Success at Mid-Life
January 1, 1985
by Martin Petersen
Curator of Paintings, San Diego Museum of Art
Charles Reiffel proved the exception to the belief that a professional artist must begin training early in life. A San Diego newspaper article once stated: “He was 56 years old when recognition of his painting, invitations for his work at the large contemporary exhibitions, and collectors calling for his work, convinced him that he could then devote all his energies to his painting.”1 He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 6, 1862, at a time when civil strife was dividing the nation. His father was Jacob Reiffel, a native Bavarian who immigrated to the United States in the late 1840s; and his mother, Nancy Ellen Marshall, was a member of an early American family from Virginia. Tall and handsome, Reiffel inherited a certain demeanor, a dignity, that became especially obvious in later years with his shock of longer than usual white hair that concealed an injured ear.2 The spirit and personality of the artist has been captured by fellow painter, Anni Baldaugh, in her portrait of Reiffel finished in 1929, the year he became a member of the San Diego Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees. His distinguished bearing, however, belied a charm and sense of humor that contemporaries often cite. Reiffel’s early school years in Indianapolis and in Kansas City, Missouri, where the family had settled, were spent uneventfully, revealing little evidence of the success he would earn as an easel painter after mid-life.
As a seventeen-year-old, he entered the workaday world, earning a livelihood by clerking in a clothing store. Here, for the next ten years, evidence of future pursuits in art was limited to scrawled ornamental designs of arabesques and scrolls jotted on the backs of envelopes or on the store wrapping paper. The drawn line would eventually lead to the lithographer’s stone. He found employment at Stowbridge Lithography in Cinncinati, Ohio, where he drew other people’s designs on the stones for theatrical posters. Reiffel would practice the medium for the greater part of his life although his lithographs remain lost. Later, while working as a lithographer, he became acquainted with Henry G. Keller, a noted mid-American artist, and, still later, locating in New York — lured to this mecca of most inspiring poets, musicians, and artists during the last half of the nineteenth century — Reiffel met another future San Diego painter, Charles A. Fries, in the printer’s shop.3 The two were to become close friends. It was at this time that he discovered a demand for American lithographers in England. At Nottingham he was hired by the Stafford Company to create poster designs for English businessmen. He discovered his colleagues were also practicing artists in their spare time. Following their example, he began to sketch with some seriousness.
During a nine-month vacation traveling through Europe and North Africa, Reiffel made hundreds of pencil and oil sketches. (The present whereabouts of many are unknown.) He also studied briefly with Milwaukee-born Carl Marr at the Munich Academy, where he received his only formal training. During the 1860s and 1870s Germany attracted many post-bellum American art students. The Munich school avoided the hard colors, the dominant outline and the heroic themes preferred by the Dusseldorf School, also a popular training ground for aspiring novices. Munich artists sometimes sacrificed subject matter for dazzling brushwork and blended colors and stressed a unity of rich color and texture dealing with realistic themes — characteristics the viewer finds in the work of Reiffel.
After nearly six years in Europe, Reiffel returned to Buffalo, New York, where he continued in the lithography business. In 1898 he married Elizabeth Francis Flannagan, of Irish descent. She was late in life to suffer mental disorders of a paranoic schizophrenic nature, to the sadness of friends and family, and preceded him in death. No children were born to this union.
In Buffalo he was encouraged to submit some of his sketches produced abroad to an annual exhibition at the Albright Art Gallery. Six sketches the artist had done in Tangiers and Morocco were purchased by the director, Dr. Charles M. Kurtz, prior to the exhibition opening. The success and sale of his works provided impetus for Reiffel to paint more regularly. Four years later, in 1908, his first large landscape, Moonlight on the Niagara, (present location unknown), won the Buffalo Society of Artists’ Fellowship Prize. His second large work, Railway Yards — Winter Evening, was purchased by the Corcoran Gallery from its biennial exhibition of American painting. This was the beginning of an impressive list of awards and honors bestowed upon the artist throughout his professional career.
Among the many examples beginning in 1917, Reiffel received the Norman Wait Harris Silver Medal at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the Institute’s first “modern” annual. In 1918 and in the mid-1920s Honorable Mentions were conferred upon him by the Society of Artists of Buffalo, and in 1920 by the Connecticut Academy of Arts. From the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, he was awarded an Honorable Mention for Summer Design in 1922. The Daniel Rhodes Hanna, Jr. Prize in 1925, and the Thomas Meeker Butler Prize in 1926 were awarded him by the Hoosier Salon in Chicago. He was to win further awards from this source in 1927 and 1928. The William Preston Harrison Prize, offered by the Los Angeles Museum in 1926, was his for his entry in their exhibition of Southern California Artists. That same year he was the recipient of the Art Guild Prize at the San Diego Museum of Art, (until 1979 known as The Fine Arts Gallery.)
