Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945
by Jean Stern
IMPRESSIONISM IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
The first Impressionist painter in Los Angeles was Benjamin C. Brown (1865-1942). He went there to visit and sketch as early as 1886, but did not settle as a permanent resident until 1896. After finding few patrons for his portraits, Brown turned to painting landscapes in a daring, vigorously Impressionistic style. Brown was active with many of the developing art societies in southern California. Along with his brother Howell, he founded the Print Makers Society of California, which sponsored annual international print exhibitions for many years.
At the turn of the century, the young Los Angeles art community could be characterized as an informal circle of artists who were also friends. Frequently, they socialized at each other's studios and on occasion painted together. With the coming of the 20th century, and the significant increase in the number of artists who chose to live in southern California, a number of clubs and associations were formed. The most important and longest-running art association is the California Art Club, formed in 1909. Within a few years, the club's membership included nearly every professional artist in southern California and even boasted many out-of-state artist-members. The California Art Club is still active today. Its president is Peter Adams and its large membership includes many of today's best-known plein air painters.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Los Angeles experienced a sudden influx of Impressionist painters, among them several of the important artists who would define the California Plein Air style: Granville Redmond (1871-1935), Hanson D. Puthuff (1875-1972), William Wendt (1865-1946), Sam Hyde Harris (1889-1977), Franz A. Bischoff (1864-1929), Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972), Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949), Jean Mannheim (1863-1945), and Maurice Braun (1877-1941). In addition, Edgar Payne (1883-1947) and his wife, Elsie Palmer Payne (1884-1971), were making frequent visits to Los Angeles and Laguna Beach. By 1913, with the arrival of Donna Schuster (1883-1953), and the return of native-born Guy Rose (1867-1925) the following year, the stage was set for one of the most remarkable and distinctive schools of regional American art.
Granville Redmond (1871-1935)
Granville Richard Seymour Redmond was born on March 9, 1871 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At two and a half, he nearly died of a severe episode of scarlet fever. The illness left him permanently deaf. He never heard a sound afterward and never learned to speak.
In 1874, Redmond's family took him to San Jose, California, and in 1879, he enrolled in what was then called the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind at Berkeley (now called the California School for the Deaf, in Fremont). At this school, his artistic talents were recognized and encouraged by teacher and photographer Theophilus Hope d'Estrella (1851-1929), who was deaf himself. D'Estrella taught Redmond drawing and pantomime. Redmond also received sculpture lessons from sculptor Douglas Tilden (1860-1935) who, like Redmond, had become deaf as a child due to scarlet fever.
After graduation in 1890, Redmond continued with his art studies and enrolled in the California School of Design. He took classes under the venerable Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) and Amédée Joullin (1862-1917). In 1893, with a stipend from the Institution for the Deaf, he went to Paris, where he enrolled in the Académie Julian.
In Paris, Redmond roomed with Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945), a former classmate from the California School of Design, and Douglas Tilden. The three artists would remain lifelong friends. After five years in France, Redmond returned to California and opened a studio in Los Angeles in 1898. For the next several years, he painted throughout the Los Angeles area, including Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Catalina Island, and San Pedro. He visited and painted in Northern California in 1902 and 1905.
In 1908 Redmond relocated to Parkfield on the Monterey Peninsula, where he resumed his friendship with Xavier Martinez (1869-1943), whom he had met at the California School of Design, and continued his close association with Piazzoni. He moved to San Mateo in 1910 and had a studio in Menlo Park.
In 1917, Redmond went back to Los Angeles with Piazzoni with the intent of auditioning for the movies. Redmond felt that his natural skills as a pantomimist would make him an ideal actor, as all movies at that time were silent. He met Charlie Chaplin when he auditioned for him. Chaplin was not overly impressed with Redmond's talent but nevertheless cast him in a small role in A Dog's Life. The two became very close friends, and Chaplin gave Redmond space in a building on his movie lot to set up a painting studio. In turn, Redmond taught Chaplin finger spelling and sign language. Between 1918 and 1929, Redmond had minor roles in seven Chaplin movies, the most noteworthy being that of the sculptor in City Lights.
One of California's leading landscape painters, Redmond was hampered by long periods of recurring depression and alcoholism. He preferred to paint in a moody, introspective style, characterized by the use of dark tones of brown, gold, and olive-green. His patrons, however, favored his cheerful paintings of rolling hills covered with golden poppies and other wildflowers. Redmond died on May 24, 1935 in Los Angeles.
