California Watercolor Painters in Context

by Donelson Hoopes

 



 

The following essay was written by Donelson Hoopes. It is an essay written for, and included in, the 1991 book titled American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-3-1. Essay reprinted with permission of Westphal Publishing.

 


The emergence of a strong watercolor movement in Southern California and San Francisco which began in the I920s was the product of a gradual cultural migration that originated in the East a hundred years before. As such, it reflected the broader development of the nation's art.[1] In the case of watercolor, its debt to English precedent was particularly strong; indeed, for the first hundred years of the history of its use in America, the majority of artists who employed watercolor here were of British origin. Largely through the efforts of watercolorists such as the Englishman Joshua Shaw and the Irishman William Guy Wall, whose works were translated into engravings, the general public first began to appreciate the beauties of the American landscape. The popularizing of our landscape culminated in the publication of more than one hundred watercolor views by another English artist, William Henry Bartlett; for the American public, his American Scenery became the definitive statement of the picturesque ideal in art.[2]

Originally, watercolor was adopted by landscape painters as a medium of convenience; watercolor sketches, relatively easily made in the field, were converted later in the studio into fully-developed paintings in oil. Gradually, artists came to see that the medium possessed special qualities of its own which merited consideration as an independent avenue for artistic expression. In the United States the first organization to champion watercolor was organized in New York in 1850, modeled after the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolors which had been formed in London some twenty years earlier.[3]

The dominant style among American watercolorists at mid-century was characterized by precise drawing and delicate coloration and derived largely from the teachings of the eminent English critic and artist John Ruskin. Through his seminal writings on the works of J. M. W. Turner, such as Modern Painters, published in the United States in the 1850s, Ruskin fostered a brief but pervasive movement in this country toward the ideal description of nature through careful observation and meticulous depiction. Watercolor renderings of nature were commonly favored by his American disciples, who thus advanced a style that was overtly a branch of the English Pre-Raphaelite Movement.[4] But it was not until the 1870s, when a number of major native-born artists
emerged as important practitioners, that the critics began to refer to watercolor as "the American medium."
[5] Winslow Homer, who combined a more fluid style of painting with a robust and unsentimentalized view of nature, stands as the epitome of the authentic American artistic sensibility; and his career as a watercolor painter, which culminated about 1905, was as fully important as that with the oil medium.

While the preponderance of work being produced during the nineteenth century was derived from the landscape of the Eastern seaboard, a few artist-explorers, such as Alfred Jacob Miller, George Catlin and Seth Eastman, were making watercolor views of aboriginal life and of the vast and remote reaches of the trans-Mississippi West. However, it would not be until the turn of the century, with the gradual establishment of a cultural base in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in artists' colonies in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, that quantitatively significant contributions to the nation's art would be made by artists using Western subject matter for their inspiration.

One of the greatest factors for change in American art in the first decade of the twentieth century was the movement led by Robert Henri, who championed a return to painterly values and a realistic view of contemporary life. A teacher as well as a painter, Henri fostered the advent of the short-lived, but significant group of dissidents who came to be known as the "Ashcan School." Their rejection of decorative impressionism and the genteel tradition that permeated much of the painting espoused by the academic establishment helped to redirect the course of American painting before the introduction of European modernist art into the nation's cultural mainstream. Henri's influence on California painters began to be felt in 1914, when he temporarily moved from New York to La Jolla. His presence as a major exhibitor in the Panama-California Exposition held in San Diego in 1915 undoubtedly proved inspirational to regional artists who were then forging a strong local style of expression grounded in painterly realism.[6] Although landscape painting was their principal avenue of expression and not the figurative subjects favored by Henri, California artists seemed to gravitate naturally toward the aesthetic of painterly realism so forcefully expressed in Henri's work. Such tendencies can be seen especially clearly in the productions of painters like Maurice Braun, his pupil, Alfred R. Mitchell, and others who made their careers in San Diego.[7]

During the period between the two world wars, an important and distinctly indigenous style of painting appeared in a number of localities of the United States. Termed "Regionalism," it favored subjects which celebrated the unique character of American life. The most well-known aspect of this movement was promoted by John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton, who based their work on the legends, history, and topography of their native midwestern scene. In the Far West, artists like John Sloan, who was one of the prominent figures in the Ashcan School, transported their vitality of vision to fresh and hitherto untapped areas such as Santa Fe, which had been "discovered" by Robert Henri as early as 1914. As Santa Fe began to host visiting artists and frequently became the adopted home for painters like Randall Davey, another Henri disciple, it also fostered careers of native-born westerners such as Fremont Ellis, whose romantic landscapes were permeated by Henri's realist sensibility. As Henri's influence had set the tone for Santa Fe artists who followed him, so neighboring Taos began to assume a distinct character in terms of the kind of art that began to appear there in the 1930s. The presence of many transplanted easterners -- Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Dasburg among them -- who embraced modernist tendencies conditioned much of the aesthetic climate associated with the avant-garde art of Taos.