The next year, 1927, Reiffel won the P.F. O’Rourke $500 Purchase Prize in the Second Southern California Exposition at the San Diego Museum for his In San Felipe Valley, and his Summer Design received the Hatfield Gold Medal in Los Angeles.
When his Morning, Nogales, Mexico was illustrated in the catalogue of an exhibition of works by American painters at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Art Gallery, Mrs. Reiffel was quoted as saying “… this is the first compensation she has had for the terror of being thought a smuggler when her husband wandered from the beaten path to get his subject.”4
That was the year the San Diego painter’s Mountain Ranch, After the Rain captured the Mrs. Keith-Spalding Prize at the Los Angeles California Art Club. In the next decade his success as an exhibitor continued when in 1931 he received a Gold Medal for one of his works in the exhibition, Painters of the West, in Los Angeles.
In the subsequent exhibition reviews, critics singled out his works for their uniqueness of color and interpretation, the vitality of nature defined in terms of undulating rhythms of line and energetic brushwork. Examples of his works were displayed in national and international exhibitions beside his now better-known contemporaries George Bellows, Robert Henri, Charles Prendergast, and Eugene Speicher. Leonard Alson Cline, critic for the Detroit News, compared his work favorably to that of the major American Impressionist, John Twachtman. “A painter of hills is Mr. Reiffel. The thing that he delights in, is the interweaving of line with line, the rise and fall of the linear rhythm. It was what Twachtman made a characteristic of his own landscape; the difference between them is a matter of strength. Twachtman is all delicacy, all vague and tenuous and subtle and filmy. Mr. Reiffel is direct, candid, clear. Twachtman was not entirely free of the influence of early Tonalists. Mr. Reiffel is entirely in sympathy with the modern tendency toward pure color and light. He is not radical, but is completely contained in the channel through which the broad stream of modern representative painting flows, and within these limits it is that his best individuality stands out.”5 Similarly, many of the leading writers such as Charles Caffin, Royal Cortissoz, Henry McBride, and Forbes Watson would find in his work something original and vital. Critics called him “one of the greatest living American landscape painters.”6
In 1912 Reiffel had purchased a home, sight unseen, at Silvermine, Connecticut. At first he was annoyed to discover it was an artists’ colony. Yet he was to become a pioneer in the organization of the Silvermine Artists’ Guild and its first president in 1923. After nine years of commuting to New York to his work in lithography, he decided to devote himself to painting exclusively. “At first, revolting against the literal exactness of the lithographic trade, Reiffel automatically became an out-and-out post-expressionist.”7
Reviewers were beginning to see the influence upon his style of Gauguin and Van Gogh. Fortunately, Reiffel was able to make a fair living from his brush.
After seeing some of his works on view in New York, Robert Henri, the most respected artist of his generation, invited Reiffel to exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of San Francisco in 1915. Henri had found something original and “modern” in his works heralding a freshness of vision of the American landscape.
In 1925 Reiffel and his wife were planning a one-year visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Avoiding a storm, they followed a circuitous route that led them to San Diego, California. Here they were to remain until the artist’s death on March 14, 1942. Reiffel was to play an important role in the community’s developing art and cultural scene.
One area writer saw an increased vigor in southern California landscape painting concurrent with Reiffel’s arrival. “Reiffel comes to us, not as another painter of pretty pictures, but as a real artist who has a rare and intelligent appreciation of what a picture should be . . . he does create, and is not merely an imitator of nature.”8
In 1929, the year Reiffel became a member of the San Diego Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees, he joined with eight other painters and sculptors to form the Contemporary Artists of San Diego.9 In addition to Reiffel, members included James Tank Porter, Chairman; Alfred R. Mitchell, Secretary-Treasurer; Leon Bonnet; Maurice Braun; Charles A. Fries; Donal Hord; Everett Gee Jackson; and Elliot Torrey. This was the first serious San Diego professional artists’ group. They exhibited together for six years until the death of Bonnet in 1936. During that first year they opened a downtown salesroom which, for economic reasons, was short-lived. They exhibited annually at the Museum with the exception of 1935, when San Diego hosted an international exposition. Their intention was to gain wider recognition for San Diego artists, but economic depression and internal differences caused the group to break up. However, the group is important because its members were the first area artists to seek trans-regional recognition.