William Wendt (1865-1946)
One of the best-known and most important artists in southern California, William Wendt was born on February 20, 1865 in Bentzen, Germany. In 1880, he immigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago, where he worked in a commercial art firm. Essentially self-taught, he attended evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago for only a brief period, as he longed to paint landscapes and was dissatisfied with figure studies. He quickly became an active exhibitor in various Chicago art shows, winning the Second Yerkes Prize at the Chicago Society of Artists exhibition in 1893.
In Chicago, Wendt befriended artist George Gardner Symons (1862-1930); together they made a number of trips to California between 1896 and 1904. In 1898, the two artists visited the art colony at St. Ives in Cornwall, England. A regular exhibitor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Wendt would show works upon his return from each of these trips.
In 1906, soon after his marriage, Wendt settled in Los Angeles with his wife, sculptor Julia Bracken. Already a successful painter, Wendt promptly became a leading member in the art community and was a founding member of the California Art Club in 1909. In March 1911, he was elected president and the club came to life. Wendt's tremendous prestige among his fellow artists allowed him to effect important programs to which he brought his strong organizational skills. During his first of two terms, which ran through 1914, the club instituted educational programs and increased its visibility through added exhibitions. Within a few years, the California Art Club's membership included nearly every professional artist in southern California and even boasted many out-of-state artist-members.
Wendt moved his home and studio to the art colony at Laguna Beach in 1912, the same year that he was elected to the National Academy of Design. He was a founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918, and although somewhat shy and reclusive, he was Laguna's most important resident artist-teacher. Arthur Millier, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, called Wendt "the man who has most truthfully pictured Southern California."
To Wendt, nature was a manifestation of God, and he viewed himself only as its faithful interpreter. People or animals are not often shown in his landscapes, and when they do appear, they take on a minor role. He always sketched out of doors, sometimes painting large, finished works. His early works show the feathery brushstrokes and hazy atmosphere of Impressionism. In his later works, after about 1912, his sense of space gradually flattened and he employed a distinctive block-like brushwork, giving solidity to his renditions of natural forms. A prolific painter, he was known as the "dean" of Southern California's landscape painters. Wendt died on December 29, 1946 in Laguna Beach, California.
Franz A. Bischoff (1864-1929)
Among the most respected artists of his day, Franz Bischoff was born on January 14, 1864 in Bomen, Austria. He began his artistic training at a craft school in Bomen. A precocious student, he went to Vienna in 1882 for further training in painting, design, and ceramic decoration. In 1885, he went to the United States and obtained employment as a painter in a ceramic factory in New York City. He moved to Pittsburgh, then to Fostoria, Ohio, and finally to Dearborn, Michigan, continuing to work as a porcelain painter.
Bischoff became one of the foremost porcelain painters of his day. He founded the Bischoff School of Ceramic Art in Detroit and New York City. Additionally, he formulated and manufactured many of his own colors, participated in exhibitions and won awards, earning a reputation as "King of the Rose Painters."
He first visited California in 1900 and, finding the climate and scenery appealing, made plans to move his family to San Francisco. However, the earthquake of April 1906 persuaded him to reconsider his plans and move his family to the Los Angeles area instead. In 1908 he built a studio-home along the Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena, complete with a gallery, ceramic workshop, and painting studio. The following year, Bischoff hosted a small group of artists in his studio, where they formed the California Art Club. In 1912 he took an extended tour of Europe, where he studied the works of the Old Masters and the Impressionists.
Once in California, Bischoff turned to landscape painting in addition to continuing his flower paintings and porcelain work. Through the 1920s, he painted the coastal areas of Monterey and Laguna Beach, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the desert near Palm Springs. Some of his most charming works were painted in the small central California village of Cambria. In 1924 he shared with Alson S. Clark the Huntington Prize, an annual award given for the most popular painting at the California Art Club exhibition. In 1928, Bischoff and his friend John Christopher Smith traveled to Utah, where they painted in Zion National Park. Bischoff died on February 5, 1929 in South Pasadena, California.