The art of California, particularly that of the Southland, also received the impress of external influences during the early decades of the century. The allure of California's scenery attracted the leading exponents of American impressionism during these years. In 1914 both Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase traveled to Carmel to paint and conduct outdoor painting classes. Hassam made several trips to the West Coast over the next decade, and was a considerable influence on one of the major Los Angeles collectors of the day, William Preston Harrison. In fact, Harrison's donations over a span of several years to the Los Angeles Museum, a benefaction that included several Hassams, made that institution one of the first in the region to boast a collection of American art.

Another important influence was the work of the prominent Mexican painters Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose approach to realism was heavily weighted by socialist and revolutionary fervor. The work of Los Angeles-based Fletcher Martin, who in 1932 assisted Siqueiros on a mural project in Santa Monica, reveals the artist's lifelong commitment to themes resonant with concern for the human condition.[8] On the other hand, a more intellectual aestheticism was energetically promoted by the cosmopolitan, European-trained Stanton Macdonald-Wright, one of the founders of the modernist abstract color movement called "Synchromism." As director of the Art Students League of Los Angeles (1922-1930) and later as a teacher of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles (1942-54), Macdonald-Wright was a major force in the area for the promotion of modernism.[9]

Between these two stylistic positions, the Southern California regionalist artists practiced a form of realism that was a conservative and distinctly indigenous mode of painting. Following the plein air tradition, they flourished during the first decades of the twentieth century. One of the leaders of this school, William Wendt, was largely self-taught when in 1906 he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. There he introduced a vigorous mode of impressionism that comfortably subsumed the older tonalist style of Arthur Mathews and his followers. His eminent position within the California artist community earned him election in 1911 as the first president of the embryonic California Art Club. He exhibited nationally and in 1926 won the coveted Ranger Purchase Prize at the National Academy of Design in New York. Indeed, Wendt's connections with the East Coast art world were secure enough that in 1928 he was asked to join the advisory committee of the American Artists' Professional League.[10]

One of the first California-based artists to establish an important career as a watercolor painter was Francis John McComas. Born on the island of Tasmania, a dependency of Australia, where he first studied art, McComas emigrated to San Francisco in 1898. There he studied briefly with Arthur Mathews, then one of the most prominent artists of California. In 1899 McComas went to Paris, where he furthered his education at the renowned Academie Julian. Following his return to the United States in 1901, McComas began concentrating on the desert landscape of Arizona, a subject for which he quickly became widely known and praised. His aesthetic sensibility tended toward representations of landscape that favored a more decorative approach, with emphasis on flat patterns and broadly applied washes. In this, his work is related to the tonalists' concern for painting as abstraction from nature, rather than literal transcription. In 1912, the year that he settled permanently in Monterey, McComas began sending his work to major eastern exhibitions. The next year, in recognition of his status among the more progressive artists of his generation, McComas was included in the Armory Show, the exhibition that revolutionized the course of art in America. In what must be one of the earliest examples of a bicoastal career, McComas was also represented in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, staged in San Francisco in 1915. The official catalog praised McComas for his mastery of the difficulties of watercolor, as well as for the acuity of his "sense of construction and feeling for effect."[11]

During the teens McComas exhibited watercolors en masse at the prestigious annuals of the Philadelphia Water Color Club held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where, in 1918, he won the Dana Water Color Medal, awarded for work possessing "boldness, simplicity and frankness."[12] In a rare gesture of appreciation, the academy published an illustration in the exhibition catalog showing the entire group of the artist's entries; typically, the subjects were all scenes of Arizona and Monterey. Then, in 1921, at the academy's nineteenth annual, McComas garnered the Philadelphia Water Color Club Prize for "the strongest watercolor in the exhibition" for an Arizona subject, Hopi Adobes. As an indication of the eminence attaching to this award, it had gone to the dean of American impressionist painters, Childe Hassam, two years before. Coincidentally, McComas shared another honor with Hassam, and in exactly the same time frame, when he won the Hudnut Prize at the American Watercolor Society's 1921 annual exhibition in New York for Storm Clouds. As when Hassam won it two years before, the award was given to "the most meritorious watercolor in the exhibition." Clearly, McComas had validated a strong western presence among the eastern establishment, and through his example was a major force in the creation of a vital watercolor movement in California. While McComas was the first Californian to win a prize at the American Watercolor Society's exhibitions, Donna Schuster, a Los Angeles artist, was the first to have a work shown at that venue, preceding McComas by four years.[13]

