The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra

Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches


A Society for Six

by Sarah Beserra


A colorful exhibition of 25 paintings by the Bay Area's Society of Six comprises the inaugural exhibition for the new University Library Gallery at California State University, Sacramento. The majority of the works are on loan from Robert Aichele, CSUS Professor Emeritus, and have not been seen publicly since they were painted.

The six colorists -- Seldon Gile, August Gay, Louis Siegriest, Maurice Logan, William Clapp and Bernard Von Eichmann -- painted in the East Bay and Marin County in the 1920's and bridged the gap between traditional landscape painting and Bay Area Modernism. Art historian Nancy Boas' book The Society of Six: California Colorists brought the Six out of obscurity when it was published in the early 1990's.

Aichele acquired the majority of the pieces from Marin County painter Elizabeth Hall in the 1980's. The largest piece in the show and also the poster image is Seldon Gile's "Fall's Beginning," a 30" x 36" oil on canvas. It was found in Los Angeles after languishing in a closet for 52 years. The owners had died, and the painting was forgotten. Gile himself had priced it at $600 -- a whopping sum at the time and an indication of how much he valued the painting. According to Aichele, it is one of the finest landscape paintings in the first half of the 20th Century painted by a California artist. "It hasn't been surpassed," he said.

How Mrs. Hall, an amateur painter, acquired 500 of Gile's paintings is an incredible story. In the 1950's Hall discovered hundreds of paintings stacked haphazardly in the back of her local Christian Science Reading room. Gile had died and given them to a friend who had then given them to the church. Hall fell in love with the paintings on sight and told her husband she wanted to buy them. He tried to discourage her, saying that there wasn't room in the house to hang all of them.. She didn't care and bought them all -- for $1 apiece!

Over the years she gave them away as door prizes at parties. She sold those she didn't give away -- for $1 apiece and later raised that to $5 as their value increased. In the meantime, Aichele was guided to Hall's place in Belvedere by a friend who had one of Gile's paintings in his house. Aichele fell in love with the paintings just as Hall had thirty years before and eventually bought them. And this became the basis of Aichele's collection that is showing in Sacramento today [June, 2002].

"Several of the paintings still have $1 and $5 written on the backs" said Aichele. All of the money Hall derived from painting sales was given to the Christian Scientists. She always believed that one day the Six would have an important place in art history. She was right, of course.

A panel comprised of Society of Six experts entertained the public with stories about the group at the opening in April [2002]. Nancy Boas, painter Terry St. John and Scott Shields, Curator at the Crocker Art Museum comprised the panel. According to the speakers, there were no collectors of the Six during their lifetimes. Giles never sold and Von Eichmann burned most of his work. Siegriest simply didn't care, remaining in the Oakland house he grew up in until his death. He moved into abstraction during the 1950's and 1960's but finally returned to plein air painting late in life when St. John joined him and his son Lundy painting the hills around Oakland.

CSUS : The Society of Six -- Cal State Sacramento, 6000 J St, Sacramento. Thirty paintings of the Six from the Robert Aichele collection. Apr. 4- July 27 [2002]. (916) 278-ARTS.

© Sarah Beserra, 2002

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Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. Please see the website for The Plein Air Scene for email address and phone number.

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