The Development of an Art Community in the Los Angeles Area

by Ruth Westphal

 



 

The following essay was written in 1982 by Ruth Westphal It is an essay written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, by Ruth Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-0-7

 

That the dusty pueblo of Los Angeles would eventually evolve into a culturally mature and teeming metropolis was inevitable. Its climate, its surrounding scenic beauty, its accessibility to ocean-going commerce and the potential of rich agricultural production made it a plum stifled in its ripening only by its great distance from the population centers of the East. The linchpin of its destiny was the railroad link with the East and with Northern California, both of which came by the 1880's. This, along with aggressive real estate promotion and a systematic advertising campaign by the Chamber of Commerce (described as never equaled in modern times),[1] resulted in a population boom and the birth of a professional artists' community.

Artists of the 1890's found a rather apathetic reception. Benjamin Brown received a discouraging letter from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce when he wrote from Missouri to inquire about opportunities for a painter in Los Angeles.[2] Nevertheless, he and many others came and established themselves successfully. Between 1900 and 1924 the population of Los Angeles grew from 102,000 to 1,750,000. Growing business created a need for commercial artists; an affinity for architectural decoration demanded mural painters; scene painters and set designers were needed for the fast-growing motion picture business; and a newly-forming leisure class began to consume the services of portraitists and easel painters.

The Ruskin Art Club, credited as the first organization to foster local art, was founded in 1888 by a group of women interested in studying the history of art and its various techniques.[3] A visionary leader of this group, Henrietta Housh, urged a definitive policy of holding regular art exhibitions. Later she founded and became vice-president of the Fine Arts League, a group dedicated to obtaining an art gallery They promoted the addition of an art gallery to the proposed science and history museum. Their goal was realized in 1913 with the opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, incorporating the first public art gallery in Los Angeles.

Another figure credited with cultivating the fledgling artistic community of the city is Frederick W. Blanchard who, in 1899, built the Blanchard Music and Art Building, which offered exhibition and studio space to artists and musicians. The building also eventually housed the Ruskin Art Club, the Blanchard Gallery, and the Art Students' League, a group formed by Hanson Puthuff and Antony Anderson (1863-1939).

The first art association run by and for artists was the Los Angeles Art Club, founded in 1890, but it disbanded in a short time when its leader, Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), left for Europe. Also in 1890, the Sketch Club was organized in connection with art classes of the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. At first comprised mainly of amateurs, the club soon included many professionals and, by 1895, was reorganized more formally as the Art Association. Rivalry and basic philosophic and style differences led to the formation of a splinter group, the Society of Fine Arts of Southern California. The Art Association, led by Guy Rose, became essentially pro-Impressionist and the new Society, led by Borglum and E Bond Francisco, espoused a Realist-Romantic bias.[4] In 1906, the Painters' Club was formed by a circle of artists who met at the home and studio of Hanson Puthuff. By 1909 they had grown to a more formal group who decided to hold regular exhibitions. They then organized as the California Art Club, which remained the dominant artists' association of Los Angeles into the 1920's. An alternative group, the Painters' and Sculptors' Club, formed in 1923. Meeting in the studio of Joseph Kleitsch, these artists organized a democratic working and exhibiting club for men only, patterned after the Salmagundi Club of New York and the Palette and Chisel Club of Chicago. They provided a studio with models where members could paint without interference or instruction. They also had a sketching camp for landscape painting and painting from models in the open air.

The first art dealers in Los Angeles brought art from Europe and the East Coast and eschewed local paintings, By 1917, however, the firm of Cannell and Chaffin, interior decorators dealing in antique furniture, fine old books and 18th century decorative art, began also to sell paintings by local artists. In 1921, Earl Stendahl established the Stendahl Galleries in the Ambassador Hotel and began a decade of strong promotion of local painters. He subsequently opened branch galleries in Pasadena and San Diego. Two other major galleries of local art, Steckels and the gallery of J. F. Kanst, were located downtown. The Biltmore Salon (also called Biltmore Galeria Real) was founded in 1923 by artists and also emphasized the promotion of local painting.