At the turn of the century, watercolor painting in Southern California could claim only one important practitioner, Paul de Longpre, an immigrant French artist who settled in Hollywood. Noted for his flower still life compositions, de Longpre produced work that adhered to the meticulously descriptive style promoted by Ruskin half a century earlier. But it was nor until 1921, when the medium had attracted sufficient interest among the artist community of Los Angeles, that the California Water Color Society was established.[14] All of the fourteen artists who comprised the founding members of the society were primarily oil painters. The group included Hanson Duvall Puthuff, whose style was solidly rooted in the California plein air tradition. He was a prolific painter as well as an effective sponsor of local art organizations, such as the Art Students League of Los Angeles and the California Art Club, organized in 1909.[15] After exhibiting in the first three annuals of the California Water Color Society, Puthuff discontinued his submissions to these shows. Significantly, the society was beginning to shift away from the traditions that Puthuff's generation represented.

After the mid-1920s, there appeared a number of progressive young artists on the society's roster of members, including Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Barse Miller, and Hardie Gramatky. Others of a similar persuasion, such as Paul Sample, Phil Paradise, Tom Craig, Lee Blair, Rex Brandt, and Emil J. Kosa, Jr. continued to join the society over the next decade and to transform it. As Nancy Moure has observed, "The style [these men] created was later named the 'California style,' and although it dominated the 1930s, it lasted far beyond that decade. It was characterized by large format size, free, bold brush work, and strong, dark, rich colors."[16] Brandt who in 1937 was the last of these artists to join the society, organized and participated in an important state-wide traveling exhibition that year, The California Group, which through reviews in the Art Digest carried this new and vital approach to watercolor to other parts of the country. Conversely, by 1939 the society had established a pattern for inviting work from artists living in other parts of the United States and abroad. Its annual exhibition for that year included such luminaries from the East as Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and the youthful Andrew Wyeth, just then at the threshold of his career. Strong affinities can be discerned in much of this interaction; as, for example, in the work of Emil Kosa, one is struck by his shared interest with Marsh in forthright depiction of the American industrial scene as a valid concern for art.[17]

Kosa's debut in the national arena occurred at the American Watercolor Society's 1936 annual, held, as customary, in the galleries of the American Fine Arts building in New York. This was an auspicious occasion for the Californians; for the first time the contingent was represented in strength, with no fewer than thirteen papers. [18] Two years later, one of Kosa's entries, Handsome Trouble, won the Zabriskie Prize at the society's annual and was duly illustrated in the accompanying catalog.[19] From 1938 through 1947 Kosa also appeared consistently in the annual exhibitions of the Philadelphia Water Color Club, without capturing any prizes, however. That first year was something of an unfulfilled promise for Kosa, since one of his typical truck subjects was chosen to be illustrated in the catalog.[20] The 1938 Philadelphia watercolor show ran the gamut of stylistic mannerisms, from the technically daunting, if slick, work of Eliot O'Hara to Andrew Wyeth's more traditional approach, rooted in the earnest realism of Winslow Homer. But it was another Californian, Barse Miller, who succeeded in carrying off the Philadelphia Water Color Club Prize that year, awarded to his Mainline Tragedy which the jury deemed "the strongest watercolor in the exhibition."

In his late teens, Miller had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy, and perhaps because of this early association, he was a frequent exhibitor there. From 1929 to 1951 Miller submitted some seventy-six watercolors to the academy's shows, as well as a lesser number of oils to the venerable academy annuals devoted to that medium. As such, his academy exhibition record exceeds, quantitatively, that of any other California artist represented there during these years, and even surpasses the number of works he sent to the exhibitions of the California Water Color Society. In the summer of 1939 Miller conducted highly acclaimed studio courses at the University of Vermont, and again the following year when he was joined by another summer transplant from California, Rex Brandt. The state's leading newspaper proclaimed that ". . . the nature of many of [Miller's] watercolor portrayals of the life and customs of Vermont people should be incentive enough for the State to take the initiative and adopt him as a favorite son."[21] Miller moved to New York permanently following his service in the Army's Combat Art Section during the Second World War. There, amid the ferment of the new wave that was to sweep American art, Miller departed from the more representational mode that had formerly aligned his work with the California style. His watercolors now became increasingly more abstract, yet he continued to find his creative impulses in nature. Impressed by the landscape of Maine, he joined the ranks of such eastern aquarellists as William Thon and William Kienbusch, who, like Miller, searched for a resolution between their regard for the natural world and the imperatives of abstraction -- a concept that had been first introduced here in the first decade of the new century by one of the giants of American modernism and watercolor, John Marin.

