In the early nineteenth century when the United States expeditionary forces were charting the newly acquired western territories of an expanding nation and mapping its topography, artists of varying degrees of skill would frequently accompany them. Itinerant amateurs, as much adventurers as artists, were drawn to California by cries of gold and statehood. Uninspired, three of the first artists to pass quickly through California’s southern most settlement were lawyer turned artist, George Catlin (1794-1872), America’s earliest artist to travel throughout the western hemisphere recording the life of its vanishing native cultures; John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), draughtsman for the Kearney Expedition during the mid-1840s; and James Woodhouse Audubon (1785-1862), son of the better known naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851).1 Emmanuel Sandelius did a view of San Diego as early as 1842. William Birch McMurtie’s (1816-1872) depiction of Old Town and Mission San Diego are in the collection of the Bancroft Library in Berkeley. They left views and sketches in diaries and notebooks, some of which became the basis of circulated prints used to entice others westward.2
The next generation of artists subscribed to the European Romantic aesthetics of the picturesque and the sublime. These sensibilities colored written and visual descriptions of the early American frontier where the Western wilderness was desolate and the mountains were impenetrable. This attitude, an ominous sense of grandeur and awe, inspired the grand and gild-framed California landscapes that graced the walls of mid 19th century Victorian mansions by early painters Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Thomas Hill (1829-1902) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926).
By the 1870s the number of professional artists, teachers in residence, and a developing interest in art activities gave San Diego community leaders a sense of cultural achievement. The local fair, known today as the Del Mar Southern California Exposition, has provided a showcase for creative expression since 1880 and suggests a recognizable art community at that early date. It is difficult to assess the quality of the submitted works in each display, however, since documentation is scarce. The fair was, at best, a source of exposure for artists, regardless of degree of skill and talent, during the area’s formative years. Emma M. Chapman (1837-1911), who settled in Poway in 1881, appears to have been the first professional artist to settle in the area.3 Principally a portraitist she is recorded as exhibiting in 1882 at the photo gallery of Parker and Son, on Sixth Avenue, one of the first local venues.
As the West became settled, admiration and pride grew for the rugged mountain landscape, now spoken of as comparable to the European Alps. A new realism on more intimate sized canvases or panels emerged from the artist’s studio. The public was encouraged to visit out West, and newly constructed railroad lines brought them to luxury accommodations including the Hotel Del Coronado that opened in 1888. The Southwest became the destination of many Easterners seeking refuge from the stifling summer heat of congested cities, to winter, or simply to enjoy life in the beauty of sun, sea and surf. After two land booms in the 1880s and a resultant increase in population, professionally trained and practicing artists began setting up easels in San Diego and plying their trade as portrait painters. Some settled permanently arriving late in their careers to live out their few remaining years. Ex-Detroit, Nashville, and New York City portrait painter William Thurston Black (circa 1810 -1893), was a local resident by 1885.4 His influence appears to have been limited and his fame rests upon his portrait of modern San Diego founder Alonzo Horton, now in the collection of the San Diego History Center. The San Diego Business Directory listed six artists in residence in 1886 and twelve in 1889, including Frank L. Heath (1857-1921) and A. N. Slade.5
Perhaps the distinction of being the first serious artist to settle in San Diego belongs to Ammi Merchant Farnham (1845-1922) who left a substantial legacy.6 Born in Silver Creek, New York, January 1845, the precocious Farnham began his career early and at eighteen was a student of Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) at the Royal Academy of Bavaria. His fellow students included William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), destined to become one of America’s major teachers and champion of Impressionism, Frederick Freer (1849-1901), and other familiar names in the annals of American Art. His travels took him to Italy and France, a prerequisite of most aspiring young artists of the day. Back in the United States, he served as the curator of the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts and exhibited at museums in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco as well as other art centers. Farnham settled in San Diego in 1888 or 1889 where he remained until his death in 1922.