The first regular art column appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1906. It was written by Antony Anderson, who for the next twenty years or so gave enthusiastic encouragement and gentle criticism to the region's maturing artists. He was succeeded in 1926 by Arthur Millier (1893-1975), also a strong encourager of the local artists, but who was somewhat more critical than Anderson.

The city's two major art schools were established within a few years of each other. In 1918 the Otis Art Institute opened in the former residence of Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times. He had donated his home to Los Angeles County for the "advancement of art in the West,"[5] This art school was affiliated with the Museum of History, Science and Art, and became a respected institution, having through the years most of the region's prominent artists as either students or instructors, The Chouinard School of Art was founded in the early 1920's by Nelbert Chouinard to accommodate the overflow from the Otis. A third school was founded in Pasadena. Called the Stickney Memorial Art School and headed by Jean Mannheim, it opened in 1912 in Stickney Hall, built and donated by Susan Homer Stickney in memory of her sister.

While the art center of Los Angeles spread from downtown to the area around Westlake Park where the major schools were located, another colony developed in Pasadena. In 1926 the population of Pasadena was only 80,000 year-round residents, but the community boasted five luxurious resort hotels, twelve golf courses, the Rose Bowl and the Tournament of Roses, which was in its thirty-seventh year. The city's main attraction for artists was its Arroyo Seco, a deep, wooded canyon meandering north from Los Angeles toward the Sierra Madres. Originally called "the Sycamores:' its quiet stream and rugged natural beauty at first attracted picnickers and then later permanent settlers who built along its crest. A strong colony of craftsworkers settled there. George Wharton James promoted a guild of Arroyo craftsmen, Ernest A. Batchelder (1875-1957) founded his School of Design and Handicraft, and the University of Southern California College of Fine Arts in Garvanza and the Southwest Museum all became a part of the Arroyo art community. Many plein air painters found it a constant source of inspiration, Mannheim, Bischoff, Clark, Redmond and the Wachtels all built Studio homes in the area.

Although the plein air painters of Los Angeles and Pasadena interpreted the natural beauty near their homes, they began to explore the countryside surrounding their growing communities. Hundreds of interurban express trains (now sadly gone from the scene), a growing network of oiled and paved roads and the advent of the automobile all contributed to the increasing mobility of the painters. The riches they could explore were described by George Wharton James: "In thirty-five minutes, see her [Los Angeles'] bejewelled ocean cincture, a galaxy of beach-towns that have the rich blue of the Pacific as an allurement every day in the year, and where surf bathing is indulged in every day, almost without exception. Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, Playa del Rey, Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo, San Pedro, Balboa and Newport are all reached directly with express electric cars direct from Los Angeles. Then, in the other direction stand the mountains with their Mt. Lowe Railway, Carnegie Observatory, and the cool and delicious canyons, where running brooks sing to sunshine-kissed trees, and gigantic mountain sides and cliffs keep putting on ever-changing garments of colour and tone for the delectation of the elect,

"And between mountains and sea are miles and miles, on either hand, of orange orchards, lemon groves, avenues of palms, great mesas dotted over with poppies, lupines and mustard, the groves of stately eucalyptus, and all where the odours of a million times a million flowers and blossoms unite with the salty tang of the sea air and the pine and balsam laden breezes from the mountains."[6]

If there was even a shred of truth to this description, it is no wonder, then, that in Los Angeles in the 1920's a rich plein air school came into its heyday.

Endnotes

1. James, George Wharton, California Romantic and Beautiful, Boston: The Page Company, 1914, p. 268.

2. Brown, Benjamin, "The Beginnings of Art in Los Angeles," California Southland, January, 1924.

3. Splitter, Henry Winfred, "Art in Los Angeles before 1900, Part II," The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, June, 1959.

4. ___________,"Art in Los Angeles before 1900, Part III," The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, September, 1959.

5. Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall, Publications in Southern California Art, Number 3, Glendale, CA: Dustin Publications, 1975, p.185.

6. James, George Wharton, op. cit., p. 272.

Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California

 

About the Author

Ruth Westphal received a Bachelor of Arts in education from from U.C.L.A., and a Master of Arts from Chapman College. She has taught in the public schools, designed educational programs for Litton Industries, and written educational filmstrips. At the time of publication of the essay she owned a company which produces educational materials for the health-care field and collegiate departments of psychology and education.

 

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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