Like Miller, Paul Sample had strong affinities with the East, particularly New England, where he was perhaps the most generally recognized California artist of his time. Both Miller and Sample had gained a measure of national popular attention as artist correspondents for Life magazine, which published many illustrations of their work depicting scenes of military operations in the Pacific theater during the early years of the Second World War. Sample maintained close ties with the New York art world, as did Miller, exhibiting regularly with Ferargil Galleries, one of the city's prominent art dealers, and at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design. He gained his first major prize for an oil painting, however, at the Pennsylvania Academy's 131st Annual Exhibition in 1936, winning the coveted Temple Gold Meda1.[22] He also participated in the Philadelphia Water Color Club's exhibitions in 1939 and 1340, but did not gain any prizes and thereafter discontinued submitting work to these shows. After he moved permanently to the East Coast in 1938, Sample's watercolors became closely identified with the Vermont landscape, and his style tended to solidify into a carefully defined realism which had been intimated in his earlier work in California. It was a manner which one critic described as that of "... the literal realist, who can photograph a scene . . . with a perfection of crystalline detail only equaled by [Charles] Sheeler."[23]

One of the most traveled California style artists, Hardie Gramatky divided his career equally between Los Angeles and New York. As a youth in Southern California, he acquired his training at Chouinard; and he was a regular exhibitor with the California Water Color Society from 1923 to 1939, a period in his life that included a stay of several years in New York, where he joined Miller and Sample on the roster of artists at Ferargil Galleries. Typical of the reviews he received, one observed that "though color and light and mood are the most evident aspects of Gramatky's pictures, much of their convincing reality is achieved by drawing that is solid, full-bodied . . ."[24] Gramatky had honed his proficiency at creating rapidly-executed works by meeting the demands of a multifaceted career that included work as a Hollywood film animator and a free lance magazine and book illustrator. During this period he continued to send work to the California Water Color Society's exhibitions, while also showing at the Pennsylvania Academy. In 1940 he participated for the first time in the American Watercolor Society's annual exhibition in New York, where he joined such regulars from the California group as Sheets, Kosa, and Blair. Because of his considerable work in other areas, Gramatky was not so prolific in watercolor as some of his colleagues; however, he earned due recognition from the art community through a number of prizes and purchases. In 1938 a watercolor, American in the Park, was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art.

A native of Southern California, Phil Dike augmented his 1924-27 experience at Chouinard with a year at the Art Students League in New York in 1928. There he also had private instruction in painting from George Luks, one of the Ashcan School members. While Luks is best known for his dark and heavily painted portrayals of New York street life, he was also an able watercolorist, although this aspect of his work remains barely acknowledged today. Luks' watercolors are bright, transparent creations, charged with an almost postimpressionist drawing and color. One may discern his impact on Dike's work, which partakes of the same witty nonchalance and chromatic brilliance. This characteristic sets Dike apart from mainstream California style painters with their more weighty manner, which is sometimes seen to be touched with aspects of social realism, as in the work of Lee Blair, and to a lesser degree, that of Rex Brandt and Tom Craig. Dike began to exhibit with the California Water Color Society in 1927 and at the Pennsylvania Academy the next year. Following a year of study in Europe, where he expanded his grasp on other techniques such as mural painting and lithography, Dike returned to California in 1931. That year he showed two of his Italian watercolors at the society, one of which, Sicilian Houses, won the society's purchase award. A long time exhibitor at both oil and watercolor annuals of the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was well represented almost yearly from 1928 to 1952, Dike nevertheless claimed no prizes from these efforts. Indeed, during this period his career flourished best at home, where in 1938 he became president of the California Water Color Society and enjoyed one-man shows at Chouinard, the Los Angeles County Museum, and in commercial galleries.

Equally as active as Dike at the Pennsylvania Academy watercolor exhibitions, Phil Paradise was considerably more successful in terms of gaining recognition there. He began sending multiple entries there in 1932 and seven years later won the coveted Dana Water Color Medal for a genre subject, Suburban Supper. The academy's 1933 show was an especially distinguished one, with entries from such established masters of the medium as John Whorf, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and Andrew Wyeth. Other Californians were represented there also, including Barse Miller and Paradise's old friend, Millard Sheets, who took the Philadelphia Water Color Club Prize for Hilltop Farm. That two Californians seized top honors that year speaks profoundly of the strength of their work in competition with such august company, who were passed over in favor of these relative newcomers from the West.

