Legacy of the Jewel City
January 3, 2016 § 1 Comment
By NANCY BOAS
It is almost impossible to imagine how isolated California artists were from the world’s art centers and new artistic ideas before 1915. Travel was difficult. Ships had to go around South America to reach the West Coast. The Rocky Mountains and the Sierras presented their own high barriers to travel.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 — the focus of the “Jewel City” exhibition at the de Young Museum — had a transformational influence on the art and culture of the Bay Area.
In particular the fair was crucial in shaping the artistic development of the Society of Six, a group of plein air painters working in the Bay Area considered one of the country’s most important modernist developments in the early 20th century. Their work changed dramatically as a result of what they experienced there.
The great revelation for California artists such as the Society of Six came at the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building still standing from the fair. There and in a nearby annex they saw 11,400 works of art from all over the world, including approximately 50 French Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings.
The French Impressionists were represented as part of a historical survey in the Palace of Fine Arts, as well as in the French Pavilion. There were eight paintings by Claude Monet, including Rouen Cathedral Facade, and other works such as Claude Pissarro’s Red Roofs. Also exhibited was an influential painting by Paul Cézanne, The Gulf of Marseilles from L’Estaque, the first Cézanne exhibited in the West. While the work of the Impressionists was more than 40 years old at the time, it came like a bolt from the blue that opened up artists to a new way of seeing, just as it had released so many others before them.
The Six were Selden Connor Gile, August Gay, Maurice Logan, Louis Siegriest, Bernard von Eichman and William H. Clapp. They worked closely together in the Bay Area from about 1915 to 1930.
Until these artists visited the fair’s exhibitions, they had lived in artistic isolation. Exposure to the French Impressionists marked a turning point for the painters. Their isolation broke, they began to come together as a group, and at the fair they found the visual stimulation and ideas they had lacked. Immediately their work underwent a significant change in color and handling.
The Six preferred small canvases that were easy to handle out of doors, and they liked to finish a painting in one sitting. They rejected studio work and wanted speed and direct action.
During the weekends, they would drive to favored spots around the Bay Area, and occasionally down to Monterey. They would hike and set up their portable easels to paint the rural landscape. After painting all day, they would return to Gile’s rustic cabin on Chabot Road in Oakland. There, Gile dished out hearty meals, strong home brew and caustic humor, and the painters exchanged uninhibited critiques of each others’ paintings of that day. The force of Selden Gile’s personality was the group’s most important impetus. Gile set the rigorous pace both for the hikes and for their outdoor painting sessions. And he became the group’s most outspoken critic and tireless host.
Their high spirits disguised the deep importance of their gatherings. The Six became one of the few American groups that did more than exhibit together. They painted, critiqued and caroused together over an extended period of time. They were isolated without dealers and collectors. They had to be their own critics and support system.
In their breakthrough to a new way of seeing, the Six differed from other local painters. They understood more of Impressionism’s liberating message than did many respected artists in San Francisco. It led them to view the California landscape through a new lens and to forge their own directly felt art.
Clapp arrived in the Bay Area two years after the fair in 1917. He soon became director of the Oakland Art Gallery, forerunner of the Oakland Museum. In an era of few local art galleries, Clapp’s position was indispensable to the group. He gave them the opportunity to show their work at the Oakland Art Gallery, where they exhibited as the Society of Six every year from 1923 to 1928.
The Society of Six looked primarily to the French Impressionists, but American Impressionist paintings, present in large quantity at the 1915 fair, were also an influence. Three Northern California artists — E. Charlton Fortune, Joseph Raphael and Anne Bremer, whose work is in the “Jewel City” exhibition — had studied in Europe and went on to win prizes at the fair. Their work shared a kinship with the Society of Six, bringing new color and vibrancy to art in the Bay Area.
The art of the Six reached its strongest coloration after they saw the Fauves. The opportunity to examine first-hand the colorful canvases of artists such as Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Maurice Vlaminck came late to San Francisco — at the 1923 exhibition of Contemporary French Art.
The new paintings by the Six were considered garish by San Francisco critics. The Oakland Tribune reported in 1925: “Use due caution in approaching the third annual exhibition of the Society of Six. . . . You will get used to the color, which at first is staggering in its brilliancy. You can see it oozing out the door before you enter the gallery.”
The Society of Six’s manifesto, written by William Clapp, was published around the time of their third exhibition in 1925. “To us, seeing is the greatest joy of existence, and we try to express that joy,” it stated. “We have much to express, but nothing to say. We have felt, and desire that others may also feel.”
There is a hint in these last sentences that although the Impressionist ideas of the painter as an “eye” were still strongly held, the Six had already begun a move toward a more expressive mode.
The group’s exhibitions at the Oakland Art Gallery from 1923 to 1928 were the years of the artists’ maturity, when their color reached its highest pitch, and when it seemed only natural to them to paint hills, boats and pastures in pure vermilion and yellow and ultramarine — colors new to California art.
After their 1928 exhibition, a series of personal events set them on diverging paths. The Depression brought hard economic times, and they never exhibited as a group again during their lifetimes.
The Six were rediscovered in 1972 at an exhibition at the Oakland Museum and in 1989 at an exhibition at the de Young Museum. Since then, the de Young, the Crocker Museum in Sacramento and a number of important private collections have acquired their work.
The painterliness of the Society of Six is part of an identifiable tradition that connects the group to the notable lineage of California art, including the Bay Area Figurative painters of the 1950s and ’60s.
“The Oakland Six may constitute the first fully developed reflection of advanced cosmopolitan art on the West Coast,” wrote art historian William H. Gerdts. “Their origins as the last vital painters affected directly by French Impressionism, the formation of the group in 1917, their mature cohesive years of the 1920s and the legacy of their modernity, is a fascinating and important part of our artistic heritage.”
Nancy Boas is the author of Society of Six: California Colorists, published by the University of California Press.