Even with advent of photography, the demand for painting remained strong well into the twentieth century because the newly-minted aristocracy on the Pacific Slope continued to regard painting as the art form most capable of conveying social and cultural ascendance. Much of this enthusiasm for painting took the form of portraiture which nearly every artist was at times obliged to do regardless of his or her aesthetic inclinations. As an economic safeguard, many artists also exercised their talents for capturing the appearances of everyday life on the streets or in the camps to produce drawings or prints as illustrations for local newspapers or national publications. Given the leisure and means to pursue their vocation to their own devices, however, most artists gravitated to California’s pristine and unique natural environment as the most compelling subject for their work.
It is, therefore, not surprising that landscapes, city views, and portraits predominate in The Society collection. In depicting the people, places, and events of their day, at least some artists were aware that they were recording history in the making and that the imagery they were creating served to promote the growing mythology of the place as a kind of distant Eden. In her portrait of Emperor Norton, Adeline Ballou captures both the likeness and inner character of San Francisco’s first and only “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Entrepreneur William Ralston is the jaunty, horse-driving protagonist of Thomas Hills’ portrait against a backdrop of San Francisco’s Mission Bay while the anonymous hero of Jules Tavernier’s The Pioneer reads a letter in a cabin that is a virtual museum of camp life. In his View of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, Joachim Ferdinand Richardt bathes his cityscape in glossy moonlight to give the frontier town the appearance of an Old World seaport. Ernest-Etienne Narjot employs dance-like curvilinear forms to animate his rendition of Chinese New Year. These paintings along with others in the exhibition reinforce the ideological construct of California as an immigrant and polyglot society where classes intermingle, emperors are self-proclaimed, the landscape is utopian, and the weather is always truly fine.