Farnham’s appearance in San Diego signaled the beginning of an era of quality work produced by artists who were familiar with international currents in the visual arts. Most were academically trained, world traveled, and respected by their better known colleagues with whom they exhibited and socialized. Curiously, the misdirected attitude of viewing the early California landscape painter as a prosaic and un-trained individual still persists. Eastern artists were aware of the fact that the moment they stepped on the train westward they were severing ties with the restrictive exhibition jury system, existing promotional avenues, and the patronage of an established clientele. Within this isolation, however, artists found a greater sense of freedom to pursue their own interests and personal styles without the pressures of the critics, their peers, and the press.
Academic training stressed the human figure and classical formula, consequently producing artists who concentrated on figure painting and more intimate subject matter such as interiors and still lifes. Landscape was a matter of independent study with a master outside the academy system. Nevertheless, landscape painting has had the longest run as subject matter and the greatest popular appeal in the annuals of American art history.7
By century’s end, the Romantic aesthetic that had colored visual descriptions of the nineteenth-century American West was passé. Early California landscape painting, currently described as plein air painting, became the predominant style. Plein air painting manifests the out-of-door origins shared with its nineteenth century French predecessors. To what extent the Barbizon painters or the French Impressionists influenced the California artists, however, remains conjectural. The appeal of the California landscape and its ensuing depictions as a place for artists to work and live may simply be the result of its natural light, a picturesque landscape, and an ideal climate as Arthur Millier, art critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1926 to 1958, suggested.8 For Millier, the California landscape painter approached his subject with the same honesty as his predecessor of the Hudson River School. The artists of that earlier group depicted “the facts of the earth confronting them,” while the Southern California artist sought “a true portrayal of brilliant light that transfigures the scene.” He goes on to conclude that “without a French Impressionist movement this tendency (so called California Impressionism) would probably have developed spontaneously from the very nature of the landscape and the climate.”9
The Southern California landscape was a principal theme in painting and that landscape was dominated by the eucalyptus tree. Southern California artists soon earned the sobriquet the Eucalyptus School, a phrase coined by Merle Armitage, art writer for the West Coaster in the 1920s. It became a term applied in the press to a description of the many grove-filled canvases by artists depicting the imported Australian tree that Armitage described as “harmless art.” Eucalyptus School, as Impressionism before it, carried negative implications about the artists’ works. The attitude has not entirely abated.
Among those considered major landscapists of the San Diego painters at the beginning of the twentieth century were Charles A. Fries (1854-1940), Charles Reiffel (1862-1942), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), and Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972).10 Their lives and activities have been well recorded. It was here that they produced some of their finest work. They were recognized nationally and internationally as serious artists and counted among their colleagues and friends some of the now often-published and familiar leading figures in American art history. They were savvy and intelligent, and advanced in their thinking and appreciation of modern art.
Charles Arthur Fries (1854-1940), San Diego’s first major landscape painter, settled in the community in 1897. Fries was born near Cincinnati and grew up in the years surrounding the Civil War. He received his early training in the lithography shop and newspaper office, as had so many of America’s first modern artists. His style developed from the neutral dark palette and realism of the Cincinnati Academy to the brighter palette of the Post-Impressionist period, attributed to the effects of the bright California sunlight. Although categorized as a painter of California’s picturesque landscape, his forte was the desert landscape located in the backcountry of San Diego County. His life is recounted in his own words in excerpts from his memoirs published in this same volume. Fries’ journals record nearly 1700 works painted during his career in San Diego.11
Handsome and distinguished in appearance, Charles Reiffel (1862-1942) gave the impression of the sophisticate, belying a natural talent, modesty and charm. Without formal training and honing his skills in the print shop, Reiffel was to become, perhaps, the most original and creative of the landscape painters. Reiffel had established a national reputation in the East prior to settling in San Diego. Critics had compared his work, to prominent European and American artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Lawson, Twachtman and Whistler. His work was seen in an exhibition at New York City’s Salmagundi Club where Robert Henri, perhaps America’s most influential artist of the time, had been so impressed by its originality and organic style that he extended an invitation to join his circle of colleagues in exhibiting as early as 1914. Awards and honors became commonplace for Reiffel whose exhibition schedule included prestigious invitations in major museums and even internationally in Italy. When the artists at Silvermine, Connecticut, an early bastion of American Impressionism, incorporated in 1923, Reiffel became the art colony’s first president.
