Nearly half a century has passed since San Diego’s first important artist of national stature was recognized in a major retrospective exhibition. The memorial tribute occurred during the year of the artist’s death in 1922. Eighty oil paintings, a large selection of watercolors, and about fifty etchings by Ammi Merchant Farnham (1846-1922) were shown during November at Orr’s Art Gallery, San Diego.
Ammi Farnham was born in Silver Creek, New York, January 13, 1846. A precocious talent, he began his artistic career at the age of twelve. At eighteen he was a student in Munich and was traveling in Italy and France. As a student of Frank Duveneck at the Royal Academy of Bavaria, his colleagues were William Merritt Chase, Frank Freer and other familiar names in the annals of American art history. His paintings manifest the artistic theories of the German art centers of the 19th Century. Back home, the artist served as curator of the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts for several years. As a professional painter, he exhibited in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other major United States cities. He settled in San Diego, where he died thirty-four years later.1
The appearance of this artist, in the late 19th Century, in Southern California is significant in that it signaled the beginning of an era of quality work produced by artists who were familiar with international currents in the visual arts through both training and travel. Today contemporary criticism is directed at their academicism. However, academy attendance, plus absorbtion of European culture through travel, were part of the curriculum vita expected of any serious artist.
The first decade of the 20th Century saw an increased tempo in local community interest in the visual arts. As early as 1904, the San Diego Art Association was incorporated and six years later the Art Students League was organized.2 The San Diego Art Guild held its first meeting in 1915. That year the Panama-California Exposition brought the first major American art exhibition to this area. Works by Robert Henri and his circle of friends, the Avant Garde of the day, exhibited in the California Building, today identified as a symbol of San Diego and known as the Museum of Man. This feat had been accomplished in part through the efforts of Alice Klauber, a San Diego artist and patron who had studied with Henri in Spain.3
The first quarter of the century was climaxed by the opening of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, in Balboa Park, in February, 1926. The gallery became the center of San Diego’s cultural and social activity. The building had been presented as a gift to the city by Mr. and Mrs. Appleton S. Bridges and its guidance was assumed by an incorporation of the Fine Arts Society of San Diego under the direction of a Board of Trustees, with Reginald Poland hired as director.
At the beginning of the second quarter of the 20th Century, a marked cosmopolitan professionalism in the visual arts was introduced by a group of artists who had sound background training in the United States and abroad. In many instances, they had earned a reputation that extended beyond local and state boundaries, before settling in San Diego. It was here, however, that some of their finest works were produced.
On June 22, 1929, eight dedicated and serious San Diego artists met in the studio
of Leslie W. Lee and formed the Associated Artists of San Diego.4 This first professional artist’s organization in San Diego changed its name to the Contemporary Artists of San Diego at its August meeting in 1929.5 The group consisted of James Tank Porter, appointed president; Alfred R. Mitchell, secretary; Maurice Braun, Charles A. Fries, Leslie W. Lee, Charles Reiffel, Otto H. Schneider and Elliot Torrey. Three others accepted an invitation to join: Donal Hord, Everett Gee Jackson, and Leon D. Bonnet.6 They were a generation or more younger in age, but certainly merited membership based on their accomplishments.
JAMES TANK PORTER
James Tank Porter (1883-1962), son of a medical missionary, was born in Tientsin, China, October 17, 1883. He was a graduate of Beloit College Academy and received a B.A. Degree from Pomona in 1914. From 1915 to 1921, he attended the Art Students League, studying with George Bridgeman and Robert Aitkin. In 1916, the year he was at Columbia University, he also worked in the Stamford, Connecticut studio of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor identified with America’s Black Hills region, and the giant heads of some of America’s greatest presidents. Generally disenchanted with art, he entered the world of business and became owner of the Brown Manufacturing Company in La Mesa from 1936 to 1956. He died in that community March 13, 1962.