In 1932 Reiffel continued to exhibit in San Diego showcases including the San Diego Museum of Art, Orr’s Gallery, and the Seventh Street Studio of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego. Concurrently, he was exhibiting in Los Angeles, San Francisco (California Legion of Honor), and Santa Cruz.10
Late in 1934 the Chamber of Commerce honored Reiffel by resolution for his achievements accomplished in less than a ten-year period in San Diego.
“Whereas the artists of San Diego were displaying the work of Charles Reiffel on Friday of this week as a tribute to his distinction as a painter and a recognition of his rich contributions to the artistic community, the chamber of commerce (sic) takes this occasion to congratulate him and San Diego.
“Charles Reiffel has won many honors throughout the country on his pictures of this region. He has been conspicuously successful in expressing the native landscapes on canvas. He has made himself one of San Diego’s most valuable citizens, an inspiration to other painters and a kindly advisor to all who sought his aid.
“On behalf of the businessmen of San Diego we offer this resolution as grateful tribute to his accomplishments as an artist and to his helpfulness and courage as a man and citizen.”11
The resolution by the Chamber and a concurrent exhibition of his work at the Art Cellar, the studio of painter Foster Jewell, were offered, in some respects, as a supportive gesture on the part of the community for an in-justice to him and other area artists when the Board of Supervisors refused to adopt a resolution requesting assessor, James H. Johnson, to stop assessing painters for unsold works. This issue had been in contention several months amidst accusations of politicizing and unfair practices. The media sided with the artists. State Senator William E. Harper told a group of painters and authors that the rules of taxation would be changed, and Jewell threatened a national campaign against the action through his brother, Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for the New York Times. Most artists ignored the assessors’ deputies. Reiffel, unfortunately, became a test case when two of his works were seized. Philosophically he told the media, “Let him try to sell ’em! . . . He’ll do better than artists themselves.”12 Reiffel had no intention of redeeming his pictures.
To augment income during these depression years, Reiffel joined the ranks of those artists who held classes. To help raise funds – should sup-port be needed as a result of the assessor’s action – students and friends arranged the exhibition at the Art Cellar. Among the students who had charge of the show were Chairman Mrs. John Forward, Jr., Sarah E. Truax, Leda Klauber, and Rose Schneider. The San Diego Museum added its support by offering a one-man show of Reiffel’s work.
The issue of unfair taxation of unsold works of art was apparently re-solved and was quietly relegated to pages of forgotten history by 1934. New York and Connecticut had abandoned such a tax in 1933. Colorado and cities in California – Long Beach, Santa Barbara, and Ventura – had all won cases against zealous assessors. There is little evidence of succeeding action on the part of the local art scene. Of the more than 230 artists – members of the Artists Guild at the time – only a few had been involved. One writer had pondered the fact that the Guild failed to support those ensnared by the unfair tax situation.13 Charles Reiffel had been the chair-man of the Guild – which traced its origins to 1915 – in 1928 and 1929.
As a Member of the Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees and of the Guild, Elizabeth Sellon had been asked by the Museum Director, Reginald H. Poland, to take up the issue with the Guild, according to the June 18, 1935 minutes of the meeting of the Trustees. There are no later indications of their decisions. Poland had sent a comprehensive statement to the International Association of Art Museum Directors which had unanimously voted disapproval of the San Diego assessor’s actions.
The San Diego Art Guild, much later called the San Diego Artists Guild, was only one of a long list of professional organizations to which Reiffel belonged. Others included The Allied Artists of America, the American Federation of Arts, the Art Club of Washington, D.C., the Chicago Galleries Association, the Cinncinati Art Club, the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, the Indiana Federation of Artists, Internationale des Beaux Arts et des Lettres, the Laguna Beach Art Association, the New Canaan Art Club, the North Shore Art Association of Gloucester, and the Salmagundi Club.
