California Art at the Oakland Museum

by Paul Chadbourne Mills



The following essay was written in 1986 by Paul Chadbourne Mills, who was, at the time of writing of the essay, an art consultant and guest curator. He was Curator and Head of the Oakland Museum Art Department from 1954 to 1970 and Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from 1970 to 1982. This essay was written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California, The North, edited by Ruth Lilly Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-1-5


"Know that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California," wrote the author of a popular sixteenth century Spanish tale, a work not unlike some science fiction of today, full of almost-believable flying saucers. An island called California, "very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons." Cortez and his adventurers, once Mexico City was subdued, looked for new conquests in the "South Sea" -- for rumored wonders which could turn out to be fact or fiction. They looked for a Northwest Passage. They looked for islands rich in pearls. They looked for black Amazons; they looked for California. Somehow the name stuck to the modest peninsula his men did find, and it has been pretty difficult to keep the yeasty chemistry of fantasy out of affairs in California ever since.

I, too, am sort of a latter-day adventurer, one who decided it was possible to conjure up a California, specifically a California of the Arts, at a time when only a few thought such a thing could be brought to exist, and persuaded the Oakland Museum to specialize in it, eschewing all other arts. By the middle of the twentieth century, even we art historians have been forced to give up most fantasy for fact, so any such vision of a California art had to be created out of real paintings, real sculptures, prints, pots and photographs, old ones from neglected parlors, museum basements and second hand stores, new ones from the studios of the artists themselves. It had to be created out of real facts, derived not from the standard art historical books, but from such sources as photocopies of long defunct San Francisco newspapers, gleaned by a corps of dedicated docents. Fortunately, it was really there, this California. Now, thirty-some years later, the Art of California is permanently enshrined in the galleries of the new Oakland Museum and enlivens its other spaces with temporary exhibitions. It speaks forth in books, and it prospers throughout the land.

So much for a beginning flourish. I have been asked to tell you how this adventure came to happen. Now let us settle down to the little tale itself.

What happened was partly the outcome of who I was. I was born in Seattle in 1924 and went through high school there. I was interested in architecture and the arts; not very popular fields, but the public schools there did give surprisingly good training in them then. I also started a career in journalism, which was more accessible than the arts, but I liked it less. World War II sent me off to the least and most civilized places in Alaska for several years. Then to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and back to art, art history and philosophy of art, but also to uncertainties about them. I then made a plunge at pre-architecture and missed. I left for several years of newspaper work. I later returned to college at the University of Washington in Seattle, and fell into a job at the Henry Art Gallery there, as assistant to Melvin Kohler, who had a brilliant record for bringing new life, contemporary art and crafts and handsome installations to the gallery.

Whatever uncertainty and vacillation about careers I had experienced before stopped once I got planted at the Henry Gallery. I loved buildings, art, exhibitions, installations, public relations, film, television, research and a dozen other things. (I stayed that way for over thirty years; one-plus at the Henry Gallery, seventeen at the Oakland Museum, then twelve at the Santa Barbara Museum.[1])

The prelude to what we did with California art at Oakland occurred, looking back, in the basement storage area of the Henry Gallery. When Kohler's modern moves began, the old Henry collection, mostly Barbizon landscapes and similar works, ended up in that basement storage. I thoroughly enjoyed contemporary art, but something pulled me to these older paintings too. I especially liked a fresh little view of the Le Havre harbor by Eugene Boudin. I chose it as the topic of the undergraduate thesis which the university required of those who wanted to graduate in art history. I loved working on this thesis, and, engorged with naive aspiration, I wanted it to be the best and most comprehensive essay on Boudin ever written in English. Only gradually did I come to realize that it couldn't be. I had never seen the actual harbors, long beaches and cloudy skies where Boudin worked; I had not seen the major assemblies of his paintings; I did nor have access to the letters and other papers in the Boudin archives in the Le Havre museum. Instead of being able to write an essay which had substance in the real world of art history, I was just writing one more student essay, hardly meaningful outside the classroom. Without quite realizing it, I had set myself up to respond in the future especially to artists who had painted in an area I could also see, whose best works and whose research materials I had better access to than anyone.[2]

