As Maurice Braun’s children we find it important to record our observations and memories that are relative to issues of current interest among students, collectors of his paintings, and art historians. The history of his art education in New York City and subsequent successful exhibiting of his paintings throughout his lifetime has frequently been presented. Meanwhile, the current interest in his aesthetic and philosophical values deserve presentation that is as reliable as possible. These topics have been represented with insight and sensitivity by several art historians. Too frequently, however, mistaken assumptions in the literature require corrections to do justice to our father. Together we provide confirmation from our observations, memory, and our father’s own records.
Maurice Braun (1877-1941) is known as an important American/California Impressionist artist.1 He was born in the small town of Nagy-Bittse, Hungary.2 His family came to live in New York City when he was preschool age. Braun’s formal art education was at the National Academy of Design in New York City, followed by a year of study with the distinguished New York artist and teacher, William Merritt Chase. Braun traveled in Europe for a year in 1902, visiting museums primarily in Eastern Europe. It is unclear whether he visited France or England.
On his return to New York, Braun painted there for several years. He became known as a portrait painter, although he also painted landscapes in New England. In 1909 he left New York to establish his home in San Diego.3 He would make his home in San Diego until his death in 1941.
In June of 1911, Braun presented his first one-man exhibition with 75 paintings and drawings of San Diego city and countryside, a few portraits, and New England landscapes.4 The exhibition took place in Braun’s studio on B Street where he had also opened the San Diego Art Academy. Shortly after this exhibition, he learned that one of his paintings had been accepted for a November exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.5 Braun continued to exhibit paintings in the East throughout his life. There were galleries across the country that carried his paintings as well.
When Braun was awarded top honors, a gold medal, for a painting at the San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition held in 1915, he became more widely known on both West and East coasts. It is noteworthy that paintings showing at this exposition included some of the outstanding group of Eastern artists, known as The Ten.6
Braun’s landscape paintings of scenes in and around San Diego are especially well known. Although he remained strongly associated with Southern California, he intermittently painted, sketched, and exhibited in many sections of the country. He returned annually to paint in New England and upper New York State during the 1920s, as he especially enjoyed painting the color and textures of the seasonal landscapes of the East Coast. During the 1920s he also started his studies of the New England harbor scenes. In the 1930s he painted a series of still life paintings.
Throughout his life one can see Braun’s independent spirit. An early indication of this can be seen in his consistent interest with painting, following a childhood and early youth in which he spent much time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He eventually won all the available scholarships to the National Academy of Design in New York City despite parental disapproval. Following his formal art education and several years as a portrait painter in that city he was convinced that he would prefer landscape painting and that it was essential to find his own way of doing so and in an area distanced from the major art centers of the time. A move far from the East appealed to his independent spirit. He welcomed an opportunity to meet the challenge of an entirely new environment in which he could respond in his own way. Also, in the city Braun was tiring of conflicting views among leaders in the art communities of the East Coast.7 After arriving in San Diego, Braun started to sketch and paint and he enjoyed the challenge of new surroundings. He then felt that he was developing in his own way.
Braun loved Nature. His aesthetic orientation in San Diego was two fold: first, he wanted to get acquainted with the San Diego countryside and understand how to portray it in form and color, then play with it. He used elements of it in the process of creating the composition of a painting. Braun’s strategy for getting a strong understanding of the content of the landscape he wanted to paint was the careful sketching of important details of the landscape-grasses, rocks, trees, the nature of washes in hillsides, and the form and color of receding hills and mountains.8 With this understanding of the countryside, Braun then felt free to carry out his concerns with the composition of a painting, with creation of space and color relations, with balance of composition, and ultimately with communication of the fundamental essence of nature’s structures. It was through the study of these elements of the landscape that Braun was able to capture the qualities that communicated their essential beauty. William H. Gerdts, in his catalogue for the 1991 exhibition Masterworks of American Impressionism presented at the Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland quotes Braun as remarking, “Landscape should not be taken too literally. It is what we visualize and the interpretation we give the fantasy of our mind that counts.”9
A training in the National Academy of Design in New York City could lead some to assume that Braun was in all respects an academician. That view could be emphasized by his having started the San Diego Art Academy when he first arrived in San Diego. Academic art traditionally refers to literal renditions of a subject, nature as well as the human figure. Braun pointed out that the landscape should not be taken literally. Did he or could he transcend the literalism? His inherent aesthetic sensitivities proved to be the more driving force.
