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Unappreciated by the East Coast arts intelligentsia, painter Charles A. Reiffel was a key player in the San Diego art scene from the moment he stumbled upon the burgeoning city in the 1920s. The story is he detoured this way trying to avoid a storm on the road to Santa Fe, but once Reiffel discovered San Diego, he never again left, until he died, penniless, in 1942. Taking himself out of the East Coast loop doomed Reiffel’s artistic reputation, and it’s taken until now to rebuild his name as one of America’s most exciting impressionists. Local art historian and professor Bram Dijkstra tells us why he thinks Reiffel is San Diego’s greatest artist of all time.

San Diego is finally getting an exhibit celebrating the life and work of Charles Reiffel. Why now?  It’s been talked about for a long time. It’s one of those things where each time people say, “There really should be a Reiffel exhibition.” He was really one of the best painters California had. Charles Reiffel, An American Impressionist opens at the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego History Center on November 10

Why is this show important? There are tons of exhibitions done about painters that are sort of a flash in the pan, that turn out some interesting work and then are forgotten. The thing about Reiffel is that he was doing extraordinary work in the 1910s and ’20s on the East Coast. He was considered one of the most important landscape painters of the time. Then he decided that he might as well take a look around California. Reginald Poland—probably the most important museum director San Diego has had—requested that Reiffel’s painting be shipped here to The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego [which later became the San Diego Museum of Art]. Reiffel arrived here late in 1925 or 1926, and he liked it so much he decided to stay for a while.

And unlike so many people, it wasn’t just the beach and the waterfront that drew him in, correct? Reiffel realized the countryside here was inspirational for him. He wasn’t a painter who really loved nature. He saw the interaction between the person and nature in a way that links him very much with the transcendentalists of the 19th century. But Reiffel’s work is post-impressionist. I would say it’s almost expressionist, in the sense that elements of passion that Reiffel had for the beauty and the fierceness and raw quality of nature spoke to the inner passions in him. He painted to express to others that there was this powerful, emotional, Godlike quality in the backcountry of San Diego. That scared off a lot of people. It’s so raw, it’s so fierce, and he would have said, “Yeah, that’s how nature is. This is what you’re living with; you’re living with something that is alive.” The storms, the darkness, the flashes of light. Gloomy darkened landscape is life too. It’s not all beautiful pretty colors and perfect composition. There was a sense of emotion in his work that’s missing from a lot of other California impressionists.

In the essay you describe how he was soon forgotten, though, by the art world after he settled on the West Coast. Are we seeing a new wave of appreciation? Absolutely. I’ve always felt that he needed to be shown again. The reason he was forgotten was that the East Coast critics didn’t pay much attention to the West Coast. When he came out west, he could only send one or two paintings at a time to the East Coast. In art, out of sight really is out of mind. When you can’t see the work of an artist, when the artist hasn’t been hammered into you from childhood, they are easily forgotten. That’s the sad part of it. He wasn’t any less great when he came here. Some of his paintings done on the West Coast are phenomenal—some of the best painting done in the country in the first half of the century. But he did not get the attention of the East Coast that he deserved.

So he never found an audience, or many buyers, for his work when he was alive? Some dealers were eager to link him with the California impressionists, but he never really fit comfortably into that group. He was pretty much his own person. As he went along, most of the critics recognized that. Reiffel got more prizes on the West Coast than almost any of the others, but people didn’t buy his work. That’s what’s so sad about the way he ended up, living in poverty. Here’s a man who’s in his 70s, who’s tried to convey to the people of San Diego what a beautiful, gorgeous, overpowering landscape they are living in, and they are telling him to be not so dire and direct.

Why is his work becoming popular again, so many decades after his death? It’s been so long since people have been able to look at first-rate representations of the extravagantly outrageous, or abstract, or any form of extravagance, you might say. It’s been good for Reiffel because he is now being recognized as one of the more daring painters of the 20th century, because people are more used to a daring palate. The first collectors of California plein-air painters were reacting to modernist painting, by wanting more traditional images. As a result, Reiffel’s work was often neglected by these collectors. They didn’t want anything to push the envelope. Then, a second and third generation of collectors of this art has emerged over the past 10 years, and Reiffel’s profile in the world of collecting is now high again. 

What is your favorite work of Reiffel’s? The painting from 1937 of a rainy night is probably the most beautiful painting of a rainy night produced in our area. The roadway in the foreground glistens with moisture, and then you see the light in the background and that typical feeling of the San Diego sky, with a tremendous outburst—Reiffel captures that beautifully, and the way he creates a zig-zag and a big picture frame. These are things that are hard to describe but when you look at them, they take your breath away.

So how did this great painter end up penniless? Like any other painter, he painted more mediocre paintings than great ones. But he also painted great paintings, so he was among the great painters. I’m sad that the way people want to look at art is that when an artist gets a big name or big reputation, they become untouchable. But the greatest painters, like Picasso and Cézanne, did a lot of bad paintings. They had to do bad paintings to do the good paintings. You have to do the experiments, and sometimes the experiments don’t work. And unfortunately, they have to live and survive, and what Reiffel had to do often in order to raise money to survive is to paint more traditional paintings than he would have liked to. Ironically, when the Great Depression hit, and President Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration [a New Deal agency that employed artists, writers, actors, and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects], it essentially saved Reiffel’s life. From the beginning in 1933 up to his death in 1942, he was on the WPA payroll the whole time.

Today his paintings can be seen all over San Diego. Should he be considered our resident artist? All of that happened during the WPA period. Out of gratitude for the art projects he worked on, he presented the county and the city of San Diego more than a dozen of his paintings, especially the county offices. They are of the more accessible and traditional style. We will be showing some of murals he did in local public schools in the San Diego History Center. We had difficulty in getting some of these paintings from the county for the exhibit at the museum. It is rather upsetting that people in the county offices should want to hold on to them, because the works really belong to the people of San Diego and should be shown to the people of San Diego. That’s why Reiffel gave them to the county.

It’s rare that two different institutions in Balboa Park collaborate on an exhibition. What makes this one work? This is the perfect kind of exhibition to have both the Museum of Art and the History Center work together on, because the History Center has these phenomenal murals that Reiffel did during the WPA for the local schools—murals of the San Diego countryside. It’s thanks to the preservation efforts of the History Center that these were removed from the walls, preserved, and stored. The San Diego Museum of Art is going to show the earlier work and the work done before he came to San Diego, as well as some of the work he did here. It’s going to be two complimentary exhibitions that are comparable in quality and importance. Those murals are quite wonderful.

You’re a collector of Reiffel’s as well, correct? My wife and I bought our first piece about 30 years ago. We’ve been collectors of things we like over the years, and Reiffel is one of the very first painters we came across that we really liked.