My move to Oakland came abruptly and was determined more by the fates than by design. Once there, I set out to enter the graduate school at Berkeley in art: history, and sought a part-time job at the Oakland Art Gallery, (which we soon renamed the Oakland Art Museum and is known today as the Art Department of the Oakland Museum.) The museum turned out to be full time, and graduate school part time, with my Master's Degree not being received for several years. The museum, founded in 1916 as an outcome of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, had declined as others in the Bay Area had prospered, and its longtime artist-director,William Clapp, had recently retired. It had a long record of competitive annual exhibitions and other projects, but by now it looked awful; the sagging wicker chairs and rusty, teetering pedestal ashtrays matched the worn floor and the dirty skylights. Recalling what Mel Kohler accomplished at the Henry Gallery, we set out to transform the place, and we did. I was much aided by Jan, a school friend from Seattle whom I married in 1955, who, in the course of the next fifteen years, fed thousands in behalf of the museum and helped support our family through her successes in the wholesale apparel field.[3]

To a far greater degree than now, especially in the West, art museums were a learn-on-the-job trade, in which one's teachers were other more experienced museum professionals and one's classrooms were the meetings of the American Association of Museums and its regional councils of the College Art Association and of the Western Association of Art Museums.[4]

The Oakland Art Museum had a permanent collection of sorts. There were a dozen California paintings, good and bad, shading off to an attic-full of unclaimed leftovers from years of competitive shows, most of them dreary, but a few quite surprisingly marvelous. There was a collection of very marginal European paintings from one donor, seldom by the hands of anyone near the artists they hoped to be "close to." There was also a most curious collection of paintings the Czarist Russian government sent off to the 1915 Panama Pacific exposition, among them fine views of Russian churches by Nicholas Roerich and some gigantic scenes of cheerful peasant life on the steppes. They had all been left unclaimed by the succession of Russian revolutionary governments, and, after various other complications, they were sold at auction by the U.S. Customs Service to friends of the museum, who for better or worse, had donated them to us. The museum had no source of funds for purchases; the basic operating budget was supplied by the city, but purchases, prize money and such had to be gifts.

Once we had achieved a wholly different look for the galleries and had an exhibition program and an affiliate group going, the questions of the permanent collection drifted with increasing insistence to the top of current concerns. Whatever we did, I wanted us to be awfully good at it. There was simply no point in entering the fields of classic world art like the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor Museum across the Bay; most of the works we had were more of a deficit to our reputation than an asset, and there was no fount of purchase money. We had a long record of presenting contemporary artists of various stylistic persuasions, and had a toe-hold in a field dominated by the San Francisco Museum of (now Modern) Art, but we had to be careful about it.

The legacy of my Boudin thesis was in mind; whatever we chose, we wanted to be central to the works, the subject matter and the research sources. That really meant doing something with California artists. In comparison with the earlier artists of my native Seattle, artists in California from the Yankee beginnings here had been abundant and able, however ignored they currently were. The San Francisco museums were hardly interested in earlier California art; they had some in storage, it turns out, but they were willing to lend, give or sell quite a few good pieces to us.

The choice of specializing in "The Art of California, from the Earliest Times to Present" -- excluding Indian art, which was well handled by natural history museums -- evolved with the logic of inevitability. I proposed our dedication to it somewhere along in 1954. There were natural allies for this policy. The publishers and editors of The Oakland Tribune, the Knowland family, had a great interest in California history and dedicated a lot of space to it, including a whole special page each Sunday. The Librarian of the Oakland Public Library, Dr. Peter T. Conmy, under whose administration we came, was a California history buff and was most supportive of a California History Room in the main library. They all found no trouble in supporting this proposal and did so consistently.

This was not the case in the art world, though. A lot of potential support the brash new curator was beginning to get faded and went sideways when this new specialization was announced. Some of the ground the Oakland Art Museum and I were beginning to gain was now lost, and we were both demoted back down a few steps.

The first painting we acquired for the new California collection was bought in 1954 from the San Francisco print dealer, R.E. Lewis, who had a less prejudiced eye outside the print field than some. It is a marvelously free and brushy oil painting by the French artist Jules Tavernier who had come across the plains to California doing a series of illustrations for Harper's Weekly in the 1870s and settled here. It depicts a "Frontiersman and Indian Woman" and cost $175. Without frame. The handyman at the museum and I made a frame for it by cutting down one of the unclaimed frames in the museum attic. Some indication of the reaction of much of the art world was given to us by Alexandre Rabow, a most charming and civilized French art dealer in San Francisco, who, with his wife, Rose, had become special friends. He saw the Tavernier the day we bought it. He was really quite hurt and disappointed we had acquired it. He simply couldn't concur with the choice of California art, and it was only out of his generosity of spirit that we stayed friends at all.