Braun’s independent spirit in pursuing his own inclinations remained characteristic throughout his career. He was nevertheless an apparently responsive student of William Merritt Chase, with whom he undoubtedly studied both portrait and landscape painting, and quite possibly certain techniques that Chase could have learned during his studies in France. It was characteristic of Braun that the range of his interest and enthusiasm for many art forms did not lead to adopting their style of work himself. He felt that there were always challenges in his own work. He never considered adopting stylistic trends of others. However, in the early days of his career in California he explored painting by moonlight on several occasions. This venture can be compared to some paintings of the Tonalist movement among Impressionists.
Our father’s aesthetic perceptions seem to have grown from an inherent sensitivity and enthusiastic response to color and nature. Since there has been much speculation about the source of Braun’s interest in painting landscape we find it interesting that his parents and extended family described his enthusiasms at a very young age. We remember that he recounted his great excitement when he first saw the typical fields of red poppies in the European countryside. He described similar excitement when he first became aware of stars in the night skies.
The art historian John F. Kienitz recognized Braun’s sensitivity and respect for nature. Writing in the 1954 exhibition catalogue of Braun’s work at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, Keintz said:
Maurice Braun’s serenity before the vexations of life and the complexities of nature impressed all who knew him. He was an artist of deep philosophical conviction for whom all expressions of life were divine. So it is natural that in the look and feel of his work you should find pastoral peace. This peace is born of his sense of wholeness. Through an interplay of religious respect and esthetic resolve he found equilibrium and this was for him, as it can be for us, the secret of life itself. In his own yet distinctive way Maurice Braun was able, out of a comparable largeness of vision, to create space and color relations not unrelated to the superb formal clarity reached by Cezanne.
Through all his years our artist was partial to the desert. He wove his heart and mind through the tangled fabric of appearance with such zeal as to make a touching entrance to its core. In his San Diego back-country scenes you may find that he rivals the dry lands themselves in the perfection with which he unites a wonderfully golden light with the stateliness of elemental forms, every part of which is major. Braun paints the desert’s natural force. In such desert, light has its most lasting brilliance and forms rest secure in ageless strength. His love lets him see its devastatingly precise geometry of alkali flat and sage, of mountain and sky, as harmonies of color in untroubled light. And so his pictures of it have as little falsehood and as much to cherish as a Nevada morning.10
It would have surprised our Father if he had known that his paintings would eventually be perceived as that of an Impressionist. He never associated himself with that art movement, although he enjoyed the painting of many great Impressionists. He was enthusiastic about the Impressionist’s great achievements with light and color. He welcomed Claude Monet’s studies of color in relation to changing light.
In 1886 the famed art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, organized the historic presentation of close to 300 French Impressionist paintings in New York City. Repercussions from that exhibition reverberated in the American art community and controversies revolved around Impressionism for many years. Artists differed in their acceptance or rejection of Impressionism and in the degree of that acceptance. Although Maurice Braun was only nine years of age at the time of the exhibition, he would have observed later the strong contradictory positions taken within the art community as an impressionable young art student.
Meanwhile, the Impressionist art movement in Europe was developing in diverse ways. Many art students as well as mature artists studied in Europe. New perspectives were being introduced to the American art centers by artists returning from these studies. There were visits from some leading European artists. James McNeill Whistler brought his own variations of Impressionism that sometimes showed a strong influence of Chinese painting and Japanese prints. Some of Whistler’s paintings contributed to the important trend of Tonalism within the Impressionist movement.
Braun felt that there were important differences in aesthetic objectives between the Impressionists and himself. In part this was due to the Impressionist’s intense focus on method. He would shake his head over Whistler’s often repeated saying, “Art for Art’s sake.” While Braun was at once concerned with creation of space, color relations, and with balance of composition, ultimately he was concerned with communicating the fundamental essence of nature’s structures. He felt that it is in the harmony and peace of a painting that the fineness of nature communicates. Hence, a painting may serve to enrich the lives of those who live with the paintings.
There is currently interest among students and collectors of Braun’s paintings to know more about how he went about painting and what elements in his work can be regarded as Impressionistic. Responding to this interest, there is an especially useful analysis of the Impressionist’s methods of obtaining brilliant light and color in a book by Floyd Ratliff.11 In his book, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, Ratliff, a scientist, provides students with an account of theory and research relative to the Neo-Impressionists uses of color and light and brings to this analysis his understanding of the visual effects of contrasting colors and color interactions.
