On the ramparts of high art

October 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Artful

IN THE EARLY 1880s in San Francisco, Samuel Marsden Brookes had been hard at work, waiting patiently for better times. His paintings, of which he by now had a large number, were stacked all around the studio, with good prices affixed to them. Once Brookes put a price on a canvas, not even Satan himself could make him reduce it.

One portrayed a life-size peacock, posed on a balustrade before a palatial country house. The painting had been languishing in Brookes’ studio for quite some time, waiting for a buyer. The longer the bird remained on his hands, the higher Brookes jacked up the price. He had started at $750, a figure already pronounced much too high by his dealer. Out of sheer spite Brookes immediately raised it to $1,000. Thereafter, the price of the peacock had steadily escalated. From $1,000 it went to $1,200, then $1,500, then $1,700. By the time Timothy Hopkins, adopted son of the late Mark Hopkins, came to see the painting, the price had soared to $2,000. A few days later, when Timothy returned with Mark Hopkins’ widow for a second look, Brookes promptly raised the price to $2,500, announcing that, while he did not have any money he did have the picture, “and here it stays until I get my price.” In the face of such rapid developments, Mrs. Hopkins surrendered on the spot, adding two still lifes, one with apples, one with fish, for a total of $3,000.

The idea of the solitary artist brandishing his mahlstick on the ramparts of High Art, willing to die, yet prevailing in the end, was inspiring. However, it was merely the exception confirming the rule.

— From Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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