He arrived in San Diego quite accidentally in 1926 when a storm forced him off his route to Santa Fe. San Diego was to be his home until his death at 80. Of his style, a San Diego colleague, Everett G. Jackson, noted that not an unnecessary brushstroke was applied to the canvas as he painted spontaneously with rapid gusto, capturing the undulating topography, and dynamic nature in constant change of the San Diego backcountry. During his early years in San Diego he exhibited frequently locally and throughout the United States and won many important awards in major California and West Coast shows.
Despite the critical acclaim, the level of financial success Reiffel enjoyed in the East eluded him on the West Coast. During the financially strained Depression years of the 1930s and 1940s, Reiffel participated in government-supported programs receiving 42 dollars a month, plus supplies. During this period he created a number of large murals for public spaces including high schools and city council chambers.12 While local artists had nothing but admiration for him, the buying public found him “too modern.” To help support him, his colleagues and students frequently purchased his works; the paucity of sales barely sustained him.
Reiffel’s stylistic antithesis as a landscape painter, Maurice Braun had been a resident of San Diego since 1909. Intellectual and talented from childhood, Braun’s paintings celebrated the many moods of the Southern California atmosphere and its subtle effect upon the landscape. Though some may have denigrated his style as decorative, he attempted to capture a sense of time and place and identified in spirit with the landscape painters of China.
Braun was a product of the National Academy in New York City where the teachers had themselves been students of the French academic tradition. His liberated brush and colorful palette are most probably the results of his appreciation of and year’s study with William Merritt Chase. Aware of the art scene, Braun had an appreciation for “modern art,” but felt it lacking in some respects.
Encourage by Katherine Tingley, leader of the Theosophical Society headquartered on Point Loma, Braun opened his short-lived San Diego Art Academy upon his arrival in San Diego in 1910. Located in the Fisher Opera House on B Street, the former theater became the school and his studio. A portion of the training schedule included sketching out of doors. Classes in designing, drawing and painting were offered, in addition to “auto trips to the most interesting and paintable points that are made weekly without extra charge.”13
Braun’s love of nature encompassed large and small scales, vistas and gardens. The Braun home and garden were a salon of sorts. Here the artist on occasion held open house for the flowers and his paintings. San Diego residents were encouraged to visit the artist’s home. Readers of the local newspaper were informed that,
a visit to San Diego is not complete unless it includes a trip to the unique studiohome of Maurice Braun. Situated on beautiful Point Loma and overlooking the bay and colorful sails of the Point Loma Yacht Club, with the city and Mexican Table Mountains beyond, the approach to the studio commands a view which is unparalleled in this vicinity. But more attractive still is the intimate view by the studio windows and which has the colorful Braun garden for its foreground.14
During the final decade of his life, Braun focused on still life painting often inspired by a casual arrangement of flowers from his own garden. His floral paintings relate to the reflective spirit found in similar subjects by Oriental artists whom he admired. Braun and his wife were frequent lecturers about both art and gardening to local clubs and organizations. The appearance of a review of a floral show in Hazel Braun’s art column in the local press was not unusual. For both, there was a special significance identified with working with nature.
Certainly Braun was San Diego’s most famous artist during the first third of the twentieth century. He familiarized a generation, in the East and in the West, with the Southern California landscape.
Alfred R. Mitchell, was the first serious artist to develop, mature and spend his entire professional career in San Diego. He began serious study with Braun in 1913. At Braun’s urging, Mitchell attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, an Eastern American plein-air art school, where as a student he won important awards including a travel scholarship to Europe. He made life long friends with his mentors, most major landscape painters, including Daniel Garber, Edward Redfield and modernist, Arthur B. Carles. In Europe he met Boston painter, William Paxton, who, also, became a life long friend.
Mitchell’s use of brilliant color and strong contrast of light is dependent upon the Impressionist style of Childe Hassam (1859-1935) whom he admired. At the time, many American artists felt the influence of Hassam. As Mitchell matured his colors became saturated and his contrasts were bolder and stronger. His realism contrasted with that of his early mentor, Braun, and other San Diego colleagues. An excellent teacher and organizer, Mitchell was responsible for the organization of many guilds and art organizations throughout the county still existing today.