Joe Duncan Gleason (1881-1959)
Joe Duncan Gleason was born in Watsonville, California on August 3, 1881. When he was a child, his family moved to Los Angeles; by age 14, he was working at the Union Engraving Company. Gleason studied art with William Judson at the University of Southern California's College of Fine Arts, and later in San Francisco at the Mark Hopkins Institute. By 1900-1901, he was in New York, studying at the Art Students League and earning a living as a commercial artist.
In 1910, Gleason returned to Los Angeles and began a long career as a fine artist. His favorite subjects were ships and harbor scenes. He wrote and illustrated several books on California's maritime history, including Islands of California, which recounts the early Spanish explorations of that coast. He also worked in the scenic art departments of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers Studios. Gleason died on March 9, 1959 in Glendale, California.
Frank William Cuprien (1871-1948)
Frank Cuprien was born on August 23, 1871 in Brooklyn, New York. After attending the Cooper Union Art School and the Art Students League in New York City, he studied in Philadelphia with Carl Weber (1850-1921) and received criticism from noted marine painter William Trost Richards (1833-1905), who would become a major influence.
Cuprien completed his education with several years of study in Europe: in Munich with Karl Raupp (1837-1918) and in Paris at the Académie Julian. In addition, he studied music -- voice and piano -- at the Royal Conservatories in Munich and Leipzig, from which he graduated in 1905.
Returning to the United States, he first went to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. He then settled in Waco, Texas, where he taught at Baylor University. Around 1912 he moved to California, living first in Santa Monica and then in Santa Catalina Island for about six months. In 1914 he built a studio-home in Laguna Beach, calling it "The Viking." He became one of the leading artists of the community and helped to found the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918, serving as its president from 1921 to 1922. A master of seascapes, Cuprien often received the popular prize in the Laguna Beach Art Association exhibitions during the 1920s and 1930s. He died on June 21, 1948 in Laguna Beach, California.
Joseph Greenbaum (1864-1940)
Born in New York City, Joseph Greenbaum went to California at age 13, when his family relocated to San Francisco. He studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco and, as was the custom at the time, continued his training in Europe. Greenbaum studied under Carl von Marr at the Royal Academy in Munich, and in Paris at the Académie Julian. Both schools were noted for their exacting study of the human figure as well as portraiture.
Upon his return to San Francisco, he turned to portrait commissions. The earthquake of April 1906 destroyed Greenbaum's studio and all of its contents. Like many younger artists, he left San Francisco and headed south to the newly emerging city of Los Angeles. In 1908, he began teaching at the Art Students League of Los Angeles. On many occasions, he visited the Southwest, painting desert vistas in Arizona and New Mexico. Greenbaum died in Los Angeles on April 15, 1940.
Paul Lauritz (1889-1975)
Paul Lauritz was born on April 18, 1889 in Larvik, Norway. As a youth, he studied at the Larvik Art School. At age 16, he immigrated to eastern Canada, then worked his way west, settling in Portland, Oregon, where he found commercial art work. Lured by tales of Alaskan gold, he traveled to the remote region, where he painted dramatic mountain scenes. While there, he befriended and exhibited with artist Sydney Laurence (1865-1940), who would later become the best known of the Alaskan plein air painters.
In the latter part of 1919, Lauritz moved to Los Angeles and opened a studio. He began teaching at the Chouinard School of Art in 1928 and later also taught at Otis Art Institute. He was a member of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission for six years and helped to organize the first municipal art exhibitions.
Lauritz specialized in landscape work and painted along the coast from Laguna Beach to Monterey, in the High Sierras, and in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Mexico. He returned to his native Norway in 1925 where, in 1928, he received a special commission from the king. Lauritz died on October 31, 1975 in Glendale, California.
Edgar Alwin Payne (1883-1947)
Edgar Payne, one of the best-known painters of California, was born on March 1, 1883 in Washburn, Missouri. He left home around 1902, at age 19, and traveled for a number of years throughout the South, the Midwest, and in Mexico, taking various jobs as a house painter, sign painter, scenic painter, and portrait and mural artist. Payne settled in Chicago in 1907, where he enrolled in a portraiture class at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unimpressed with the teaching methods there, he left after only two weeks. He supported himself by painting landscapes in the form of small easel works and an occasional mural commission. Making a name for himself, he exhibited with the Palette and Chisel Club, a venue that afforded him the opportunity for additional sales of his paintings.
