The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1984, Volume 30, Number 4
Thomas L. Scarf, Managing Editor

By Bruce Kamerling
Curator of Collections, San Diego Historical Society

Images from the article

Although a number of artists are known to have worked in the San Diego area during the nineteenth century, none apparently settled here until the 1880s. Most of the earlier artists were attached to the various government, military, and railroad expeditions that passed through California after statehood was achieved in 1850.1 Others were itinerate artists who traveled from town to town seeking commissions. One of these, the Italian portrait painter Leonardo Barbieri, came to California in 1849 and worked his way from San Francisco to San Diego before moving on to Mexico in 1854.2 Famous Indian artist George Catlin also passed through San Diego in the early 1850s, but whether he produced any work locally is not known.3

It was not until 1881 that San Diego had a professional artist to call its own. Miss Emma M. Chapin arrived in San Diego County late in the year from western New York State where she had been born on April 6, 1837. At first she lived in Poway with her brother Orlando S. Chapin, a prominent orchardist and nurseryman. By September of 1882, she was in San Diego and announced her intention to teach painting in oil and watercolor, and drawing in ink and crayon. In December of the following year, her pupils were displaying their work at the photo gallery of Parker and Son, indicating that she did achieve success in obtaining interested students. She continued teaching at least through the early 1890s.

Although a number of pieces have been recorded from her hand, to date none of Miss Chapin’s work has been located making it difficult to evaluate her abilities as an artist. In 1882, she produced for the school board a portait of Joseph Russ, the lumberman who had donated the materials for the construction of the new school (which was named in his honor). She also executed crayon portraits of the prominent local lawman James Russell and his wife Ida May who ran a millinery shop. Later, she did a third portrait of their daughter Charlotte “Lotta” Russell. Besides portrait work, Miss Chapin is recorded as having painted Thomas Walker’s country residence at Santa Maria.

At least some of Miss Chapin’s portraits were produced using life-size photographs in a process common during this period. The photographic image was printed in pale tones and then covered with oil, watercolor, ink, charcoal or crayon by the artist. Large numbers of portraits of this type exist indicating that it was a popular and perfectly acceptable form of portraiture. Most of these were done by anonymous artists, often the photographer, but many existing examples are signed. Certainly this was a foolproof way of obtaining a good likeness.

Emma Chapin remained active in San Diego through the first decade of the new century. She continued to list herself as an artist in the City Directories until 1906, and her name shows up on the membership list of the San Diego Art Association in 1909. On December 4, 1911, she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was survived by a brother, Adams Chapin of Chula Vista, and was buried in the cemetery at Poway.

The second artist known to have taken up residence in San Diego had not really intended to stay. William Thurston Black arrived in the summer of 1885 expecting only to make a brief visit. Details of Black’s early life are sketchy. Born in New Jersey in the 1810s, he is known to have exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1845, 1850 and 1851, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1850.4 It seems likely that he studied at one or both of these institutions, and he did have a Philadelphia address in 1850. By 1866, he was conducting a thriving business doing portraits of prominent citizens of Detroit, and quite a number are mentioned in various accounts. He was active in Detroit until about 1884, and then apparently headed west.

After residing briefly in Los Angeles, Black made his way to San Diego. By July of 1885 he had set up a studio in the Backesto Block and announced his ability to paint portraits from life or from “photographs of deceased persons.” One of his first sitters must have been Alonzo Horton, for Black’s portrait of him was exhibited that year at the County Fair. Mentioned as being “beyond criticism, both as regards to likeness to the original and artistic workmanship,”5 this painting is now in the collection of the San Diego History Center. Recently cleaned and restored, the portrait is ample evidence that Black was a skilled portrait painter.

The Horton portrait is Black’s only local work so far located even though others are recorded. Sources mention portraits of Bryant Howard, Katie Sprecher, and an army officer. He may have worked in other Southern California locales as a notice in 1887 mentions his return from Riverside. Black’s name was printed in bold type in the 1892-93 City Directory indicating that his profession was successful, but unfortunately this did not last long. On August 7, 1893, he died at the home of his friend T.P. Noble on Twelfth Street.

In 1899, the directors of the Chamber of Commerce purchased the Horton portrait from the artist’s widow, Elizabeth. It hung in their director’s office until 1949 when it was presented to the San Diego History Center. Elizabeth Black remained in San Diego until her death in 1904. She was buried next to her husband in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Although San Diego did not have any commercial art galleries when Chapin and Black first came to town, other opportunities were available for artists to show their work. Most of these activities centered around the two blocks of Fifth Street between E and G, the very heart of the city at that time. Large shop windows were ideal for maximum exposure to the art loving public as well as the casual passerby. Among the places where Chapin and Black exhibited were Rockfellow’s shoe store, Daggett’s drug store and the photo gallery of Parker and Son. Works of art were also displayed at bookstores such as those of A. Schneider and J.C. Packard, both of which sold artists’ supplies as well.

