The Founding of the Society of California Pioneers and the Pioneer Art Collection
From the onset, San Francisco was the center of intellectual and cultural life in California (Hughes, 2002). The first influx of American artists in California came with the Gold Rush. Beginning in San Francisco in the 1850s, the Society of California Pioneers began amassing all manner of historical goods, including drawings, paintings, and prints. In 1894, the Society’s first building in Pioneer Place became a storehouse for this eclectic collection of historical treasure. Until the end of the 19th Century, the art collection displayed in Pioneer Hall was the only collection in San Francisco that provided full access to the public (Evans, 1955).
It was a great loss to the Society and California when all but the contents of the vault was lost in the great earthquake and fire of 1906 (Evans, 1960). Following the fire, the Society immediately began to rebuild its collections, beginning with the library. A second art collection was assembled, mostly from art that had survived in private collections, and grew over time from the tastes and generosity of its donors to where today the society’s sizable collection totals close to 2,500 individual works of art (Haas, 1999). In 1934 the society purchased the John Drum Collection which included a great number of rare early California lithographs and paintings covering a broad range of early subjects. In 1940, the Society acquired the Turrell Collection of printed materials, photo negatives and prints, and valuable sketches and drawings. In the 1960s the McCarthy, Meussdorffer, and Eppler collections further enriched the Society’s holdings with additional significant works by early California painters and an impressive collection of large scale lithographs of 19th Century California (Evans, 1960; Haas, 1999).
While some pieces are valued primarily for their historic documentation, other works of art are prized for both artistic achievement and as important records of the past. Society Director Elliot Evan observed, “From these pictures much of the pioneer artist’s sense of urgency and significance of the here and now, of history in the making, is communicated to us.” (Evans, 1955:12) Both the personal and artistic lives of these early California pioneer artists were intertwined with history – they were creating history as they made their art. The early artists were founders of the Bohemian Club, members of the Pioneer Society, volunteer fire department Vigilante Committee, etc. In this overview and in the individual biographies of artists in the Pioneer Society collection, you will find the historical connections are as intriguing as their artist accomplishments.
Photographic Collection of more than 60,000 images is considered in a separate collection and lithographic prints are considered in a separate category. In the discussion of original works of art below, including paintings (watercolors, pastels, oils) and drawings, the artists and art subjects and styles that represent the strongest and most cohesive part of the Society’s collection of early California art from the mid 1800s to approximately the beginning of the 20th century will be explored (Capecci, et al., 2005). Individual biographies of important artists in the collection are linked to this overview.
Art of the Gold Rush
Historian for the Society of California Pioneers J.S. Hittell commented in 1878 on the rapid transformation of San Francisco from “a village so insignificant that it had scarcely a mention on the map” to palaces “that rival the homes of European princes” (Olmsted, 1971:1).
San Francisco quickly grew from boom town to the Paris of the West from riches amassed from the Gold Rush of 1849 both from mining and providing services to the prospectors. America’s desire to compete with European culture in the nineteenth century fueled a demand for formal portraiture and nowhere was that truer than in early San Francisco where portrait painters soon became established residents (Jones, 1995; Hughes, 2002:7). Pioneer artist William Keith commented on the heyday of early San Francisco art:
“The people had money, had more of it than they needed, so they bought art works generously… men who could mix colors and put colors on canvas had no trouble in selling the finished canvas. Some of those who sold pictures here in those days could do more than mix colors, and some few could even paint pictures that were deservedly ranked as works of art… the country was young then and men could see the poetry and romance and the art that lay at their own doors…” (The Call, 1895)
The Society has amassed an important collection of these early portrait paintings that includes a portrait of James Lick by Alice Chittenden, several by William Smith Jewett including portraits of Joseph Folsom and John Sutter, and Adeline Ballou’s portrait of the iconic San Francisco character Emperor Norton. Even with advent of photography in the 1850s, painting was regarded as having more status among the wealthy and demand for painting remained strong well into the 20th Century (Capecci, et al., 2005).