In January 1935 Reiffel, with San Diego painters Maurice Braun and Anni Baldaugh, exhibited in the First Annual Exhibition of the Academy of Western Painters in Los Angeles. They were included in a roster of distinguished American artists comprising the Academy. Among them were President Paul Lauritz, Carl Oscar Borg, Maynard Dixon, Nicolai Fechin, Armin Hansen, Frank Tenney Johnson, and William Wendt.14
Criticism, neglect, and rejection seemed Reiffel’s lot as a muralist during his years in San Diego. By the time Roosevelt’s New Deal Civil Works Administration ceased paying 1500 artists scattered about the U.S. in 1934, Reiffel, who had been on the roster, had completed at least two major murals for public buildings. While the buildings are gone, two of the murals were rescued and are preserved in the collection of the San Diego History Center.
In 1940, in a collaborative venture with artist George E. Rhone, Reiffel was working on three large mural panels to decorate the city council chambers at the Civic Center. The subject was San Diego – Colonial, Past, Present. The Council accepted the murals reluctantly. The artists could only smile tolerantly as Mayor P.J. Benbough attempted to take a diplomatic stance by admonishing members that “spectators don’t come to criticize murals: they come to criticize the mayor and the council . . ,”15 The city manager, the assistant city attorney, and other officials, all had their say – much of it unfavorable. Herbert Fish cast one negative vote. Criticism ranged from stiffness of figures to illogical perspective. Everyone’s an art critic it would seem, even then.
The success Reiffel had enjoyed in the East eluded him during his last fifteen years on the West Coast, even though he continued to win most of the important awards in major California and West Coast shows. It was here, it should be noted, that he produced the largest portion of his life’s work as a serious painter. The modernism and originality cited by writers which made him so noteworthy in Eastern art circles was apparently a drawback in the West. In conversation with many who knew him, his work was “too modern” and many of his colleagues helped support him by purchasing works out of friendship. The director of the Museum of Art, Reginald H. Poland, wanted to express his support of Reiffel and wrote a critique of one of the artist’s Museum exhibitions for the local press. In the article he addressed the artist’s lack of appeal and popularity with the public.16 Despite the paucity of local sales, Reiffel continued earning many significant honors.
Reiffel died in San Diego one month before his eightieth birthday, March 14, 1942. An exhibition intended as a celebration of his birthday became, instead, a memorial tribute. His only heirs were a brother, William E. Reiffel, and a nephew, William R. Reiffel, of Los Angeles.
From the Memorial Exhibition (shared with the Indianapolis Art Museum) after Reiffel’s death, Early Morning, Nogales, Arizona, 1928, was purchased by San Diego friends for the Museum of Art’s American collection. “Artists love it for the quality of the texture and fine organization of the subject as much as the joy of the artist in the early morning when he was returning into California after a motor trip.”17 The picture had earned an impressive list of honors and had been loaned frequently to major U.S. museums. Some considered the work to be his masterpiece. Stylistically it expresses the enthusiasm and spontaneity of the artist’s mature works as well as having a line quality and color harmony characteristic of his unique vision of the Southwestern scene. Generally his work was admired by his colleagues. Everett Gee Jackson, one of his close friends, expressed his admiration of Reiffel above all other local artists at the time.18 This was tribute from a fellow artist who has also established a national reputation over the intervening years. Reiffel had found his greatest inspiration in the Southern California landscape.
1. Hazel B. Braun, San Diego Tribune, March 21, 1942.
2. Revealed in conversation with Albert Keller, son of American artist Henry Keller, who knew Reiffel as a fellow lithographer in Cleveland, October 4, 1978.
3. According to Albert Keller, his father first met Reiffel in a Cleveland lithography shop. Re: conversation October 4, 1978.
4. Hazel B. Braun, San Diego Tribune, November 17, 1928.
5. Ruth Westphal, Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland (Irvine: Westphal Publishing, 1982), p. 206. Also, Charles Reiffel, A Memorial Exhibition of His Paintings, Catalogue of San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, June, 1942.
6. Arthur Millier, Los Angeles Times, undated clipping.
7. San Diego Union, December 29, 1935.
8. E. Dwyer, “The Art of Charles Reiffel.” The Argus, April 1929, p. 20.
9. For a history of this group see: M.E. Petersen, “Contemporary Artists of San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVI (Fall 1970), pp. 3-10.
10. See H.B. Braun, San Diego Tribune, January 9, 1932; March 12, 1932; and July 23, 1932. V. Linderman, Santa Barbara Morning Press, September 8, 1932; San Diego Union, January 31, 1932; February 14, 1932; April 25, 1932; July 17, 1932.