At the height of San Diego’s boom in 1887-88, the city had become cultured enough to boast two dealers in art works, the Art Palace at 928 Sixth Street, and the establishment of Louis Dampf at 962 Third. In addition, the City Directory listed eight artists, six dealers in artists’ materials, and three art teachers. A dozen artists were listed in 1889-90, but Black alone was listed in 1892, and none at all between 1893 and 1901. The boom had gone bust and taken most of San Diego’s art community with it. One newcomer, however, decided to stick it out.

Ammi Merchant Farnham was born in Silver Creek, Chautauqua County, New York on January 13, 1845.6 He was the fifth of six children of Horatio N. Farnham, a businessman, and Phebe Merchant Farnham. Horatio Farnham was at one time Agent for the Cattaraugus Indians, and the town of Farnham between Buffalo and Silver Creek was founded and named after him. Young Ammi’s inclination toward art became evident at an early age and was encouraged. It is likely that his early training was at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, for after study in Europe, he returned to that school.

Munich was becoming an important European art center in the 1870s, and it was here that Farnham went to advance his studies.7 He enrolled at the Royal Academy of Bavaria where his instructors probably included Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Karl von Piloty, two distinguished painters of the German academic school. Among his classmates were William Merritt Chase, Charles Rheinhart, Frederick Freer, Walter Shirlaw and Martin B. Leisser. He also studied under Frank Duveneck who later opened his own school in Munich. Farnham’s copy of a “Nymph and Satyr” attributed to Rubens had the distinction of being hung near the original at the Royal Bavarian Academy. Besides Germany, his European studies took him to art centers in Italy and France.

About 1877, Farnham returned to America settling in Buffalo, New York. It was upon his return that he first heard the voice of a young singer named Carrie Coombs. Caroline Jane Coombs was born in England on July 16, 1845. She had only just returned from study in Italy herself when she met Farnham. The two fell in love and were soon married. Their first child, Herbert, was born in 1878. Two more sons, Horatio and John, were to follow.

Between 1878 and 1881, Farnham was an instructor in painting and drawing at the Buffalo Female Academy. He was also associated with the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, becoming an officer in 1880 and twice elected curator, once in 1887 and again in 1894. Around 1881, he moved to New Windsor, New York, and it was here that he painted one of his best known works, “Daisy Girl,” which hangs in the Buffalo Club.

Farnham moved to San Diego sometime around 1888 or 1889, at the tail end of the city’s boom. Originally he may have been lured by economic potential or reports of the fine climate, but his main reason for choosing the city was aesthetic. San Diego “. . . pleased him from an artistic standpoint and he held steadfastly to this belief until the end.”8 He built a home for his family at 3240 Fifth Street where they remained until 1910.

Although Farnham now considered San Diego his home, he often traveled to Europe and maintained his ties with art circles in Buffalo. A number of the paintings mentioned in notices of his exhibitions were done in Europe, particularly England, his wife’s homeland. One source records that “When painting in the European countries, it always was Mr. Farnham’s custom to make his home with the most humble rural families to get an intimate contact with nature and life in the rough.”9 He continued to exhibit in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery until 1914, and showed both European and California scenes. He also exhibited in New York City, Boston, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco.

By the dawn of the new century, San Diego was developing a small but active art community. Resident artists such as Charles Fries, Alice Klauber, and the young Arthur Putnam helped bring this about. In 1904, a group of artists and other interested citizens organized the San Diego Art Association. Farnham’s name is noticeably absent from the list of members who signed the incorporation papers, but this was probably due to one of his painting trips abroad. The first exhibition of the Art Association was held on the second floor of the old Carnegie Library downtown in July of 1905. Two of Farnham’s paintings were among those shown. He continued to exhibit with the group, and often his pictures received special notice.

As their children grew up and moved out on their own, the Farnhams decided to change their residence. Herbert had become a dentist in San Diego. Horatio, who had worked for the local Ernsting and Jessop jewelry companies moved to Los Angeles, and John moved to Long Beach. In 1910, Carrie and Ammi moved into a house around the block at 3229 Fourth St. where they remained for the rest of their lives.

1910 was the beginning of an exciting period for San Diego. Plans for the Panama-California Exposition held great opportunities for artists and many were attracted to the city. The Exposition had special significance for Farnham who exhibited three pictures and was awarded a silver medal.10 Sadly, Carrie was not there to share in her husband’s triumph. She had died on December 31, 1914, the morning before the fair opened. During the 1915 Exposition, the San Diego Art Guild was formed and Farnham was hailed as its first “dean.” When the Exposition was continued for another year, he exhibited “Huisen Fisher Girl (Holland),” one of his award winning pictures of the previous year.