Of all the group who established the California style in watercolor during the 1930s, perhaps the most prolific exemplar was Millard Sheets. Born in Pomona, not only was he a native Californian, but his earliest influences were implanted by his teachers at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, one of the strongest centers for art training then to be found on the West Coast. His mentors were Frank Tolles Chamberlin and Clarence Hinkle, both native Californians who had extensive training in the major schools in the East and in Europe. Although they were of the generation of the California plein air painters, Chamberlin and Hinkle were considered modern artists by their contemporaries, and Sheets gained his artistic orientation from them. Sheets was already adept at watercolor at nineteen. In 1926 he began his long association with the California Water Color Society and exhibited regularly there over the next two decades. Early in his career Sheets began to demonstrate his well-known propensity for energetic activity, engaging his considerable talents not only as a watercolorist, but also as an oil painter and muralist. In 1927 he sent his first submissions to the Pennsylvania Academy's Twenty-Fifth Annual Water Color Exhibition. Three years later he redoubled his efforts to gain recognition there with a group of seven papers, and although he did not win a prize, one of his Los Angeles subjects, Arcadia Street, was illustrated in the show's catalog.[25] In 1939 Sheets finally earned recognition at the academy with the previously mentioned autumnal landscape view of Chino that won the Philadelphia Water Color Club Prize. Throughout the war years he exhibited consistently at Philadelphia, and finally, in 1943 he took the academy's coveted Dana Water Color Medal for Brassy Day. In New York, Sheets was not especially conspicuous in the exhibitions of the American Watercolor Society until 1937, the year after Craig, Blair, Kosa, and Miller had made their strong showing there.[26]

Stylistically, Sheets may be said to have bridged the points between naturalism and abstraction. His work took liberties with the one and eschewed the other, presenting his subjects boldly stylized, strongly patterned, and dramatically characterized in much the same vein as the work of the celebrated Rockwell [Kent] who was enjoying great vogue in the 1930s. For Sheets, the imperative to communicate readily understandable ideas and to avoid obscure symbolism dictated the terms of his art. He was adamant that the artist should not stand apart from the larger context of society and that ". . . breaking the term 'art' into so-called fine arts, commercial arts, applied arts, and now industrial arts [ignores] the meaning of art . . . the artist must consider [his] audience regardless of his field of art. Therein lies the greatest failing of contemporary art."[27] This point of view was fueled by his practical experience in most of the areas he mentioned. This was equally true for other artists of the California style, many of whom led active parallel careers involved with that most unique of American contributions to the visual arts of the twentieth century, the animated film.

Any artist of stature, especially one who was so prominent as a teacher as Sheets, naturally attracts disciples. Milford Zornes was influenced by Sheets while studying at Pomona College in Claremont, and his watercolors bear strong resemblances to the manner of his teacher in terms of the use of a broad wash technique and bold simplification of design. Zornes began to exhibit with the California Water Color Society in 1934, the same year that he made his first appearance at the American Watercolor Society in New York. His first one-man exhibition in New York came in 1938 at Maynard Walker Galleries and was greeted with somewhat mixed reviews. One critic noted "... a perilous thinness sometimes, and an effect a trifle showy [recalling] in some ways the work of Millard Sheets . . . although they are not equipped with the [same] emotional sweep."[28]

Of course, this orientation entailed a considerable degree of distance between what these artists were doing and the stance taken by the avant-garde practitioners -- and promoters -- of abstract expressionism, then in its ascendancy. By the early 1940s the California style stood in opposition to the rising tide of artistic fashion, led by a formidable group -- painters mostly -- who would form what came to be known as the "New York School." Indicative of the schism that was manifesting itself on the national scene in the 1940s, one of the most influential critics from that era wrote: "The naturalistic art of our time is unredeemable, as it requires only taste to discover; and the sheer multitude of those who still practice it does not make it any more valid."[29] A few bastions of conservatism in the East, principally the American Watercolor Society and the Philadelphia Water Color Club, continued to offer venues for artists of a traditional bent, however; and the Californians found that these organizations remained hospitable to their work well into the postwar period. But even on home ground, the shift away from the California style toward new trends, especially abstract expressionism, was taking place.[30]

Expression, although not wholly "abstract," became the governing force of the art of Dan Lutz very early in his career. A native of the Chicago area, he moved to the West Coast in 1932 and immediately became associated with the art scene in Los Angeles, notably as a teacher on the faculty of the University of Southern California. He began exhibiting with the California Water Color Society in 1936 and two years later was elected its vice-president. His first offering to a major eastern exhibition came in 1940. It was a painting he had done ten years before, in a style that was representational; the incident suggests that Lutz had gauged his target correctly, for the picture, Central Park, Decatur, took a major prize.[31] That same year, he also sent two watercolors to the Thirty-Eighth Annual Philadelphia Water Color Club Exhibition, without adding to his luster, however. He diligently pursued the recognition that annually eluded him at Philadelphia, until, in 1945, he won the Wheelwright Prize for Bridle-Path. Lutz was at his best when extemporizing, not on the undulating landscape or the sometimes picaresque city scenes of his adopted home in Southern California, but on themes that derived from his interests as a musician. Perhaps the abstract values of music crept into his paintings, for he certainly chose subjects that were as redolent of rhythm as music, and he also frequently included images of musical instruments as part of his compositions. He was, in fact, not a painter of places, but of mood. As one critic put it, commenting on a painting of an ethnic neighborhood church illuminated by a baleful street lamp: "It is not only in his subjects of the spiritual that Lutz distinguishes himself. We must consider his pictorial poems of buildings, of landscape situations, of moods of nature and stark realities of weather."[32]

