1848 to 1945
Edwin and Margaret Crocker were visionary in recognizing the contributions of California’s artists early on, thus founding what is today one of the nation’s premier collections of Californian art. Because so much work was lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, this core group is also the only extensive nineteenth-century Californian art collection to remain intact.
Since the time of Margaret Crocker’s gift of the gallery building and its art in 1885, this collection has continued to grow and now represents the work of Californian artists, and American artists generally, from the Gold Rush to the present day. The discovery of gold in January 1848 brought thousands of settlers from the eastern United States, Europe, and Asia. Within little more than two years California became the thirty-first state in the Union. Included among the influx were many artists who came in the hope of striking it rich, yet most found greater success using art skills honed by study in Europe or the East. They produced illustrations, portraits, panoramic landscapes, and paintings of mining life that record a remarkable time in the history of the young state. Although many artists ultimately returned home, others remained in California. Some, such as Albertus del Orient Browere, portrayed the tropical scenery they encountered en route to California via Panama. Others, such as Charles Christian Nahl, excelled in portraiture and genre scenes.
After the sensation of the Gold Rush subsided, the vast majority of Californian painters went about portraying the state’s landscape, proclaiming and glorifying this unique place in America. Patrons made wealthy by the completion of the transcontinental railroad and silver mining of the Comstock Lode built grand homes in San Francisco and fostered the city’s art market. California’s spectacular scenery and developing art community continued to attract new artists in the early 1860s and 1870s, and entrepreneurs seeking to embellish new mansions helped support them. The newly formed San Francisco Art Association and the California School of Design thrived in this atmosphere.
The Sierra Nevada, and Yosemite Valley in particular, became the signature subject of many artists, none more so than Thomas Hill. The Crocker’s Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite (1871) was the second of two, six-by-ten foot exhibition paintings that Hill created of Yosemite Valley seen from Inspiration Point. Unveiled in Hill’s Boston studio, it was then sent to San Francisco, where E. B. Crocker purchased it.
The Crocker Art Gallery’s collection grew slowly after E. B. Crocker’s death in 1875, but painting in California continued to evolve, moving from highly detailed, Hudson River School inspired renditions of majestic scenery, to more intimate, Barbizon-style views of the natural setting. Born and trained in France, artist Jules Tavernier was greatly influenced by work coming out of the Fontainebleau Forest and adapted this intimate, dusky aesthetic to California, thereby influencing others of his generation, including Julian Rix, Charles Dormon Robinson, and Carl von Perbandt. English-born painter Edwin Deakin also departed from Hudson River School traditions, bringing to California what might best be described as a Californian picturesque style.
The Barbizon aesthetic led to an even quieter, more moody style known as Tonalism, which was influenced internationally by James Whistler and locally by San Franciscan Arthur Mathews. Mathews’s position as the Director of the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art meant that artists throughout Northern California followed his lead in creating quiet, atmospheric landscapes in soft, muted tones. Mathews’s own work is represented at the Crocker by a thirteen-foot allegorical mural entitled Vision of Saint Francis (1911) and by Arts and Crafts furnishings from the renowned Furniture Shop, which he operated in conjunction with his wife, Lucia. His influence can also be felt in recently acquired and promised works by Arthur Atkins, Percy Gray, Thomas McGlynn, Gottardo Piazzoni, Bruce Porter, and Granville Redmond.
Mathews’s influence was less profound in the southern parts of the state, where sunny hillsides, deserts, and the crystalline sea made Impressionism a logical stylistic choice for most artists. Californian Impressionism began early on the Central Coast, when two pioneers of the Monterey Peninsula art colony, Evelyn McCormick and Mary Brady, brought skills they had learned in Giverny to bear on the local landscape. The California Impressionist style flowered fully in Southern California through artists such as Franz Bischoff, Maurice Braun, Alson Clark, Donna Schuster, and William Wendt. Paintings by these and other California Impressionists, many of whose works are included in a recent gift from Melza and Ted Barr, have enabled the Crocker to represent these achievements. Other promised gifts of Impressionist works from the eastern United States will ultimately put these western contributions into a broader American context.
Departing from elegant Impressionist traditions in the 1910s, other American artists of the East began to turn to their urban surroundings for subject matter. They did so in part because of the dark, gritty scenes of city life and the urban poor produced by artists of the Ashcan School, a group led by Robert Henri and represented in the Crocker collection by Henri’s The Romany Girl. In California, Sacramento native Otis Oldfield also painted the figure, retaining a sense of informality but with a lighter palette. Others captured city life itself, both in oil and in the more immediate medium of watercolor.
Meanwhile, American painters working outside the city depicted landscape scenes nearly devoid of human presence. Rockwell Kent’s northern, snow-clad landscape entitled March, Greenland, and Birger Sandzén’s Pines and Aspen, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado present nature as a sublime force imbued with transcendental and symbolic meaning. Maynard Dixon specialized in lonely scenes of the American West, as did Georgia O’Keeffe, whose interpretation of the desert was elegiac and symbolic.
Californian art during this period was geographically and philosophically apart from the American mainstream, most certainly from American Modernism. In Los Angeles, artists who experimented with avant-garde European styles were most influenced by Surrealism, as is evident in the early work of Claire Falkenstein. When the charismatic Hans Hofmann first came to teach at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in 1930, his progressive ideas and influential teachings helped foster the development of abstract styles in Northern California.