Genre paintings of household and everyday life in California reflecting the unique diversity and originality of California culture were popular subjects in the early days and are well represented in the Pioneer Society’s collection. Four exceptional genre paintings are part of the Society’s collection from the pre-earthquake era: The Pioneer by Jules Tavernier, painted in 1877; William Ralston Driving His Two-Horse Buggy by Thomas Hill in 1860; Chinese New Year by Ernest Narjot in 1888; and Miner’s Dream by an unknown artist ca. 1850 (Haas, 1999).
The Era of Great Landscape Painting
During the decade that followed the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, California’s scenic and pristine wilderness became more accessible (Jones, 1995:1). The grandeur of the rugged Sierra Nevada, giant redwoods, and Yosemite Valley became a magnet to artists from the eastern states and Europe. The California landscape became the symbol of western expansion and America’s destiny, mythologized as an exotic unspoiled Eden (Capecci et al., 2005). California historian Kevin Starr explains, “The 1870s were emerging as a golden age of landscape painting in the Far West, and the Athens of this golden age was San Francisco” (Starr, 2011). During the prosperous 1870’s many wealthy patrons commissioned large landscapes to grace the walls of their palatial San Francisco homes. (Hughes, 2002:8; Baird, 1970:5)
Many California artists had traveled through exotic lands on their way to San Francisco before the building of the Panama Canal. In the 1870s tropical landscape paintings became fashionable and many artists painted tropical scenes from drawings and photographs made on the way to California and new travels to Hawaii, Mexico, and South and Central America (Neubert, 1971). From the very beginning art in California developed a regional identity characterized by deep sense of place, a kind of mystical communion between the artist and the land. People were typically depicted in tiny proportion compared to the vast scale of the surrounding wilderness. Most of these early artists, including Thomas Hill and William Keith, traveled extensively in the Sierra on foot or on horseback while on extended sketching trips. Field drawings were used to develop finished painted landscapes in their San Francisco studios (Jones, 1995:1). In Addition to Hill and Keith, other notable landscape artists of the era included in the Society of California Pioneers collection are Hiram Bloomer, Ransom Holdredge, Virgil Williams, Julian Rix, William Marple, and Juan Wandesford (Miller, 1975). During this same period, maritime themes and other transportation subjects such as trains were depicted in seascapes and landscapes. The Society’s collection includes notable California maritime artists of this style, Gideon Denny, William Coulter, and Charles D. Robinson.
Early Artist Movements in San Francisco
The first major art exhibition in California was held in 1857 at the First Annual Industrial Exhibition of San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute. The California Art Union founded in 1865 held only two art exhibitions (Mille, 1975:10). Chartered in 1872 in San Francisco, the Bohemia club became a center for the growth of art and all things cultural. Among its founding members were artists Jules Tavernier, Thomas Hill, William Keith, and Theodore Wores, whose works are represented in the Society’s collection. Founded in 1871, The San Francisco Art Association established the first art school, California School of Design, in 1893 located in the former Mark Hopkins mansion. The School of Design was as a training ground for emerging artists and eventually evolved into the modern-day San Francisco Art Institute (Hughes,2002). Early women artists exhibited in the all-male bastion of the Bohemian club and were charter members of the Art Association. Out of sixty students in the first class of the School of Design, forty-six were women. One of these early female students, Alice Chittenden, became one of the first women to exhibit in the Bohemian Club, the first woman faculty member of the School of Design, and a charter member of the 1906 women’s Sketch Club. Works by Chittenden are included in the collection of the Society of California Pioneers, as well as Sketch Club member Mary Richardson (Wilson,1983).
Artists of the French Barbizon School of the mid-1800s became the first plein air painters to work outdoors where they experienced the landscape directly and personally. “En plein air” is a French expression which means “in the open air” (Jones, 1996; Baird, 1967). Their evocative, realistic, romantic style was well suited to the California inclination to see landscape as metaphor. Hiram R. Bloomer and Ransom Gillet Holdredge, both represented in The Society of California Pioneers’ collection, were among the first California artists to leave for Paris, auctioning their paintings in 1874 to finance the trip (Baird, 1967). Danish born painter Joachim F. Richardt embraced this style in his 1876 painting San Francisco by Moonlight, considered one of the most important artworks of pre-earthquake San Francisco and one of the major works in the Society’s collection (Harrison, 1989). The famous painting Portola’s Discovery of San Francisco Bay by Emile Pissis exhibited in 1896 is also an important work of this period and style in our collection.