"The Bay Area," as the greater San Francisco-Oakland-Marin County complex is customarily known, produced a number of artists in this period who received national recognition. One of the more successful of these was Otis Oldfield, a native of Sacramento, who, prior to 1928, lived for about twenty years in France. Returning to San Francisco, he became known for his scenes of that city. His first one-man show in New York took place at the esteemed Montross Gallery in the winter of 1929. On the occasion of his second show at the same venue later that year, his dealer published several notices of praise from the major New York critics. One citation, reproduced in his second Montross exhibition catalog, observed that "... he endows the 'Hillites' of Telegraph Hill [San Francisco] and all other figures of his teeming pictures with an intensity of life so that they seem to flash before you in a remarkably vivid presentment."[33]

The same evaluation could very well have been made of the watercolors of Dong Kingman. Of all the artists that San Francisco produced during the period between the two world wars, Kingman is perhaps the best known. Unlike Oldfield, his major contribution was in the medium of watercolor; and there may be noted a strong ethnic bias for this. Traditionally, Chinese artists have worked with aqueous media; and, although Kingman was born in Oakland, because his family moved to Hong Kong shortly thereafter, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in classical Chinese art traditions at an early age. Back in California by 1929, he soon took up watercolor painting, and in 1935 joined the WPA watercolor project, where he spent the next five years. It was during this period that Kingman's style crystallized into the distinctive manner which has since distinguished his work. At once representational, and yet imbued with a strong proto-cubist orientation, his watercolors most frequently celebrate the often chaotic energy of city life, be it that of San Francisco or New York. In 1942 he submitted a characteristic work, Birds Over City, to the California Water Color Society, and his comments on the picture are revealing: ". . . this painting was based on many cities that I have lived in . . . the mood of the sea and the sky remind me of Hong Kong . . . the bridges I saw and sketched many times in San Francisco . . . the buildings we see every day here in New York."[34] Following his permanent move to the East Coast in 1946, Kingman became a regular exhibitor with the American Watercolor Society and at the Philadelphia Water Color Club annuals, and in 1950 he won the academy's Joseph Pennell Memorial Medal for Triple Decker. Two years before, the academy jury belatedly had conceded the genius of John Marin by giving him an award -- incredibly, the first recognition for him of any kind in these exhibitions -- the Dawson Medal for distinguished watercolor. But it was 1950 that seemed to signal the academy's decisive turn toward acceptance of the modernist aesthetic, with awards going to Charles Burchfield, Karl Zerbe, and William Thon, as well as to Kingman.

In terms of California-based artists, perhaps Erle Loran most perfectly represents the artist who made the transition between the California style and the movement in American art called "Abstract Expressionism." A native of the Midwest, Loran spent several years studying in Europe before settling in the Bay Area in 1936. He first exhibited with the California Water Color Society in 1940, and continued this association with annual submissions for the next decade. From the titles of his pictures, it is possible to infer a steady progression from specific subject matter, handled in conventional California style, toward purely conceptual themes. By the time of his 1952 one-man exhibition in New York at Viviano Gallery, he had completed his transformation into a fully-committed abstract expressionist.

The historic orientation of American watercolor tradition to the values of its British models remained remarkably constant throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Moreover, commencing in the East in the 1850s, that which constituted the ideal in composition and technique was passed with only superficial change to the heirs of the American watercolor legacy, the regionalist painters of the early twentieth century. And, in terms of what was commonly practiced among those groups, the venerable concession to the "picturesque" mode of subject matter remained equally constant. In 1923, two years after its founding, the California Water Color Society issued a kind of manifesto, entitled Renaissance of Water Color Painting. Clearly, the artists of the society saw themselves the inheritors of that great tradition, charged with keeping the flame burning brightly. So long as the values of the culture at large coincided with theirs, artists such as those who promoted the California style produced a very vital body of work. But the press of events in the period between the two world wars tended to disrupt what had been the unbroken thread from the past. In the words of a contemporary:

The period from the time America entered the First World War through the financial panic to the present has been an exciting period. Our homes, our workshops, our facilities for recreation in 1940 are no longer those of 1917. The radio, twenty-five million automobiles, the American scene, abstract photography, Gertrude Stein, set-back skyscrapers, modernism, have been thrown pellmell into the news of the day, a news that has risen to a dizzy climax by way of Prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Huey Long and the Tennessee Valley Authority and Mickey Mouse.[35]

