.

27. San Diego Union, March 4, 1882, p. 3.

28. San Diego Union, January 21, 1887, p. 3.

29. Biographical sketch prepared by Dr. Skinner, included in a personal letter from Jeanne Van Nostrand to David Grull, November 30, 1972.

30. Reproduced on the cover of The Journal of San Diego History, Spring, 1977, Vol. XXIII, No. 2.

31. San Diego Union, January 1, 1887, p. 3.

32. San Diego Business Directory, 1878, introductory statement by Dir. McKenny, p. 1.

33. Ben F. Dixon, “Too Late”: The Picture and the Artist: A Tribute to the Dean (San Diego, private publication by Don Diego’s Libreria, 1969) p. 43, plate 23 includes six bay views by Fries.

34. Joshua C. Taylor, To See Is To Think: Looking at American Art (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Press, 1975) p. 23.

35. San Diego Union, July 22, 1885, p. 2.

36. San Diego Union, August 1, 1885, p. 3.

37. Ibid., p. 3, photograph from the San Diego History Center Archives shows the Heath landscape of Mission Valley on display in a store window in a similar manner.

38. San Diego Union, February 17, 1899, p. 5.

39. Taylor, To See Is To Think: Looking at American Art, p. 20.

40. Photograph of one of the parlors of the Florence Hotel, probably by Joseph Parker, c. 1888, San Diego History Center Archives.

41. Former accessions file, San Diego History Center.

42. Exhibition of Historic Art, California Centennial Celebration, San Diego, 1950, reproduction included.

43. Martin Petersen, “Contemporary Artists of San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History, Fall, 1970, Vol. XVI, No. 4, p. 3.

44. Ibid., p. 3.

45. San Diego Union, May 8,1932, p. 7.

46. Moure, p. xv.

47. Petersen, p. 4.