California Art Club
The Legacy of the California Art Club in San Diego
Despite its being centered in Los Angeles, the California Art Club nonetheless had a strong influence in forming the early foundations of San Diego's fine art community, both through major San Diego exhibitions and through four active and influential local members who were dedicated to bringing cultural life to San Diego while painting the San Diego scene.
When plans were made for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, it was the California Art Club which was asked to mount the juried Fine Art Exhibition, part of the first such major art showing ever to be held in San Diego. Seminal San Diego painters and California Art Club members Maurice Braun and Charles A. Fries won Gold and Silver medals, respectively, in the exhibition which played a major role in the cultural founding of our present day Balboa Park. Alfred Richard Mitchell -- a student of Braun's and later a Club member -- also won a Silver Medal. Together, they were represented by 10 works in total. Down the mall, CAC member Joseph Sharp was also represented in the sister art exhibition featuring Robert Henri and some of his followers.
The Exposition was such a resounding success that, at the end of its year-long run, the city extended it for another year, adding some of the foreign exhibits from San Francisco's concurrent Panama-Pacific Exposition (where Braun had won a second Gold Medal), and renaming it the Panama-California International Exposition. The works in the Henri exhibition were returned to their lenders, the Fine Art Exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, and a new Fine Art Exhibition was assembled to fill the vacated Fine Arts Building. As in the previous year's exhibition, the California Art Club was substantially represented, including two new pieces from Fries and three from Braun. At the final close of the Exposition, the Fine Arts Building (now the south wing of the Museum of Man) continued to serve for the next ten years as San Diego's first public art gallery. (above link is to San Diego Historical Society)
The San Diego Art Association, the first local organization of artists, had been founded in 1904 by Charles Fries. From 1910 to 1919, Maurice Braun was one of the first art instructors in San Diego at his San Diego Academy of Art downtown, teaching students such as Mitchell in the classic traditional European methods. In 1915, Braun, Fries and Mitchell participated in the founding of the San Diego Art Guild (supplanting the San Diego Art Association and much later renamed the Artist's Guild) dedicated to aiding local artists in encouraging the cultural growth of the community by sponsoring lectures and exhibitions. Fries was also a founder of the Friends of Art in 1920, created with the purpose of bringing traveling exhibits to San Diego and obtaining a gallery to show and offer for sale work by local and other contemporary artists, and to collect and show permanent collections. (Braun and Mitchell were temporarily away in the east, but joined upon their returns and were active, lifelong members.) Emphasis was also placed on bringing school children into the gallery for educational talks. The Friends' official motto was "To encourage an interest in -- and to promote the growth of -- Art in San Diego." Their first annual report concluded with this quotation: "A knowledge of art can give you more pleasure than almost anything else. It can make you rich; it can give you a vista -- and a vision. It reveals hidden beauty ... As your acquaintance with art grows, your capacity for a richer enjoyment of what you see in the everyday world will become manifest."
Stressing its importance to San Diego's cultural growth, the Friends of Art's very first traveling exhibition was of The California Art Club of Los Angeles. Sixty-seven works by 38 club members from the Club's 11th Annual Autumn Exhibition were loaned by the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, including two by Charles Fries. Interest was so great among the literally thousands of San Diegans who came to view the show, that it was held over for an additional week. For the following three years, bringing the California Art Club's Fall Exhibition to San Diego was a regular event.
Between the years 1921 and 1925, the Friends of Art brought the exhibitions Modern American Painters from the American Federation of Arts (which the Friends had become a chapter of), A Traveling Exhibition of Western Painters from The Western Association of Museum Directors (which association the Friends had co-organized), Impressionistic Paintings by Western Artists from the Oakland Art Gallery, The Third Exhibit of the California Watercolor Society, The Taos Society of Painters, and An Exhibition from Cannel and Chaffin Galleries, all prominently featuring works from California Art Club members, as well as one-man exhibitions from Club members Charles Fries and Colin Campbell Cooper, among others.
In 1924, the Friends of Art and the Art Guild, under Guild president Alfred Mitchell, were formally amalgamated, becoming the Friends of Art of San Diego. The former Friends of Art were entrusted with the business, social and financial responsibilities, while the "Art Guild Members" of the Friends were responsible for "the professional knowledge, critical faculties and living interest of actual producers of pictures, sculpture and applied arts." A local newspaper remarked: "Having brought together into one strong association the patrons of art and the workers in art, The Friends of Art of San Diego are now in a position to, in a large way, promote and foster the art interest in San Diego...."