The second quarter of the century was marked by a cosmopolitan professionalism in the visual arts spearheaded by these artists. On June 22, 1929, eight serious artists met in the studio of Leslie W. Lee and formed the first professional artist’s organization in San Diego, the Associated Artists of San Diego who changed their name two months later to the Contemporary Artists of San Diego. Membership included James Tank Porter (1883-1962), president; Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972), secretary; Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Charles A. Fries (1854-1940), Leslie W. Lee (1871-1951), Charles Reiffel (1862-1942), Otto. H. Schneider (1865-1950), and Elliot Torrey (1867-1949). Three others accepted an invitation to join shortly thereafter: Leon D. Bonnet (1868-1936), Donal Hord (1902-1966), and Everett Gee Jackson (1900-1995). They were a generation younger but no less accomplished. With these additions, the group consisted of two sculptors and nine painters. Their ambition was to hold exhibitions of their own works in San Diego and elsewhere; to place works of art in as many places as possible in the business section of the city; and to send representative exhibitions on tour on California and other national art centers.15
There was a rich variety of trained artists associated with art circles around the country living in the area that had been lured to Southern California by the light and land with the added attraction of a climate that allowed out-of-door work more than 350 days a year. The art community seemed to revel in the agreeable climate and camaraderie found in Southern California. San Diego was not alone in its appeal, artist enclaves formed in many of California’s most picturesque cities including Laguna Beach, Pasadena, Monterey and San Francisco. These artists, however, were not exclusively landscape painters as any historical survey of the art scene will show.
Leon D. Bonnet, maintained studios in Tuxedo Park, New York, and Ogunquit, Maine, as well as his home in Bonita, California. He preferred the ocean as subject matter in his work on the East Coast and the hills near his home when in the West. Originally Bonnet came to San Diego to winter, staying in Ojai in 1926, Coronado in 1927, finally purchasing a home in Bonita in 1928 where he established a private boy’s school. His death in 1936 was a contributing factor to the disbanding of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego.
A kinsman of Dr. John Torrey who gave his name to the county’s unique Torrey Pines, Elliot Torrey was inspired by the sea and children playing at the water’s edge. While studying in Paris, he exhibited at the salon and upon his return to the United States he established a studio in New York City. Torrey settled in San Diego in 1927, where the Union noted that he was “one of the most distinguished painters in the group. He always received national acclaim.”
Otto Schneider settled in San Diego in 1924 after study in New York and Paris. He was an instructor at the San Diego Academy of Fine Arts and was distinguished for his success in painting the quality of sunlight. An ex-student recalled that Schneider would take the class painting in Balboa Park. Schneider was “very vivacious. He was just a very energetic man and enthused. You used bright colors like he did and you had fun when you painted.”16
Alice E. Klauber (1871-1951) daughter of a pioneer San Diego family, studied painting with William Merritt Chase in Italy in 1907; with Robert Henri in Spain in 1912; with self-exiled German painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) in the1930s; and with Mexican muralist Alfredo Ramos Martinez (1872-1946) who was working in Southern California during the 1940s.17 Klauber was instrumental in bringing Henri and his circle to exhibit in the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and in organizing the artists exhibiting in the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935.
English born Leslie W. Lee, spent time researching and recording the people and culture of Mexico and the southwest. His portraits reveal the bravura and loaded brush of the German and French academies where he studied. Muralist Maynard Dixon and his wife could be found relaxing at Lee’s Dehesa ranch, the site of many soirees the Lees held for his colleagues and friends.
Everett Gee Jackson and Donal Hord were inspired by ancient civilizations of Central America and Mexico. Jackson earned an enviable reputation as author, educator and teacher as well as painter and illustrator of classic literature. Art historian, Alfred Frankenstein, referred to him as one of the finest lithographers working on the West Coast. Hord, a sculptor, is best known to San Diegans as the sculptor of Guardian of the Waters outside the San Diego City and County Administration Building, and Aztec at San Diego State University.