Farnham remained active in local art circles and continued to paint until April of 1921. At that time, he began to suffer from heart trouble which became fatal on July 20, 1922. A notice of his funeral stated that “The services were conducted by Rev. H.B. Bard, who . . . referred on several occasions to the kindly spirit which actuated all his deeds and the unassuming, modest manner which so endeared him to his many friends.”11 At his service, a solo was played on a violin made by his son, Herbert, to fulfill a final wish. His cremated remains were placed next to those of his wife in the Chapel of the Chimes at Greenwood Cemetery.

On November 6, 1922, a memorial exhibit of Farnham’s work opened at the Orr Art Galleries on Sixth Street. The exhibit included approximately eighty canvases in oil, a large selection of watercolors and about fifty etchings. This was the largest one-man show that had ever been seen in San Diego. The subjects ranged from landscapes and figure studies to portraits. His nearly life-size etching after the painting “Daisy Girl” was considered to be one of the largest etchings ever made.

Enough of Farnham’s work survives to see that he was a skilled, though somewhat conservative and sentimental, artist. Most of his landscapes have a pastoral charm and demonstrate what one early critic referred to as “. . . his characteristic tender coloring—delicate atmosphere, grey suffused with color.”12 Often he painted or etched the same scene from various angles as several views are known of a number of his subjects. He also seems to have preferred painting late in the day rather than in bright sunlight, and was said to be “. . . most happy in painting the soft atmospheric tones, and sweet luminous twilights, and the delicate greens and primrose tints of the mystic hour twixt day and darkness.”13 The rising moon often appears in his skies.

Farnham’s figure paintings exhibit the same qualities. Several versions of a young woman walking through a field of flowers at dusk are known, the most typical of which is the “Daisy Girl” in Buffalo. These appear overly sentimental today, and to appreciate them it is necessary to place them in the proper perspective of popular late nineteenth century taste. In portraiture, however, Farnham exhibited a great deal of strength and insight, and these may be considered his best work.

Farnham’s portrait of his mother, painted soon after his return from Europe, was donated to the new San Diego Fine Arts Gallery by his three sons when it opened in 1926. In Farnham’s honor, his former classmate Martin B. Leisser donated funds in 1929 for an award at the Southern California Art Show held in the Fine Arts Gallery. The Leisser-Farnham $100 prize was given each year to the best painting by popular vote, thus inspiring a new generation of artists in San Diego.



1. For more information on the many artists who passed through San Diego in the mid-nineteenth century, see Rebecca Lytle, “People and Places: Images of Nineteenth Century San Diego in Lithographs and Paintings,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXIV (Spring, 1978), pp. 153-171, and also her unpublished thesis on the same subject.

2. Barbieri executed a portrait of Rosario Estudillo Aguirre at the Estudillo home in San Diego. See the catalogue for the “Exhibition of Historic Art” California Centennial Celebration, San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, 1950.

3. Nancy Dustin Wall Moure Art and Artists in Southern California, Privately printed, 1975, pg. 286.

4. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Record of Exhibition Catalogues records Black’s birthdate as 1810. In Arthur H. Gibson’s Artists of Early Michigan (1975) his Birthdate was listed as ca. 1810. His obituary in the San Diego Sun dated August 8, 1893, lists his age as seventy-seven which would make his birthdate either 1816 or 1817.

5. San Diego Union, November 25, 1885.

6. Occasionally the spelling “Marchant” is found.

7. Early sources claim that Farnham went to study in Europe when he was eighteen (ca. 1863) and returned when he was twenty-six (ca. 1871). These dates seem incorrect since the men he was associated with in Munich were all there after that time: Chase from 1872 to 1877, Shirlaw from 1870 to 1877, and Duveneck from 1870 to 1879.

8. San Diego Union, July 21, 1922.

9. Ibid.

10. Farnham exhibited the following paintings at the Panama California Exposition in 1915: Men’s smoking room: #68 Huisen Fisher Girl (Holland), Model Bungalow: #89 Evening on the Coast, #90 Evening.

11. Unidentified clipping supplied by Ruth Farnham.

12. San Diego Union, December 30, 1906.

13. San Diego Union, November 5, 1922.

The author would like to thank the following individuals for their help in preparing this article: Ammi Farnham’s grand-nieces, Ruth Farnham of Spokane, WA, and Mary Ryan of Ithaca, NY; Ann M. Fahnstock, Curator of the Historical Museum of the Darwin R. Barker Library, Fredonia, NY; and Mary F. Bell, Assistant Librarian, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. The author would also like to thank Rebecca Lytle for sharing some of the research for her thesis. 

THE PHOTOGRAPHS on pages 243, 244 and 245 are from the San Diego Historical Society’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection. The painting “Daisy Girl” on page 248 is courtesy of Ann M. Fahnstock, photo by John Slaughter. The view of Santa Barbara mission is courtesy of Mary Ryan. The portrait of Farnham on page 249 is from a private collection in Carlsbad, California.