Payne visited California in 1909 and spent some time painting in Laguna Beach. He also visited San Francisco, where he met his future wife, artist Elsie Palmer (1884-1971), who worked as a commercial artist. He visited California a second time in 1911. Upon his return to Chicago, he encountered Elsie, who had moved there to take a position as a commercial artist. Soon thereafter, a romance ensued. They were set to be married on the morning of November 9, 1912, but early that day, Edgar asked Elsie to call all their guests and reschedule the wedding for later that afternoon, as "the light was perfect." Elsie understood the artistic value of perfect light and readily complied.
The Paynes moved to Chicago and, as an artistic couple, became well established in the art community there. Payne exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Palette and Chisel Club. He continued with his mural work between annual trips to California.
Elsie developed her style as she assisted Edgar in his mural commissions. Elsie's paintings show an approach based on solid forms and active, elegant line. To avoid comparison to her prolific husband's work, Elsie limited herself to painting in water-based media, principally gouache. In 1914, their first and only child, a daughter named Evelyn, was born.
In 1915, the Payne family visited California to see Elsie's parents in San Francisco and to attend the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Later, they traveled south and stayed in Santa Barbara for a few weeks.
During another visit to Santa Barbara in 1916, Payne went to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and marveled at the magnificent, unspoiled beauty he encountered. This would be the first of countless trips to the Sierra, a subject that would earn him wide renown.
In the summer of 1917, Edgar Payne accepted a significant commission to paint murals for the Congress Hotel in Chicago. The job was huge -- several floors of hallways requiring more than 11,000 square feet of canvas. To paint these murals, Payne rented an abandoned factory in Glendale, California, where the murals were actually painted. Elsie assisted her husband at every step. In 1918, when the project was completed, they moved to Laguna Beach. Payne became active in the art colony there and became the first president of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918.
The Paynes were ceaseless travelers. They painted throughout California, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as in Canada. No locale was too remote, and they spent a great deal of time in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, living for weeks at elaborate campsites that Edgar meticulously planned and oversaw. Their daughter, Evelyn, recalled that her father often brought a cook, as both mother and father were very busy painting. On extended stays of several weeks, they were re-supplied by mule train from the nearest town. Payne Lake, located in Humphrey's Basin, high in the Sierras, was named in his honor.
In the summer of 1922, in order to further Edgar's career, Elsie and Edgar, along with Evelyn, traveled to Europe. From 1922 to 1924, they painted in Paris, Provence, Brittany, Venice, and Switzerland. Predictably, Edgar's favorite painting locations were in the Alps. His painting of Mont Blanc, entitled THE GREAT WHITE PEAK, received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon in the spring of 1923. While Edgar painted his mountains in oils, Elsie, who preferred observing the people and daily life of these areas, painted her gouaches. Back in the United States in the fall of 1924, the Paynes returned to their home in Chicago.
At this time, Edgar met a young photographer's assistant who had been assigned to photograph his European paintings. That man was George Hurrell (1904-1992). Hurrell was fascinated by Payne's description of his home and studio in Laguna Beach and became convinced that he, too, should move to Laguna Beach.
Hurrell's move to California changed his life. At first, he supported himself by photographing portraits of the Laguna Beach artists and their work. Indeed, most of the photographs of the Paynes, William Griffith (1866-1940), Anna Hills (1882-1930), Thomas Hunt (1882-1938), William Wendt, and many others are actually early Hurrell photographs. A few years later, he became a popular portrait and glamour photographer for the movie studios and their most alluring stars. His photographic portraits of movie stars are synonymous with the Golden Age of the cinema. His subjects included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, the Barrymores, Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Loretta Young, and a number of other movie idols. In 1990, the New York Times wrote, "[Hurrell's] pictures came to define Hollywood glamour photography, not to mention the dreams of millions of star-struck moviegoers."
In 1925, Edgar and his family returned briefly to Laguna Beach before moving to New York in 1926, where Edgar's paintings were selling well. Over the next several years they lived in California, Connecticut, and New York and made painting trips to the California Sierras, Utah, and New Mexico.
In 1928, the Paynes retraced their first trip to Europe, painting in the harbors of Chioggia, Italy and Brittany, France. In 1929, they visited Lake Louise, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. In 1932, they returned to California and purchased a studio-home in Los Angeles, where Evelyn married John Hatcher. Soon thereafter, Elsie and Edgar separated following a bitter argument, but no divorce was filed. After all those years, Elsie was free to paint in oils!