Many lesser-known but no less talented local artists, yet to be researched, are recorded working and exhibiting in San Diego. Ernest Henry Pohl (1874-1956) painted successfully winning awards in competition with Braun, Mitchell and Valentien. He was one of the founders of the La Jolla Art Center. Rose Schneider (1895-1976) studied with Charles Reiffel and was active with the Fine Arts Guild, exhibiting at the 1935 exposition. George Spangenberg (1907-1964) left a formal education to pursue a career in art. He moved to California in the 1930s. Living very close to the edge, Spangenberg frequently traded paintings for food and supplies. Mary Belle Williams (1873-1943) moved to San Diego in 1906. A solo exhibition of her work in 1909 was the largest ever held in San Diego until that time. Carolus Verhaeren (1908-1956) was born in Antwerp and emigrated to England, Canada, and later Detroit. After several trips to California in the 1930s, he settled in La Jolla in 1946 where he had a studio/gallery and taught. Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949), an important figure in California Impressionism, lived in Pasadena where he was a colleague of Guy Rose at Stickney Memorial School of Art. The subject matter of many of his works testifies that he made painting trips to San Diego and throughout Southern California and Mexico.
Renowned national artists living elsewhere found inspiration locally. A fatigued Frederic S. Remington (1861-1901), in Coronado to rest and luxuriate in the sun, could be found sketching on a lemon ranch in La Mesa in the late nineteenth century.18 Taos Colony founders Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956) and Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), frequent visitors, were painting at the La Jolla coves. Southwest painter Irving Couse (1866-1936), who had been working in San Diego as early as 1906, settled his family in La Jolla. Walt Kuhn, 1912 Armory Show secretary and painter, felt there was great potential for San Diego to become a major art center.19 Robert Henri was encouraged to spend the summer of 1914 in San Diego by Alice Klauber who sought out models for him and arranged his living accommodations in La Jolla. Childe Hassam’s presence in San Diego in 1927 gave local artists an opportunity to meet with the influential figure of American Impressionism. While staying in Coronado, Hassam produced fifty prints of the Southern California landscape including scenes of Point Loma and Coronado Island.20
By 1918, Modernism arrived in San Diego with painters Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979), Fred Hocks (1886-1981) and Alfred Jensen (1903-1981). Adam Emery Albright (1862-1957) was painting children’s portraits, and his twin sons, Ivan Le Lorraine (1897-1983) and Malvin (b. 1897), were sharing a studio in the New Mexico Building, Balboa Park, in 1927.21 Works by these artists found in local private collections attest to their presence in the community.
Landscape painting and a realist style fell out of favor by the end of World War II, replaced by the subjective self-expressions and meaningful social commentary so important to today’s artists. These early artists and their work have been reevaluated since the 1970s when modern scholarship rediscovered them and important exhibition venues introduced them to a new generation. Perhaps it was a natural reaction that the realists of an earlier period were rediscovered and appreciated by a younger generation. Today the work by early Southern California painters, admired from coast to coast, is eagerly sought and collected. Perhaps it is because these paintings represent one of the last regional areas to be discovered by modern scholarship. Perhaps their subjects are nostalgic reminders of a natural frontier rapidly disappearing with the march of progress. Recent important exhibitions at major museums and interpretive material focusing on California in general have acquainted the public with a large number of obscure early California artists, especially the landscape painters.
Braun prophetically observed in 1928, “California has already contributed to the history of art in America but she is destined to add far more brilliant pages, not in individual effort, but in the great number of artist who will take part in making here a culture which is not yet imagined.” His vision of the future seems to have arrived.22
Artist painting outdoors. #83:14605-5
1. See John James Audubon. Western Journal 1849-1850 (Tucson, 1984 edition), 171.
2. For further information about these early limners see: Norman Neueberg. Drawings and Illustrations by Southern California Artists before 1950 (Laguna Beach Museum of Art, August September 1982), 32-37.
3. Bruce Kamerling, 100 Years of Art in San Diego, (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1991), p. 3.
4. For biographical background on William Thurston Black see: Bruce Kamerling. “The Start of Professionalism: Three Early San Diego Artists,” Journal of San Diego History, XXX (Fall 1984), 242-244.