In 1925, with a brand new building donated in Balboa Park by Mr. and Mrs. Appleton S. Bridges, the Friends of Art of San Diego was incorporated as the Fine Arts Society to administrate the operation of the new Fine Art Gallery, which opened in 1926. By this time, California Art Club member Charles Reiffel had relocated to San Diego and joined the San Diego Art Guild. By 1930, Reiffel was on the Fine Art Gallery's important acquisitions committee.
In addition to their work culminating in today's San Diego Museum of Art, Maurice Braun, Charles Fries and Alfred Mitchell had also been founding members of the La Jolla Art Association in 1918, and from 1929 to 1936, Braun, Fries, Mitchell and Reiffel were founding members, with six other local artists, of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego, which exhibited regularly during its existence at the Fine Arts Gallery (which became the San Diego Museum of Art in 1979). This group's goals were the promotion of local art and artists on a national level as well as the development of a wider appreciation of fine local art at home. The Artist's Guild and the La Jolla Art Association remain active organizations in San Diego to this day.
Mitchell was further instrumental in the formation of several other local art associations in the county during his career, including what has become the San Diego Art Institute . Braun, in addition, was a gifted writer and Theosophical philosopher who was widely published during his lifetime.
While also showing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the eastern centers, the cosmopolitan Maurice Braun, Charles Fries, Alfred Mitchell and Charles Reiffel nonetheless all remained committed participants and leaders in the active art community in San Diego throughout their lives. Remarkably, Braun, Fries and Reiffel all died in the short span between the years 1940 and 1942. Alfred Mitchell continued on as a professional artist and highly influential teacher in San Diego until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1972.
The Fine Arts Gallery mounted retrospective exhibitions of the works of Charles Reiffel, Maurice Braun, and Alfred Mitchell in in 1942, 1951, and 1972, respectively, and in 1988 Mitchell received a similar honor from the San Diego Historical Society. Braun was honored with a second retrospective at the M. H. deYoung Museum in San Francisco in 1954. Throughout the decades, the works of these pioneering San Diego landscape artists and California Art Club members have been featured often in various special museum exhibitions, as tributes both to their mastery of art and their contributions to their community.
It is doubtful that San Diego's cultural life would have grown nearly as quickly or as well without the dedicated efforts of these professional local artists who were also experienced in the worlds of art beyond the borders of San Diego County, through their work with the California Art Club and other national organizations and activities. That they looked to the example of their fellow California Art Club members in their efforts to bring art and culture to San Diego in the early decades of the 20th century cannot be disputed.
Although the Great Depression, World War II, and changes in official tastes in art diminished the strength and influence of the California Art Club for several decades after, the club persevered, and with the recent revival of traditional plein air painting, it has been marvelously resurrected. Under the leadership of president Peter Adams since 1993, membership has swelled, the club has organized several museum exhibitions and large annual shows, and has participated in many outdoor painting festivals throughout the state which have benefitted environmental, civic, and historic organizations, such as Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The California Art Club is dedicated to setting a high standard in the realm of traditional art. Members look for their artistic inspiration to the principles established by the Classical Greco-Romans, the Renaissance Masters, the 19th century European Academies, and the French and American Impressionists, as well as the founders of the California Art Club. Integral aspects of the traditional art philosophy include strengths in the representation of nature, light and atmosphere through refined design, color harmony, composition, communication, and an overall emotional effect. Technical skill is also highly prized and must express a knowledge of draughtsmanship, perspectives, and values.
One of the goals of most Contemporary-Traditional artists is to exemplify ideal beauty and to lift the human spirit into a higher consciousness. The California Art Club aspires to a modern interpretation of these artistic philosophies and aesthetics.
Under the chairmanship of native San Diego painter Aaron St. John, the first Regional Chapter in the 90 year history of the California Art Club was formed in San Diego in 1998. Using the local enthusiasm and activism of Braun, Fries, Mitchell and Reiffel as inspiration, the San Diego Chapter -- already close to 100 members strong, including artists, collectors and dealers -- is dedicated to being a leading force in furthering and enhancing the history and traditions of San Diego's and California's representational art and cultural life in the years to come.
Resources for this article:
A 2 volume scrapbook of various newspaper clippings covering San Diego art organizations ca. 1904 - 1930 in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art Research Library
Compiled and written by Aaron F. St. John, Chairman, San Diego Regional Chapter, California Art Club. Last revised: 11/11/99. For information regarding the San Diego Regional Chapter: Contact Mr. Aaron F. St. John, Chairman, at (858) 672-3811.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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