While California Tonalism of the 1890-1920s had origins in the French Barbizon movement, it is distinct from plein air painting. Tonalism explored the landscape of the artist’s imagination rather than an identifiable place using a low-key palette of cool colors and greys for scenes often seen through a mist in the diminished light of early morning or evening (UC Davis, 1967; Jones, 1995). These tranquil landscapes of an intensely personal nature allow the viewer to imagine strolling or sitting quietly in a landscape of human scale, in contrast with the grand and wild vistas of Yosemite. Tonalism became the dominate style in Northern California at the turn of the century while the influence of impressionism was just beginning to be felt in California decades after its development in Europe. William Keith was influential later in his artistic career in making Tonalism the dominate artistic style in the late 1800s.
Boom and Bust Times, Disaster and Diaspora
The popularity of California landscapes supported a prosperous art community until the 1880s when an economic decline resulting from the end of the Nevada silver boom in 1878 and the increased travel abroad on fashionable grand tours by San Francisco’s wealthy art patrons shifted tastes to collecting more European art. Students enrolled at the San Francisco School of Design, facing severely reduced prospects at home, left to study abroad (Miller, 1975; Wilson, 1983). San Francisco artists William Keith and Arthur E Mathews, inspired by their studies in Paris, built a bridge between the earlier California art traditions of epic landscapes and the first impressionist experiments of an emerging new generation of artists inspired by European art movements. Keith and Mathews were instrumental in organizing the art exhibit at the 1894 California Midwinter International Fair held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which revived the stagnant art scene in California (Hughes, 2002). However, San Francisco’s invigorated art scene died with the 1906 earthquake and fire. Galleries, private collections, and artist’s studios were lost in a death blow more profound than the art slump of the 1880s. In the wake of destruction, an exodus of artists left San Francisco for other locales, including Southern California.
California Impressionism and the Development of a Regional Identity
Despite the attention generated for California artists by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, which has been called the “most important watershed in California’s art history” (Wilson, 1983:7), in the early 20th century all but the most famous of California’s early artists fell into relative obscurity on the national art scene. Despite their lower profile, a regional art movement flourished from 1900 to 1950 as California’s dramatic landscapes and quality of light became the favorite subjects of California impressionist-inspired plein air artists in Southern California in places like Carmel-by-the Sea, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles and Pasadena from the teens to the 1930s. The French Barbizon School in northern California had become so entrenched that it tended to inhibit the introduction of new influences, (Hughes,2002) with the exception of a Oakland’s “Society of Six” painters organized in 1917 (AskArt) and the emergence of the California Decorative style. The Society of Six painter’s use of color in plein air paintings paved the way for the region’s postwar modern artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. Arthur Mathews, who was an art judge in the Panama-Pacific Exposition, inspired a post-earthquake style know as California Decorative with paintings in a flat decorative style of classical figures frolicking in idyllic landscapes, murals and various decorative objects during the height of the American Arts and Crafts movement. (Hughes, 2002) Represented in the collection of the Society of California Pioneers, Eugen Neuhaus, a German-born artist who arrived in California just before the earthquake, developed his own version of the decorative style in mural-like landscapes with bold areas of flat color (Baird, 1970).
California impressionism reached its peak of popularity in the years before the Great Depression of 1929 when the art market collapsed along with the rest of the economy (Stern, 2001). After that time, there was growing interest in social realist painting to reflect the struggles of the times and a younger generation of artists began experimenting with abstract painting inspired by subjects beyond landscape (Jones,1996). In the 1960s and 1970s nineteenth-century American art enjoyed a revival and once again California’s majestic and romantic early landscape paintings enjoyed renewed appreciation as the American wilderness was rapidly disappearing from the onslaught of urban development (Baird, 1970).
-Dana Smith, Intern