The last reference in this assessment of those times points to a future that at least one of the California style group, Millard Sheets, saw as positive -- the integration of the "so-called fine arts [and] commercial arts." Perhaps he was speaking for all of his California colleagues, when, in 1937, he is reported to have said, "... I'm glad I'm living right now. This is my age and I think it's swell."[36]



Notes:

1. This discussion concentrates primarily on the period between the two World Wars, with New York and Philadelphia as the main reference points. It should be remembered, however, that many of the artists cited in this essay also worked and exhibited in other cities across the country during the period under review. The number of artists cited in this essay is limited by space, and any omissions should not be construed as negative.

2. Shaw's work was commissioned and engraved by the English aquatinter John Hill and published in Philadelphia in 1820 as Picturesque Views of American Scenery. Between 1820 and 1825 Hill also commissioned Wall to provide the watercolor views which served as the basis for a suite of aquatint engravings which Hill published in various editions in New York as The Hudson River Portfolio. Bartlett's watercolors were engraved and published in London between 1839 and 1842, with an accompanying text by Nathaniel Parker Willis, one of the major American literary figures of the period.

3. The Society for the Promotion of Painting in Watercolor. For a concise history of the development of this organization and its successor, the American Watercolor Society, see Donelson Hoopes, American Watercolor Painting (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1977), 59-60.

4. For the most complete discussion of the effect of Ruskin on American art, see Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1985).

5. For the most comprehensive study of this development in American art, see Kathleen Adair Foster, "Makers of the American Watercolor Movement, 1860-1890" (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1982, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1985).

6. The San Diego exposition, which was held the same year as its larger rival in San Francisco, differed from the latter in that it was not international in scope and was strongly local in character. See Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions (London and New York: The Studio Publications, 1951), 171.

7. See Ruth Lilly Westphal, Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, rev. ed. (Irvine, California: Westphal Publishing, 1988), 186ff.

8. Martin's work in watercolor is somewhat peripheral to his achievements in other media, although, in terms of subject matter, it is consistent with his commitment to social realism. In 1937 he became chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Artists' Congress, one of the important national organizations working during the Depression for the improvement of conditions under which art was supported and exhibited in the United States. The organization's credo was "For Peace, For Democracy, For Cultural Progress."

9. Macdonald-Wright was a powerful determinant in the careers of many distinguished Southern California modernists, such as Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), and Helen Lundeberg (b. 1908). For a comprehensive discussion of the impact of early modernism on the art of Southern California, see Paul J. Karlstrom and Susan Ehrlich, Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists, 1920-1956, exhibition catalog (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1990).

10. Headed by a National Academician, the landscape painter F. Ballard Williams, the league was headquartered in New York and invited leading regional artists to assist with its ambitious program to foster "a better appreciation of contemporary American art" and "to encourage the American people to acquire American art." New York Public Library Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, roll N121, frame 240.

11. Eugen Neuhaus, The Galleries of the Exposition: A Critical Review of the Paintings, Statuary and the Graphic Arts in the Palace of Fine Arts (San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1915), 72. The Panama-Pacific was as international in character as the Armory Show had been, albeit organized along much more conservative lines than the latter. The art of twelve foreign nations was represented in conjunction with that of the United States, a group that included such celebrities as Hassam, Whistler, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent.

12. Sixteenth Annual Philadelphia Water Color Exhibition, exhibition catalog (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1918). From the published statement of the criteria upon which the award was made. The award was made for the entire group of eight papers McComas submitted, rather than for a single work. The following quotations relating to prizes are also derived from catalog definitions of the terms under which respective honors were given by the sponsoring institutions.

13. My Garden Steps. Fiftieth Annual Exhibition, American Watercolor Society, New York, 1917. A watercolor of the same title was submitted by this artist to the 1924 exhibition of the California Water Color Society, where Schuster exhibited nearly annually between 1921 and 1942. Schuster was a student of William Merritt Chase and is considered one of the earliest exponents of impressionism in California. She received her first important notice in the catalog of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco. See Eugen Neuhaus, The Galleries of the Exposition, 90.

14. See Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society: Prize Winners 1931-1954, Index to Exhibitions, 1921-1954 (Los Angeles: Privately Printed, 1973).

15. T. J. Anderson, E. M. Moore, and R. W. Winter, eds., California Design 1910 (Pasadena: California Design Center, 1974), 45.