Ratliff found a progression in the understanding of these effects among Impressionists. Their understanding appeared to have guided their selection of paint and how they could optimally use it to obtain their goal of achieving intense brightness of color and light. The work of the artist Georges Seurat was further progress in what Ratliff called “the cause of color.”
Maurice Braun may have been unaware of how the Impressionist’s understanding of light and color influenced their selection and use of oil paint. Possibly he had learned about some aspects of this endeavor from Chase, or possibly he had figured some of it out himself. We recall his selection of pure colors and large amounts of white paint on his palette, similar to Ratliff’s description of the preferred palettes of the Impressionists. The mixing of different colored paint was carried out judiciously to avoid muddy grays. Braun and the French Impressionists sometimes found the use of bright pure yellow “touches” against deep blue tones useful. We can see in Kientz’ comments of how remarkably Braun captured the radiant light and subtle colors of Southern California and the desert. His work is low key by comparison to much of the Impressionist’s work.
Ratliff recognized that the modifications in broad size and spacing of brush strokes relative to color that some Impressionists employed were demonstrating scientific laws of color/light interactions. How much of this sophisticated insight had reached our father we do not know. However, for interested students we suggest careful examination of his paintings. We have observed these techniques in some of his paintings. Detailed examination of Braun’s painting of grasses in foregrounds and leaves of trees reveals rich brushwork that deeply enriches texture. Braun used broad brush strokes which varied in form. He sometimes used the standard Impressionist wide horizontal brush stroke for water in a river or a bay.
An especially interesting historical insight is provided by Ratliff in his accounts of the methods used not only by some of the Impressionists, but among some artists of the earlier 19th century. These included use of outdoor sketching recommended by the French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1861). Claude Monet kept colorful plants in his garden for students to paint outdoors when the light was bright. His famous lily pond was created for use in outdoor painting. Hence, we can think of some simple yet sophisticated methods of painting as having roots in earlier times.
Braun is described as a Plein Air artist, a trend that suggests that he painted exclusively outdoor. As with these early artists, the outdoor sketch was a study. From these studies there may or may not have ultimately come a painting. Both painting and sketching outdoors was enjoyable for him, but certainly not routine. When sketching he used color pencils on paper and sometimes oil paint on canvas or board. We remember one time, when he was recovering from an illness, the family stayed for a week or two in a cottage at Mesa Grande. Here we recall seeing him walking off to a site he had located earlier carrying a canvas, easel and a box containing a palette and tubes of paint. Sometime there was a folding camping chair as well, although often he stood before the canvas for hours.
His inclination to come to San Diego was not only motivated by his interest in exploring his own artistic talents far from the concerns of the East Coast but also by his interest in the philosophical orientation of Theosophy which he encountered in New York. During his years as an art student and for a number of years thereafter, the interests of Theosophy in humanitarian causes such as child poverty received considerable attention in New York. Theosophists also had a major interest in the world peace movement and the group sponsored the periodic International Peace Congresses in Europe. An international center for the organization, promoting concepts of international peace, had recently been established in San Diego at Point Loma.12 All of this was of great interest to Braun as it was also to many artists and other professional people in Europe and elsewhere.
Braun was responsive to the International Peace Movement of the Theosophical organization as well as their recognition of art and philosophy of ancient civilizations and multiple ethnic cultures. During this period there was minimal awareness or understanding of these concerns, though it is now taken for granted that the cultures of many ancient and current ethnic civilizations are of great significance.
While Braun had thought of living in the Theosophical Community, he was persuaded to give his full time to his art. Space was provided for a studio in downtown San Diego in a building that was owned by the Theosophical Society. Eventually Braun built a studio home on Point Loma that overlooked the bay and city of San Diego with ranges of mountains in the distance. His home was located near the Theosophical Community and artists and writers living in the Community sometimes gathered there socially.
Among these friends who had been attracted to and visited the Point Loma Community were some major figures from Europe. The Swedish art historian, Oswald Siren, working at that time with the King of Sweden to create a great museum and leading center for the study of Chinese and Japanese Art, was a periodic visitor. Reginald Machell, an important artist, moved to the Point Loma center from England where he had been active in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Machell brought this distinguished style to the buildings of this Point Loma community. He painted remarkable decorative murals on walls of the buildings, and carved furniture and doors for several major buildings.
