Theodore Wores was the first native born major San Franciscan artist born in 1859 to a merchant family who had fled political turmoil in 1848 during the Hungarian war for independence from the Austrian Empire. The family shop was a block from Chinatown and the young Wores walked to public school through the Chinese quarter. He began formal art training at age twelve and became one of the first students to enroll in the School of Design under the direction of Virgil Williams in 1874. After a year he left to study art in Munich when he was 17. He spent the next six years in Munich where he joined a group of other young American artists who studied under artist Frank Duveneck, a successful American figure and portrait painter. The students became known as “Duveneck’s Boys” (AskArt). On a trip to Italy with the “Boys,’” Wores met and studied with James Whistler and began a lifelong friendship. Whistler’s interest in Asian art is thought to have inspired Wores later travels to the Orient.
In 1881 Wores returned to San Francisco, joined the Bohemian Club, which rented a space on Sacramento Street near Kearney on the Southeast corner of Chinatown. Despite the often violent working class drive for Chinese exclusion in the 1870’s and early 1880s by the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) which resulted in massacres across California, in the 1880s and 1890s Chinatown had become a popular subject of genre painters. While the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 prohibited the continued immigration of Chinese to the United States, Wores and fellow genre painter and Bohemian Club member Edwin Deakin began to paint genre scenes of Chinatown life imbuing the quickly changing Chinese cultural landscape with a sense of romanticism. Wores set up a studio in the Mercantile Library Building next to his friend, William Keith, who at that time was twice the age of Wores.
When playwright Oscar Wilde visited San Francisco as a guest of the Bohemian Club in 1882 while on his lecturing tour of the United States, he drank the bohemians under the table. So impressed were they by his ability to hold his liquor, despite his knee pants and effeminate manner, they decided to honor him with a portrait to hang in their club. Theodore Wores was the artist chosen to paint the portrait. Later, Wilde would join James Whistler in promoting Wores entry to galleries and cultural life in London. The portrait of Wilde was among the paintings burned in 1906. (Internet Archive)
In the mid-1880s Wores became one of the first American artists to live and work in Japan. After three years in Japan he returned again to San Francisco where his paintings of Japan were well received. Wores made another trip to Japan, was disappointed in the rapid westernization, and then continued on to Hawaii and Samoa in search of exotic portrait subjects. While in Samoa, Wores was a guest in the home of author Robert Louis Stevenson, painting many of the novelist’s native friends. His prolific work during this year and a half was exhibited in Honolulu in 1902. The Lei Maker, his most famous painting and considered the most famous of all Hawaiian portraits, was made during this period. Next, he was off to Spain before returning again to San Francisco in 1904. His family home, art studio, and most of his paintings were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The following year he was named dean of the newly rebuilt and renamed San Francisco Art Institute, formerly the San Francisco School of Design, which he directed until 1913.
Wores resumed his artistic journeying to Canada where he painted the Calgary Indians and then to the American southwest to paint the native inhabitants of the pueblos in the area near Taos. In 1926 he converted a church in Saratoga into a country home and then spent his time alternating between a residence in San Francisco on California Street and Saratoga. Privately he taught Chinese students and has been called “the ethnographer with a pallet” (Smith 1981) by biographer and anthropologist Valene Smith for his interest and sensitivity in depicting other cultures and races. He continued painting until shortly before his death in San Francisco in 1939 at age 80 of a heart attack. He had a long, prolific and successful career, but it wasn’t until after his death that he became he became internationally recognized.
In his later years he began painting landscapes, particularly of areas near his country home. His style changed over his long career from the brown tonal contrasts of the Munich School to his later more impressionist and colorful landscape paintings. Wores was known for his conservative views of emerging modern art. He disapproved of Paul Gauguin’s paintings of South Sea Islanders and he was among a group of Bohemian Club members who barred all forms of modern art (cubism, futurism, dadism, surrealism, etc.) from the Club’s annual exhibitions in 1927 (Internet Archive). The Society of Pioneers has four paintings by the artist, two California portraits, and landscape, and a painting of a historic building within a landscape.
AskArt – Art Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database. www.askart.com
Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
Internet Archive – a San Francisco non-profit offering permanent access to historical collections that exist in digital format. (www.archive.org)
Smith, Valene. 1981. Anthropologist at California State University, Chio. Documentary “Visual Pioneers of the 19th Century: The World of Theodore Wores.” www.valenesmith.com