The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Oakland Museum of California and the author. Oakland Museum of California is presenting the exhibition Scene in Oakland, 1852-2002: Artworks Celebrating the City's 150th Anniversary, which will be on view March 9 through August 25, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Oakland Museum of California directly through either the following phone number or web address:
Scene in Oakland, 1852-2002: Artworks Celebrating the City's 150th Anniversary
by Harvey L. Jones, Exhibition Curator
During Oakland's first 150 years, numerous California artists found inspiration in the wide variety of pictorial subject matter they could draw from in the city. The exhibition Scene in Oakland, 1852-2002, part of this museum's celebration of Oakland's sesquicentennial, affords an opportunity to exhibit 66 views of the city by 48 artists, drawn largely from the Oakland Museum of California?s own collections.
Oakland in its early decades was filled with high rolling hills and steep canyons, tall redwoods, fragrant bays and native oaks along descending creeks that met sloping meadows and grassy marshlands near the estuary and San Francisco Bay. These soon gave way to urban development with the changes to the landscape that "progress" inevitably brings. Evidence of the region's first inhabitants, the Ohlone Indians who occupied the shores of the Bay Area for 3500 years before the arrival of the first white men, was largely gone by the time the city was incorporated in 1852.
The original town of Oakland occupied the area west of the slough along San Antonio Creek, later dammed forming Lake Merritt. The regions east of the slough, including the adjacent towns of Brooklyn, Clinton, San Antonio and Fruitvale were later annexed to Oakland, and then the city eventually expanded to Trestle Glen and Montclair in the Oakland hills. Some locations of early scenes in the exhibition are identified by their original town names.
The name "Oakland," derived from "Encinal," meaning oak grove, reflects the city's origin in Spanish California, located on part of the Peralta land grant. This origin is beautifully depicted in Ferdinand Richardt's painting of Oaks at Madison and Eighth Streets.
The museum's earliest view of Oakland is a pencil and watercolor sketch of lower Broadway in May 1854, done by an unknown artist. The scene is reminiscent of a movie set for a frontier town; the broad dusty road between two rows of hastily constructed wooden storefront buildings located in a grove of native oaks.
The city's history, as a world seaport, a transcontinental railroad terminus, a residential community, an industrial center, as well as an important educational and cultural district, is well documented in images produced by many of California's prominent painters and photographers. Oakland and the East Bay were either the home or the host to numerous artists throughout the city's history, including such well-known 19th-century artists as Albert Bierstadt, William Keith, Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton E. Watkins. The descriptive works of these and other celebrated 19th-century artists reveal the crucial beginnings of the East Bay's biggest city.
A William Keith watercolor from 1867 shows a very rural Southern Pacific Railroad depot among the oaks on Seventh Street at Adeline. Another of Danish born Richardt's paintings shows Mrs. Poston's Female Academy, a school that in 1870s occupied the present site of our Oakland Museum of California. Joseph Lee, an artist with a penchant for meticulous detail, depicted the farmhouse Residence of Captain Thomas W. Badger in Brooklyn, in two paintings from about 1871. The artist's views from the north and the south also show a train crossing a trestle near the estuary.
Then as now Lake Merritt was a popular subject for landscape painters. Many artists captured the appeal of this urban lake, which became a recreational park for city residents and the site of America's first wild bird sanctuary. Its central location can be seen in several early scenes that provide panoramic views of the growing city, such as Léon Trousset's Lake Merritt Scene (View of Oakland), 1875.
Resident artist Marius Dahlgren's depictions of Oakland in the late 1870s and early 1880s includes Alameda County Courthouse, East Oakland, shown in its location at the corner of East 14th Street and 20th Avenue. Another of his Oakland views from the northwest corner of 12th and Clay Streets features a man on horseback near the First Congregational Church. Carl Dahlgren, brother of Marius, provides his turn of the century view of the College of Holy Names at its original site near Lake Merritt where the Kaiser Center now stands.
The twentieth century witnessed the greatest changes in Oakland's visible profile, brought on by population growth following the two world wars. Building booms for housing and business, as well as greater emphasis on cultural and recreational facilities are reflected in exhibited artworks by many painters and photographers active during the twentieth century. Oakland's changing metropolitan skyline exerted its pictorial appeal on the artworks of several painters during the twentieth century when high-rise office buildings, like City Hall and Tribune Tower, and more recently, skyscraper additions to Civic Center dwarfed the church steeples and tall trees of an earlier cityscape.
Urban subjects began to appear in modern paintings and photographs exhibited in art galleries after the 1920s and 30s. Mary DeNeal Morgan's painting of Lake Merritt from the 1930s shows on the horizon several of the city's then "skyscrapers" that remain in view to this day. Painters and photographers such as Lundy Siegriest, Peter Stackpole, Willard Van Dyke and Lewis Watts found inspiration in some of Oakland's freeways, derelict buildings and neglected neighborhoods for subjects that call viewers' attention to the social implications beyond the aesthetics of their scenes.
Historical events such as the disasters of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and the fire in the Oakland hills of 1991 have certainly affected the landscape of the city. Mark Downey, June Felter, Glenna Putt and Ambrose Pillphister captured images of those landscape-altering incidents in their paintings or photographs.
Jan Lassetter's painting of The Trojan Horses, 1988, depicts the Port of Oakland's giant cranes, a dominant sight on today's southwest skyline, symbolic of the Port's importance to the city's commerce. Anthony Holdsworth makes a specialty of painting the peopled city streets and industrial areas of Oakland. In two paintings that reflect the combined architectural legacies of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in downtown Oakland, Holdsworth's pictures stand in dramatic contrast to our anonymous artist's view of lower Broadway in Oakland, May 1854, the chronological beginning of the exhibition.
About the author
Harvey L. Jones is senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California.
Checklist of the Exhibition