The cultural climate was enriched by weekly concerts open to the public given by the Conservatory of Music. The plays of Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists were presented in the outdoor Greek Theater. These are only some of the cultural elements of this center that had a great appeal to Braun. Having grown up in New York City, cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been important to him. The achievements of this group who participated in the Point Loma center are significant. The talent assembled at this center was prodigious and made exceptional contributions to art, literature, sociology, and San Diego history.
While Braun’s paintings become increasingly admired and more critics look for a different perspective on his work, it is perhaps understandable that the art world would believe that there is a connection between his painting and Theosophy. At no earlier time had his art been equated with his personal interests. Essentially Braun sought out the Theosophical Society because of the compatibility between their concerns and his own, but what he expressed in his painting was his own sensitivity to the fineness of nature. Braun was not hesitant to credit Theosophy with sharpening his insight into nature.13 Some writers have attributed Braun’s achievements, not to his disciplined ability as an artist, but rather to assumed mysticism or to mistaken assumptions of religious convictions or influences. We, the family, find these hypotheses erroneous and unjust to our father’s work and are confident that these notions would have been quickly rejected by Braun himself.14
In the last years of his life Braun made a number of automobile trips through many states. He did the driving, yet the next morning before starting out again he made sketches of some aspect of the country through which they drove. There remain a large number of sketches of California and some forty-five sketches made in eleven states that include Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington State. These sketches are often studies of arid and remote areas.15
For Maurice Braun there was always a quiet enjoyment of painting. He was a man of few words, yet despite his manner there was deep feeling and strong enthusiasms. As art historian John Kienitz observed:
It is impossible for [Braun] to look at what was small or large in nature, or among man’s things, without translating what he saw into lucid harmonious arrangement. Here, as elsewhere in his art, delicate relations of line, form, and color are simply signs of an even more exquisite fineness which he knew to be basic in nature. In the art of this man you may well find an oriental, even peculiarly Chinese bent. You may agree that he paints as an apostle of resignation whose spirit is like those men of Sung who could see the tragic in the turn of an autumn leaf and still, somehow, never be defeated by it.16
1. For details on Maurice Braun’s life, awards, and exhibitions see: Martin Petersen, Second Nature: Four San Diego Artists (San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 1991).
2. Nagy-Bittse was in Hungary at the time of Braun’s birth, however, after World War I when maps were redrawn the town became part of Czechoslovakia.
3. San Diego Union, June 8, 1911.
4. San Diego Evening Tribune, June 12, 1911.
5. San Diego Union, November 11, 1911.
6. William H. Gerdts, Ten American Painters (Spanierman Gallery, 1991).
8. For discussion on Braun’s strategy see: Joachim Smith, “The Splendid, Silent Sun: Reflections on the Light and Color of Southern California” in California Light, 1900-1930, exh. cat., Patricia Trenton and William H. Gerdts, eds. (Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Art Museum, 1990).
9. William H. Gerdts, Masterworks of American Impressionism, exh. cat., (Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation with Eidolon AG, 1991), 136. Braun was among the 25 outstanding American artists whose work was included in this exhibition.
10. John Fabian Kienitz, Maurice Braun, exh. cat. (San Francisco: M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, 1954).
11. Floyd Ratliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, including the first English edition of Paul Signac, From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, trans. Willa Silverman (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1992).
12. For detailed information on the Theosophical Society in San Diego see: Emmett A. Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community in California 1897-1942: A Theosophical Experiment (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
13. Ibid., 124.
14. We have found particularly troubling and inaccurate the conclusions put forward by two different authors: Ilene Susan Fort in her essay “Altered State(s): California Art and the Inner World,” in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2000), 31-49 and portions of Joachim Smith’s essay “The Splendid, Silent Sun: Reflections on the Light and Color of Southern California” in California Light, 1900-1930, exh. cat., Patricia Trenton and William H. Gerdts, eds. (Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Art Museum, 1990), 88-89.
15. Three of these sketches are reproduced in this volume with the color plates.
16. Kienitz, Maurice Braun.
Charlotte Braun White and Ernest Boyer Braun are the two children of Maurice Braun and Hazel Boyer Braun. Dr. White’s graduate studies in art history at the Institute of Art History at New York University were interrupted by World War II. She later received her Ph.D. in Psychology. Ernest Braun is a noted photographer who has published several books of nature photography. Dr. White resides in San Diego, Mr. Braun lives in the San Francisco area.