Living alone in a studio on Seward Street in Hollywood, Edgar continued to paint the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, a subject he painted all his life. His infatuation with these mountains is documented in a film he produced entitled Sierra Journey. In 1941, he wrote Composition of Outdoor Painting, a comprehensive handbook on landscape painting techniques. The book is now in its sixth printing and continues to sell well.
In 1946, Edgar was diagnosed with cancer. Elsie, from whom he had been separated for 14 years, reacted with love and immediacy. She closed her studio and moved back with Edgar at his Seward Street house. She nursed him through his final months until his death on April 8, 1947.
The perpetuation of Edgar's memory became her life mission. She did this by giving lectures and organizing a large number of exhibitions of his paintings. In 1952, Elsie, who was also a sculptor, was commissioned to create a bronze relief plaque of her husband for the Laguna Beach Art Museum. By the late 1950s, Elsie's health was in decline and her eyesight was failing. In 1969, she moved to Minneapolis to be with her daughter, Evelyn, and her son-in-law, Jack Hatcher. Elsie Palmer Payne died peacefully on June 17, 1971.
Edward H. Potthast (1857-1927)
Edward H. Potthast was born the son of a cabinetmaker on June 10, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a boy, he was a prolific sketcher, filling the margins of his schoolbooks with drawings. In 1870, he was enrolled at the McMicken School of Design, later to become part of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In 1873, at age 16, Potthast was apprenticed to a lithographer and later worked for the Krebs Lithography Company and the renowned Strobridge Lithography Company, both in Cincinnati. By 1881, he was listed in the city directory as an "artist."
In 1882, he and fellow Cincinnatian Joseph Henry Sharp went to Europe to study at the Antwerp Academy in Belgium. Potthast spent three years in Europe, staying in Paris, and in Munich, where he was immersed in the forceful techniques and somber-colored style of the Munich Academy.
In 1885, Potthast was back in Cincinnati, still with Strobridge Lithography and taking evening art classes at the Museum Association Art School. After working for two or three years, he returned to Europe, possibly in 1888, for a six-year study tour. He visited Munich and Paris, with occasional trips to Holland. In Paris, Potthast studied under American Impressionist painter Robert Vonnoh, whose color-filled style served to lighten Potthast's dark and moody Munich School palette.
By 1895, he was in Cincinnati once again, working for Strobridge Lithography Company. His growing prestige as an artist gained him clients for his illustrations, including Scribner's Magazine and Century Magazine in New York. The next year, he left Cincinnati and set up residence in New York. He also began to exhibit in major New York art shows.
Potthast's importance as an artist reached new heights in 1899, when he was elected Associate Member of the National Academy and won the coveted Clark Prize at the annual exhibition there. An accomplished watercolor painter as well, he won the Evans Prize at the American Watercolor Society in 1901.
At about this time, the beginning of the 20th century, Potthast made his stylistic conversion to Impressionism. He began to use the lively colors of nature, adopted a quick and fluid brushstroke, and consistently painted out-of-doors to accurately capture the true, bright effect of natural light. Along with this turn to Impressionism, Potthast began to paint scenes of Central Park, showing groups of ordinary people and playful children set in bright, colorful settings. Most importantly, Potthast began to paint at various New York beaches, producing lively, bright scenes of people and children enjoying the pleasures of summer. These colorful beach scenes earned him enduring fame.
In 1906, Potthast was elected to full membership in the National Academy. He was recognized as one of the purest Impressionists in America. Even though his fame was spreading nationwide, he never lost touch with his hometown of Cincinnati. He returned there frequently to visit friends and family and to show his paintings at the museum and local art galleries.
In 1910, the Santa Fe Railroad invited five prominent artists to travel to the Grand Canyon to paint its natural beauty. Potthast was selected, along with Thomas Moran, the great painter of the West's natural wonders. As the Santa Fe line ended at Los Angeles, Potthast may have visited the beaches of Santa Monica and possibly traveled across the bay to Avalon. Later, he went west again, touring through Arizona and going up to the Canadian Rockies. In 1915, he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
April 1917 and America's involvement in World War I found Potthast working for the War Department, painting naval targets and producing patriotic illustrations and posters for the home front. After the war and into the 1920s, he continued to paint beach and park scenes in his popular, vivid Impressionist style. He was a tireless painter, always sketching and painting. Potthast died in his studio in New York on March 9, 1927 of a heart attack. He was nearly 70 years old.
Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949)
Alson Clark was born on March 25, 1876 in Chicago. He enrolled in Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1887, at age 11. He also received private tutoring from a German painter while visiting Europe with his family a few years later. After completing his public school education, he studied at the Art Institute for several months, from November 1895 through March 1896. Not satisfied with the teaching methods at the institute, he left for New York, where he enrolled in the newly formed school of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).
Late in 1898 Clark went to Paris, where he enrolled in the Académie Carmen, the atelier of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). He remained there for about six months, and then traveled around France and to Holland and Belgium. He continued his studies in Paris at the Académie Delecluse, an art school that was popular with foreign art students, and with Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), the great master of Art Nouveau.
Clark returned to the United States and early in 1902 opened a studio in Watertown, New York. Newly married, he returned to Paris in the fall of 1902. In October and November 1910, he visited Giverny, the famous home village of Claude Monet, where he saw Lawton Parker, an old classmate, Frederick Frieseke, and Guy Rose.
An inveterate wayfarer, Clark traveled throughout Europe and the United States. In 1913, on his way to Paris, he stopped in Panama and decided to undertake the project of recording the construction of the Panama Canal. Eighteen of those paintings were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, and Clark was awarded a Bronze Medal. Thereafter, Clark and his wife divided their time between France and the United States until the outbreak of World War I, when they returned to the United States.
After the United States entered the war, Clark enlisted in the Navy and was sent to France to work as an aerial photographer. After the war, Clark visited California in the winter of 1919 for health reasons. In January 1920, he decided to remain, acquiring a home and studio along the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. He renewed his acquaintance with Guy Rose, who had also returned to California in 1914.
In 1921, along with Rose, Clark began teaching at the Stickney Memorial School of Art. Attracted to the Southwest landscape, Clark made numerous painting trips in California and Mexico. In 1924, he was in Santa Catalina Island, where he painted several noteworthy works. That year, he shared with Franz A. Bischoff the Huntington Prize, an annual award given for the most popular painting at the California Art Club exhibition. Clark's prize-winning painting was entitled CATALINA, featuring a magnificent view of Avalon Harbor. An important member of the Pasadena art community, Clark painted several murals for schools and public buildings, and was the art designer for the newly opened Pasadena Playhouse in 1925. He died in Pasadena on March 23, 1949, while painting in his studio.
Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939)
Frank Tenney Johnson was born in Pottawattamie County, near Oakland, Iowa, on June 26, 1874. His birthplace and home was a small family farm situated on the old Overland Trail, not far from Council Bluffs. In December 1886, Johnson's mother died. The family could not cope with the stress of maintaining the farm, so they moved to Milwaukee in 1888.
In 1893, Johnson enrolled in the Milwaukee School of Art and took lessons from Richard Lorenz (1858-1915), the celebrated painter of Western subjects who had once been a Texas Ranger. That year, Johnson went on the first of many sketching trips to the Indian country of South Dakota. In 1894, he enrolled in the Art Students League of Milwaukee. A year later, with the aim of getting the best professional instruction, he went to New York, where he studied with John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) at the Art Students League. In 1896, he returned to Milwaukee and married Vinnie Reeve Francis.
Johnson and his wife lived in Milwaukee for the next few years, saving money while he produced illustrations for various magazines and books. In September 1902, they moved to New York, where Johnson was accepted at the prestigious New York School of Art, taking classes with two of the great icons of American art, Robert Henri (1865-1929) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).
In 1904, Field and Stream magazine agreed to sponsor Johnson on an extended painting trip to Colorado and New Mexico. To get firsthand exposure to cowboy life, Johnson joined the Lazy 7 ranch in Hayden, Colorado. Afterward, Johnson went to New Mexico and traveled extensively, painting in such quaint places as Santa Cruz, Española, the pueblos of Santa Clara and San Juan, and Isleta. He admired the deep beauty of the land and developed a great respect for the Indians who had lived there for so many centuries.
In New Mexico, the overpowering heat of the desert day made normal daily activities impractical. Community life was postponed until the cool of the evening. The sight of Navajos going about their business by the light of the moon and stars was a revelation to Johnson. He began to develop a unique technique of moonlight painting that was to become his "trademark".