5. For an account of early art and artists in the community see: Rebecca Lytle. “People and Places: Images of Nineteenth Century San Diego in Lithographs and Paintings,” Journal of San Diego History, XXIV: 2, 153ff. This article is an excerpt from her unpublished Master’s thesis of the same name (San Diego State University, 1978).
6. Bibliographic material concerning Farnham and all artists mentioned in this article may be found in the archives of the San Diego Museum of Art. It contains exhibition catalogues, local newspaper clippings, miscellaneous clippings from newspapers and unknown publications, as well as written lecture notes, personal correspondence, and tributes. Farnham’s date of birth is reported as 1845 on his death certificate and several publications, while other citations during his lifetime give the date as 1846.
7. Sadakichi Hartmann. A History of American Art (New York, 1901), I, 107.
8. See introductory catalogue essay by Arthur Millier, A Private Collection of Some Living Artists of Southern California, 1929. The exhibition circulated to Columbus, Ohio; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego, California.
9. Millier, ibid.
10. See: Martin E. Petersen. “Alfred R. Mitchell,” Journal of San Diego History, XIX: 4 (Fall 1973), 42ff.; “Maurice Braun: Master Painter of the California Landscape,” ibid., XXII: 3 (Summer 1977), 20ff.; “Success at Mid-life: Charles Reiffel,” ibid., XXXI: 1 (Winter 1985), 24ff. Regarding the criticism of Reiffel’s art: See art critic Leonard Alson Cline, Detroit News, date unknown, who compared the artist’s work favorably to John Twachtman. Other critics who spoke favorably of the artist included Charles Caffin, Royal Cortissoz, Henry McBride, and Forbes Watson who found something original and vital in his work. Critics called him one of the greatest living American landscape painters, and reviewers were beginning to see the influences of Gauguin and Van Gogh upon his work.
11. Charles Fries’ journals have been re-edited and excerpts are published within this same volume of the Journal of San Diego History. A full transcription of his journal has been deposited with the San Diego History Center Research Archives. Previously, portions of his journal and his handwritten inventory of his paintings were published by Ben Dixon, in Too Late (Private publication, 1969).
12. Two of Reiffel’s large-scale paintings, Point Loma and Farm Landscape, executed for Memorial Junior High School in 1937 as part of the City Curriculum Project of the Works Progress Administration, are on long-term loan to the San Diego History Center from the General Services Administration, Washington, D.C. and can be seen in the Casa de Balboa, Balboa Park.
13. Brochure of the Braun Fine Arts Academy, 1910.
14. Katherine Morrison Kahle. “San Diego Art and Artists,” San Diego Sun, October 4, 1933.
15. See: Martin E. Petersen. “Contemporary Artists of San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, XVI: 4 (Fall 1970), 3-10.
16. Helen Cremar Dowd, Oral History by Paul Kress, December 9, 1980, transcript, San Diego History Center Research Archives, San Diego, CA.
17. The papers and letters of Alice Klauber are in the Klauber Family collection and the San Diego Museum of Art archives.
18. Regarding the Remington’s San Diego visit see: Peggy and Harold Samuels. Frederic Remington, (New York City: Doubleday & Company, 1982), 181. and Julie H. Heyneman. Arthur Putnam: Sculptor, (San Francisco: Johnck & Seger, 1932), 111. At the Putnam family ranch a young Arthur Putnam was assigned the task of keeping the horses moving for the famous artist. Arthur was accused of copying the master when he applied for admittance to the art school in San Francisco and had to prove himself before he was accepted.
19. On a 1938 visit, Walt Kuhn’s comments are recorded in San Diego Union, January 7, 1938.
20. Several prints are in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art.
21. Hazel Boyer Braun. San Diego, Evening Tribune, April 5, 1927, regarding the Albright family.
22. Maurice Braun. “American Art Attains Recognition,” Modern Clubwoman, October 1928, 7.
Martin Petersen was Curator of American Art for forty years at the San Diego Museum of Art, as well as Senior Curator. He has published several books and numerous articles on American Art and San Diego artists including Second Nature: Four Early San Diego Landscape Painters (1991).