During the past decade or so, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in the long forgotten artists from the early part of this century. Often, when their works are rediscovered it is difficult to imagine how they ever fell into obscurity. Part of the problem has been access to their work, much of which has been dispersed, is hidden in private collections, or remains languishing in museum basements. With the exception of Baranceanu, searching for paintings and documentation for this exhibition has been a challenging, but rewarding experience.
Baldaugh has been the most difficult. Documentation is limited to a few newspaper clippings, public records, directory listings, and interviews with a few surviving friends. From this meager information, I have reconstructed her life. Although, in researching her career I found a few reproductions of her work and did find a small example of her still life painting, it was not until the Historical Society was offered Murial that I realized the brilliance and power of her talent. Recently, several of her high quality paintings have turned up.
With Rocle, I have been very lucky in locating documentary material and very unlucky in locating paintings. Rocle is the only one of the three that has relatives still living in the San Diego area, and they have answered numerous questions about the Rocles and shared the Rocle scrapbook with me. This has been my primary source of information. I contacted the sitters for two of her finest portraits, Katharine Morrison Kahle (McClinton) and Mrs. Robert Burch, but each said they had never owned the painting. Rocle’s Celery used to hang in the cafeteria at Kearny High School and I often ate my lunch across from it while I was a student there. It is the only example of her large exhibition paintings presently known.
Of the three women, the only one I knew personally was Baranceanu. I tried writing to her several times but she never responded. Several people had told me she was very reclusive. One day I became lost in the corridors of the Wesley Palms retirement home. I must have looked obviously bewildered and this tiny woman with pulled back black hair and piercing dark eyes came over and asked if she could help me. I think I startled her when I blurted out, “You’re Belle Baranceanu.” We arranged to meet later and I ended up spending many pleasant afternoons with her going over her personal archives (which she gave to the San Diego Historical Society) and discussing her life. Having always been an extremely articulate person, she was very frustrated by her difficulty in forming sentences. Often, she would end up weeping in my lap. At that time she had just moved out of her house because she could no longer take care of herself. During the process of cleaning out her house, about fifty paintings were discovered in a closet including much of her best work. These became the basis for an exhibition at the County Administration building in 1980. This was the first time Baranceanu’s work had been publicly exhibited in forty years. Later, her conservator donated a group of her finest paintings to the San Diego Historical Society.
It is difficult to determine how well, if at all, these three artists knew each other. Baldaugh does not appear to have belonged to any of the local art organizations, and her thick Dutch accent may have made frequent communication with fellow artists difficult. Rocle, who was rather isolated in Chula Vista, must have known Baranceanu. A photograph exists of an artists’ picnic honoring Maynard Dixon which was held at the Dehesa Ranch of Leslie and Melicent Lee in 1938, and both Rocle and Baranceanu are in the picture. Additionally, Baranceanu instructed Rocle’s daughters at the Francis Parker School.
These women were linked, however, in another way. All three had the strength to survive deep personal tragedy. For Baldaugh it was the tragedy of being reduced from great wealth to abject poverty. Having always had things done for her, she never really learned how to cope with the realities of life. Rocle suffered the loss of two young sons, one from illness and the other by his own hand. The death of Baranceanu’s fiancé, Anthony Angarola, left her devastated. Fifty years later she could not mention his name without bursting into tears.
Four male painters, Maurice Braun, Charles Fries, Alfred Mitchell, and Charles Reiffel, dominated San Diego’s art scene in the 1920s. Although Reiffel was more progressive, the four of them were primarily relatively conservative landscape painters. San Diego’s first exposure to Baldaugh’s work came in 1926 at the annual Exhibition of Southern California Art where she exhibited an oil, a watercolor, and a miniature. Although she did not move to San Diego until 1929, she exhibited Murial at the 1928 Exhibition of Southern California Art where Rocle also debuted with Prospector Mac and The New Gun. These may have been among San Diego’s first exposures to modernistic tendencies in art. Baranceanu did not move to San Diego until 1933, in which year she exhibited two paintings at the Exhibition of Southern California Art.
At the end of each essay, I have included a list of awards and exhibitions for these women. Compiled from a wide variety of sources, these lists are by no means complete. They do, however, give an indication of the importance of these artists and the serious attitude they took toward their work. Each was a professional.
If I were to select the top ten artists in San Diego from the first half of the century, my list would include Maurice Braun, Charles Fries, Alfred Mitchell, and Charles Reiffel, sculptors Arthur Putnam and Donal Hord, Everett Gee Jackson, and the three women discussed here. Of the group, the women are clearly the least known. The purpose of this exhibition and catalogue is to help remedy that situation.
Curator of Collections
Bruce Kamerling has been employed by the San Diego Historical Society since 1977 and has held the position of Curator of Collections since 1980. An honorary life member of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, he served four years as a director including one term as president. He sat on the City of San Diego’s Historical Site Board from 1983 to 1988 and served as a trustee of the Balboa Art Conservation Center from 1981 to 1993. In 1988, he was placed in charge of the restoration and furnishing of Hebbard & Gill’s Marston House for use as a public museum. Kamerling has written numerous articles on San Diego’s cultural history, and the Historical Society published his books, 100 Years of Art in San Diego in 1991 and Irving J. Gill, Architect in 1993. He prepared the San Diego section for The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, Living the Good Life, published by the Oakland Museum in 1993.