11. As quoted from the San Diego Union, November 4, 1923.
12. San Diego Sun, October 31, 1934.
13. American Magazine of Art, XXVII (November 1934, No. 11), p. 609.
14. San Diego Sun, January 5, 1935; San Diego Evening Tribune, January 12, 1935.
15. Unknown newspaper item, dated April 4, 1940.
16. Reginald H. Poland, San Diego Union, November 10, 1929.
17. San Diego Tribune-Sun, August 23, 1943.
18. San Diego Museum of Art, Oral History, Taped March 2, 1979.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Art.
Some Known Paintings by Charles Reiffel
Abandoned Farm, 1932
Abandoned Mine, 1929
Acidulous and Credulous
Across the Canyon, 1939
Adobe Huts in Lower California, c. 1929
After the Rain, 1930
After the Shower
Afternoon, Lower California, 1932
Alpine, California, c. 1926
Autumn in Connecticut
Autumn in Cuyamaca
Banner Valley, California
The Big Rock
Breaking Storm, 1934
Cattle in Mountain Landscape
City at Night, 1931
Cloud Shadows, 1930
The Corner Shop
Desert Beyond Banner
Desert Near Indian Wells
Edge at Oak Grove, 1935
Edge of the Desert, c. 1929
Edge of the Lake, 1934
Edge of the Oak Grove, 1935
February Thaw, Silvermine, Connecticut
Few Acres Farm, 1918
Foot of Vulcan, 1938
Grand Mountain, Banner, 1941
Granite Mountains, San Felipe
Grey Day, Imperial Beach, 1941
The Haunted Tower
Highland Dairy, 1931
Hillside Ranch, 1931
Homesteader’s Ranch, Southern California
Houses on a River in Summer
How It Began
Imperial Beach, 1941
Improvisation A, 1939
Improvisation B, 1939
In Banner Valley
In El Cajon Valley
In Mission Valley, 1932
In Old National City, 1937
In Palm Canyon, 1931
In San Felipe Valley, 1927
In the Cuyamaca Mountains, c. 1929
In the Hills, Connecticut
In the Hills
In the Mountains
In the Mountains, Baja California, 1929
Indian Huts, Yuma
Julian – Dead Tree, 1941
La Jolla Shore, 1934
Late Afternoon, Alpine
Late Afternoon, El Cajon Valley, 1935
Late Afternoon Glow
Late Afternoon, Santa Ysabel Ranch, 1931
Looking Toward the Desert, 1930
Man, Cow and Tree, 1931
Mill in Winter, c. 1928
Mission Valley, 1934
Misty Evening, Niagara River, c. 1908
Moonlight on the Niagara
Morning, Nogales, Arizona, 1928
Morning, Nogales, Mexico
Mountain Barrier, 1931
Mountain Barrier, 1932
Mountain Patterns, 1928
Mountain Ranch, After the Rain, 1928
Mountain Ranch, San Felipe Valley, 1941
Mountain School House
Mountain Wilderness, 1936
Mountain Wilderness, 1939
Mountains and Desert
Mountains, Lower California
Musical Abstraction, 1938
My Neighbor’s Garden
New Jersey Central Terminal, 1910
Nogales, Mexico, 1938
Nymphs of the Sea
Off the Highway
Old Farm, Connecticut, 1910
Old National City
The Old Ranch
On the Lap of the Hills
Palm Canyon, No. 2
The Prospector, 1941
Railway Yards – Winter Evening, c. 1910
The Rancher, 1933
The River Bed
The River in Winter,
Connecticut Road in the Cuyamacas
Rocks and Sea, 1934
San Felipe Creek
San Felipe Valley
San Felipe Wash
San Miguel Sand Storm
Sea with Boat, 1931
Spring at Lakeside, 1934
Spring in the Mountains, 1940
Still Life, 1933
Still Life, Abstraction, 1940
Still Life – Daisies, 1936
Still Life – In the Patio, 1941
The Storm, 1931
Storm at Sea, 1931
Storm at Sea, 1941
Street at Night, Julian, California, 1941
Summer Design, 1922
Sun Up, c. 1931
Sun Up, 1939
Sunset Cliffs, 1934
The Surf, 1941
Sycamores at Springtime
Tecate Mountains, 1930
The Trout Stream, 1938
Under the Oaks
The Valley Road
Vulcan Range, Banner
Vulcan Mountain, 1941
Waterfront Activity, San Diego
Witch Creek Ranch