16. Moure, California Water Color Society, not paginated.

17. Kosa's exhibition record with the California Water Color Society indicates that his submissions were predominantly landscape subjects; the same is true for the watercolors he sent to the Pennsylvania Academy and to the American Watercolor Society exhibitions. Only a few artists, such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh, were addressing themselves to industrial themes, and review notices of his work tended to focus on this aspect of Kosa's work. Henry McBride, reviewing the American Watercolor Society's 1943 exhibition, noted, ". . . a black, dramatic glimpse of oil tanks by Emil J. Kosa. It will be noticed that rather hard, insistent, but clever studies on mechanical lines (gas tanks, bridges, eta.) are more prevalent [this year]." Henry McBride, "The Watercolor Society National Academy Building Completely Filled with Our Specialty," New York Sun, 29 March 1943.

18. Lee Blair, Lullaby, Eucalyptus School; Tom Craig, Wind at Santa Paula, Bumper Crops, Soledad Storm, San Fernando; Emil Kosa, At Rest, Hour of Leisure; Barse Miller, Cash Register, Attic Treasure. James Couper Wright, a now-obscure artist then residing in Santa Barbara, submitted three additional works whose subjects were based on scenes in Virginia City, Nevada.

19. Seventy-First Annual Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society (New York: American Watercolor Society, 1938), not paginated. A typical Kosa subject of a battered truck parked in the glare of a broad California sun. Significantly, contemporary photo-realist art, which was later to evolve in California, can trace its lineage to such pictures.

20. Potential Blowouts. Thirty-Sixth Annual Watercolor Exhibition (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1938), not paginated.

21. Burlington Free Press, 15 August 1940.

22. Miners Resting. The same year, at the Pennsylvania Academy's Thirty-fourth Annual Watercolor Exhibition, Tom Craig was represented by Evening, Santa Ynez, and Barse Miller won the Dana Water Color Medal for Victorian Doll House.

23. Alfred Frankenstein, "Paul Sample," American Magazine of Art 31 (July 1938), 391.

24. "Gramatky's New York and Bahama [sie] Watercolors," Art Digest (December 1938), 42.

25. Twenty-eighth Annual Water Color Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1930; The Green House, Laigueglia, Italy, Arcadia Street, Oldtown Waterfront, Tioga Pass, Early Spring in the Sierras and Hill Street.

26. Seventieth Annual Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society, New York. Sheets contributed four works, California Fall, White Mare of Carmel, Four Little Pigs, and Balboa Evening.

27. Millard Sheets, "The Education of an Artist," Art lnstruction 3 (October 1939), 14.

28. Carlyle Burrows in the New York Herald Tribune, quoted in a signed review in Art Digest (May 1938). Unpaginated clipping, archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Although Burrows went on to comment on Zornes's apparent "professionalism" the reader is left with the distinct notion that the artist's facility was greater than his substance, and perhaps that at least this disciple of Sheets and the "California style" was lapsing into mannerism.

29. Clement Greenberg, "New York Painters," American Magazine of Art (October 1949), 92. Greenberg's assertion, based on the fallacy of "correct" taste, was destined to be discredited, of course. Significantly, this was to be accomplished by a new generation of artists, many of whom were based in California, such as Robert Bechtle and Ralph Goings, who fostered the rise of Photo-Realism. This became one of the dominant modes in
American art in the 1970s and continues to play a strong role on the national art scene.

30. "A . . . major change [in the character of the California Water Color Society] was made in the late 1940s when the influences of abstract expressionism and the use of pigments like tempera, acrylic and casein influenced many of the Society's members to work in a two-dimensional, flat, abstract manner." Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, Artists' Clubs and Exhibitions in Los Angeles before 1930 (Los Angeles: Privately Printed, 1974), not paginated.

31. Central Park, Decatur, 1930. Exhibited at the National Academy of Design, New York, 1940 and awarded the Thomas B. Clarke Prize, for "the best figure composition painted in the United States by an American citizen." The painting is now in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

32. Donald Bear, "Recent Pictures by Dan Lutz," American Magazine of Art (December 1943), 78.

33. Second Exhibition of Pictures by Otis Oldfield, exhibition catalog (New York: Montross Gallery, 1929).

34. "Dong Kingman," American Artist (September 1947), 42. The statement reveals Kingman's instinctive allegiance to one of the cardinal tenets of synthetic cubism, that a subject is most truly observed when seen from several points of view simultaneously.

35. Homer Saint-Gaudens, introduction to Survey of American Painting, exhibition catalog (Pittsburgh: Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, 1940), not paginated.

36. Quoted in Arthur Millier, "The Fabulous Mr. Sheets," American Artist 15 (May 1951), 74.

 

About the Author

At the time of publication of the book American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, Donelson Hoopes was director of the Thomas Cole Foundation in Catskill, New York. He has written books on the watercolors of Homer, Sargent, and Eakins as well as the book American Watercolor Painting (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1977).

 

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 AskArt.com, 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.

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

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/7/11

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