I must interrupt here to say something about underdogs. Having been put in the role of one, I learned to have special respect for them. The Oakland Art Museum was an underdog; even American art history was an underdog; certainly California art history was, and Oakland itself was an underdog. In comparison with the sophistication and civility of San Francisco just a few minutes across the Bridge, Oakland was often described by quoting Gertrude Stein, once an Oakland resident, who said, "The trouble with Oakland is, there's no there there." Through some imprecise inner alchemy, all of this went together. I also learned that underdogs worked harder, adapted better and cooperated more than the "overdogs" of success, who worked less, expected more from others and complained harder if they didn't get it, Creating a center for the art of California in Oakland was a natural rallying cry which brought us an amazing degree of support from the ambitious underdogs of the area.

This culminated when the three Oakland museums and their Association, upon the second try, succeeded in passing a municipal bond issue which funded the present marvelous new building; four blocks square, by a now-internationally-known architect (then an underdog!). But that is another story. With underdogs in mind, let us go back to the development of our California art program, and to some of the people who helped make it happen.

From the beginning, again perhaps because of my Boudin thesis experience, I saw the collecting of the art of California as necessarily accompanied by the study of it and the assembly of research information regarding it. I had been intrigued by the exotic name of the "Archives of Futurism," though I had no direct contact with it, and thought our research resources should be called "The Archives of California Art," and so we named it in 1954. Apparently this predates the naming of "The Archives of American Art" started at the Detroit Institute of the Arts by E.P. Richardson. Though we can take a certain pleasure in having been so early on the scene, the Archives of American Art began as a much grander project and has flourished and advanced much further since. There were always close relations between us and the American Archives leaders such as William Woolfenden and gradually, under the leadership in California of Paul Karlstrom and now Stella Paul, many of the dreams we dreamed so easily in the early years are gradually beginning to happen in the light of day.

Within our museum, a lineage of dedicated researchers staffed our archives, among them Lewis Ferbraché who convinced us of the importance of the early San Francisco newspapers' documentation of artists' activities; Marjorie Arkelian, who did many things, notably research and write the catalogue of the Kahn Collection; and now Barbara Bowman. Throughout, volunteer committees, especially those drawn from the art docents which over months gleaned the old San Francisco newspapers, have been marvelously productive. I am sure there have been others, staff and volunteer, since my departure in 1970, who are also deserving of high praise.

The first large California collection acquired for the museum was the collection of the William Keith association, which inherited Keith's estate. Of all early California artists, Keith had the only ongoing support group. It met monthly in Keith's own Berkeley home as the guests of his niece, and they had lovingly preserved not only major paintings but his marvelous sketches and everything else of his. The collection came to us after the death of his niece. Keith was also the subject of the only major biography of a California artist published in the first half of the century.[5]

Warren Howell, of the distinguished fine book firm of John Howell in San Francisco, leaned toward the art side of California history and regularly handled works of art of some historic interest. He made it his business to be a patrician, but in fact he couldn't resist the action, wherever it lay -- even in Oakland. He was a major agent seeking early depictions of California for Robert B. Honeyman, Jr., and introduced me to Honeyman, who lent a major selection of his collection to us in 1956 for our first major California exhibition and catalogue. That collection, large and quite a bit stronger on the history side than the art side, is now appropriately nearby at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. Howell not only introduced us to Honeyman, many other works now in the collection at one time or another went through his hands.

A collector with strong interests in California art and our museum is Howard Willoughby, retired vice-president of Lane Publishing Company, publishers of Sunset Magazine. He bought and gave many California works to the museum, served on its governing commission and participated in many other ways. Most notably, he was able to scout out and acquire the entire estate of Edwin Deakin, which had been in storage for decades, and present it to the museum.

One of the most brilliant figures to dabble in California art was Billy Pearson, once a top racing jockey and a national television quiz show star, a collector and later an art dealer. Billy had a naturally good eye for everything he involved himself with: houses, clothes, women, art. His taste for objects and his easy ability to display them with stunning effect are hardly rivaled by those of anyone I have met since. Sniffing another adventure emerging, he took to California art and bought up many things great and small of high quality, some of them which he had heard about from me, many which he had found on his own. Not much later, the Kahn family, which had for long operated a major department store in Oakland, had the grace and generosity to make a major gift of funds to the museum to purchase the Kahn Collection of early California art which would stay in the community as evidence of the Kahn family's gratitude for the long years it had prospered there. The money, a total of $125,000 given in 1965, made possible the purchase of 71 paintings. Some of them singly would today be worth far more than the entire collection's initial dollar cost. The largest single group of purchases was the bulk of the California collection assembled by Pearson, including some of the collection's war-horses, such as the near-lifesize Tojetti "America" in her chariot.