During the next few years, Johnson became well known as an illustrator, especially for books by Zane Grey. He also worked for such magazine luminaries as Metropolitan, Sunday Magazine, Harper's Recreation Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Monthly, and Harper's Weekly. Although he earned a successful living as an illustrator, he longed to retire to full-time easel painting.
In 1912, Johnson sent a small painting of Santa Catalina Island to the annual Thumb Box Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, one of the oldest, most important art clubs in New York City. His regular participation in diverse New York art exhibitions gave him a much sought-after standing among his artistic peers.
At the 1919 Salmagundi Club Exhibition in New York, Johnson met artist Clyde Forsythe (1885-1962), who was to become a lifelong friend. Forsythe lived in California and, over time, suggested to Johnson that he should move there, too. In 1922, Johnson and his wife went to Los Angeles, where he exhibited several of his works at the Stendahl Galleries in the Ambassador Hotel. While in Los Angeles, he joined the California Art Club and showed in its 1922 exhibition. The move to Los Angeles was a disappointment, as Johnson failed to sell any of his paintings. He and Vinnie returned to New York, where he continued his career as an illustrator.
Johnson's fortunes made a turn for the better in 1923. He had already received some recognition for his night scenes, but his reputation was firmly established when one of his moonlight paintings, THE WANDERER, won the coveted Samuel T. Shaw Purchase Prize at the Salmagundi Exhibition of 1923. At the same time, his paintings began to sell well at Stendahl's, so the Johnsons decided to move back to Los Angeles. After finally achieving success as an easel painter, he retired from illustration.
In 1925, Johnson and his assistants painted three monumental paintings as part of the decor for the newly opened Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. They included: THE DONNER PARTY, for the massive 30 by 40 foot center curtain, and two side panels, THE INDIANS and THE MINERS, each measuring 18 by 11 feet. The completion of these huge works made Johnson a celebrity and greatly increased the demand for his paintings. Unfortunately, this venerable theater was demolished in 1969 to make way for an office building. The paintings were taken down and put into storage for many years, where they suffered greatly from poor handling.
In 1926, the Johnsons moved into their new house and studio at 22 Champion Place in Alhambra, a small community just east of Los Angeles. His neighbors on "Artist's Alley," as Champion Place was called, included Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) and Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949).
In 1929, Johnson was elected Associate Member of the National Academy of Design. In 1930, he was elected to Honorary Life Membership in the National Arts Club of New York. However, his greatest award finally came in April 1937, when he was elevated to full Academician in the National Academy. From that time on, he proudly displayed the "NA" after his signature on all his paintings.
Ironically, death came to Frank Tenney Johnson as a result of a kiss given in friendly greeting. At a gathering on the evening of December 19, 1938, Johnson greeted an old friend, Mrs. Callahan, with a kiss. A few days later, Mrs. Callahan died from advanced spinal meningitis. Unwittingly, Johnson had contracted the disease from the kiss. He fell ill with fever a few days later. He died of spinal meningitis early in the morning on January 1, 1939, at his home in Alhambra. He was 64 years old.
At the end of the 1920s, the southern California art community experienced a series of dramatic transformations. The history of art is one of developmental changes, and many of these changes occur at generational intervals. The plein air painters had been students of academicians, and had later turned to the "new" and different style of Impressionism. Now, a generation later, their students in turn, embraced the "new" styles, characterized by a move away from the perceptual, toward more conceptual approaches to painting.
Furthermore, in 1929, the American economy suffered a terrible blow from the onset of the Great Depression. Almost overnight, the dynamic artist-dealer-patron relationship ground to a halt, as much of America's disposable income had vanished. The Depression was an indiscriminate misfortune to all artists. Modernists as well as plein air artists joined in the Works Progress Administration programs, such as the Federal Arts Project, which allotted mural commissions for public buildings. Additionally, the American character turned inward and began a prolonged, restless period of self-examination. The arts followed suit, and artists applied themselves to exploring the American experience in this time of solemnity. The bright, buoyant landscape paintings of the plein air style were replaced with somber, comfortless views of cities and farms.
With economic recovery in the late 1930s, Modernism made its inroads, and by the outbreak of World War II, most of the prominent names of California Impressionism had died or withdrawn from the public eye. The style itself had become a nostalgic souvenir of a bygone era.
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