If one is looking for giants in California art, certainly Arthur Mathews is one, and his wife, Lucia is a good ally and second. Their paintings, their furniture, their graphic art, their influence on architecture, and their teaching made them figures of singular importance. Harold Wagner, once a staff member of theirs, carefully assembled everything he could find over the years; paintings, sketches, furniture, graphics and memorabilia. With money earned by the Oakland Museum Association's Art Guild Concours d'Antiques under Elizabeth B. Graser, we were able to purchase most of it in 1965; Harold Wagner generously gave the rest of it. In 1972, the museum mounted a major traveling exhibition of the Mathews collection, with a fine catalogue written by Harvey Jones.[6] The Keith, Deakin and Mathews estates remain three major peaks in the painting collection.

Being essentially democratic in our outlook on the arts, we saw that the media of photography, prints, crafts and decorative arts were well represented from the beginning of our California collecting, exhibiting and researching. And much more could be said about the dedicated people and their efforts in these areas.[7]

When the Oakland Museum finally opened to the public in September 1969, I began to do something I hadn't done before: to stand back and listen to hear what people thought of what we had done, "to wait for the other shoe to drop," so to speak. It was a statement of Alfred Frankenstein, long time music and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, which gave me a subjective sense of recognition and conclusion. He was not particularly prone to be effusive, so his words were all the more surprising. He acknowledged my sixteen-year effort in behalf of California art and said, "The art section is going to realign the whole history of art in the United States. All the books will have to be rewritten in accordance with it...Its collection has actually been assembled over a great many years, much of it among paintings which until recently were scorned and rejected..." but upon its opening, "It suddenly makes California a major historic art center, like one of those volcanoes that appear overnight in a cornfield and are 15,000 feet high in a week."[8] There was no need to wait for acknowledgement after that!

Today, it is gratifying to see the fortunes of California art continue to expand, involving an increasing number of able historians and collectors, fine exhibitions, a number of notable publications such as this and a growing national and international awareness.

Now, keep your eyes open for black Amazons.



1. There were some awfully good art philosophers and historians at the University of Washington then, too. Suzanne Langer, author of Philosophy in a New Key and Feelings and Form; Sherman Lee, then Assistant Director of the Seattle Art Museum, later Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art; Orientalist Millard Rogers, recently back from India, among them.

2. Years later, in 1976, to mark the gift of a fine and unusual Boudin view of Abbeville I had long cultivated, we, in Santa Barbara, initiated the first one-man exhibition of Boudin's work held in a museum in forty years and the tour of this exhibition. There was a great deal of satisfaction for me in being able to accomplish something like this early dream.

3. Good friends and fine people such as Esther Fuller, Albert and Taylor Churchill, and Dixie Stoll, founders of the Oakland Museum Association, helped make progress possible and the project satisfying.

4. The Western Association of Art Museums is now the Art Museum Association. That organization's Ilo Listen was a great friend and ally. Dr. Grace L. McCann Morley, the founding director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was an especially helpful mentor.

5. Brother E Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California, Vol. 2 (New York: C. P. Putnam Sons, 1942; Fresno, California: Academy Library Guild, 1956).

6. Mathews: Masterpieces of the California Style (Oakland, California: The Oakland Museum, 1972).

7. The dedicated people include especially Hazel Bray, Curator of Crafts, Therese Heyman, Curator of Photography, and James Brown, first director of the combined museums. Also important were the Art Guild, the Art Docents, and the Women's Board of the Oakland Museum Association. I am especially fortunate to have had George Neubert as an assistant and then successor as Chief Curator, and I am pleased our work has been so ably carried forward by Christina Orr-Cahall, now Chief Curator, and Harvey Jones, Senior Art Curator, and their staff.

8, San Francisco Chronicle, 14 September 1969, p. 36.


Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California


Also in this magazine or available through the Internet: West Coast Art articles and essays -- 20th Century -- 20-21st Century; information on most artists listed in the essay via our Distinguished artists; 100 top-ranked California artists courtesy of, including many artists referenced in the above essay. The above four links lead to literally thousands of pictures of the paintings of California's early artists, plus biographies, essays and much more.

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