Alfred Mitchell (1888- ) still teaches painting in San Diego. As recording secretary of the group, he is a source of many interesting facts which have been brought to light regarding their activities. Mr. Mitchell was born June 18, 1888, at York, Pennsylvania and came to San Diego in 1904. He first studied under Maurice Braun who encouraged him in his chosen career. He next attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1920, he had traveled in Europe on a scholarship. He studied with Arthur B. Caries, Joseph T. Pearson, Hugh H. Breckenridge, and David Garber, from 1916 to 1921, except for several years of military service. Later he also studied with Philip Hale and Edwin H. Blashfield. He acknowledges a debt to Edward W. Redfield whose art he greatly admired. He helped found the La Jolla Art Association in 1918 and exhibited there yearly for over forty years. In appearance, one can scarcely visualize this charming gentleman as a youngster, prospecting for gold or driving freight wagons and express stages in Nevada.7
LEON DURAND BONNET
Leon Durand Bonnet (1868-1936) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 12, 1868. His father had given him his first lessons. He studied at the Academy with Eliot Clark and Edward Potthast. He had studios in Tuxedo Park, New York, and Ogunquit, Maine, as well as in Bonita, California. His French forebearers were artists of note. Great-uncles, Charles and Jean Baptiste Durand, were portrait painters. Charles Emile Bonnet, his grandfather, was a distinguished engineer and architect who was invited by the American government to come from France and assist the members of the Bureau of Architecture at Washington in designing the United States Treasury Building. The lure of the sea was his first inspiration. However, upon settling in California, his motivation became the mountains and deserts. His paintings are sympathetic interpretations of one who is infatuated with the mighty waters. Death occurred June 22, 1936, the year of the last major exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego of works by the Contemporary Artists of San Diego.
Distinguished Maurice Braun (18771941) was born in Nagy Bittse, Hungary, October, 1877, and was brought at the age of four by his parents to New York City. At fourteen he was apprenticed to a jeweler, but soon revolted. Subsequent training included study at the National Academy of Design with William Merritt Chase and then a year in Europe. He came to San Diego in 1910.
Principally acknowledged as a landscape artist, the light and airy style and the technique of the French Impressionists and Chase seemed to have left their influence upon Braun. His sympathy for the California scene he attributed to the appeal of “its bigness, its richness and its optimism.”8 Prior to his working in San Diego, he executed few landscapes. On a trip to New York City in 1921, he discovered he was known as the “Painter of the East and of the West.”9 He died of a heart attack November 7, 1941. One unknown writer expressed the opinion that Braun “put San Diego on the national art scene.”10
Mrs. Braun (Hazel Boyer) wrote the art column for one of the city’s cosmopolitan newspapers and helped publicize the group in addition to most of the community’s art activities. Both had been profoundly active in the Theosophical Society which undoubtedly affected their theories of art.
CHARLES ARTHUR FRIES
Charles Arthur Fries (1854-1940), illustrator, painter and teacher, was born in Hillsboro, Ohio, August 14, 1854. Raised in Cincinnati, he attended the Art Academy there at a time when it was considered one of the most notable in the United States. Among his fellow students were J. H. Twachtman, Robert Blumen, and Kenyon Cox. The artist established himself in San Diego in 1897. His first home in Southern California had been at San Juan Capistrano in 1896.11 Fries was later referred to as the “Dean of San Diego Painters,” a title applied to several members of the organization. He devoted his canvases to landscape painting and focused on the desert, the mountains, and eucalyptus trees. His works are sound in craftsmanship and bright in atmospheric light. He died December 15, 1940. A memorial exhibition was held at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego in 1941.
Donal Hord (1902-1966) was the junior member of the group, and the only other sculptor besides James Tank Porter. He was born in Prentice, Wisconsin, in 1902. The family moved to Seattle, then to San Diego in 1916. In frail health from childhood, Horn never received normal schooling. At sixteen, he was taken in tow by Mrs. Valentine, a former student of Rodin, who launched him on his way. He studied at the Santa Barbara School of Fine Arts with a Scottish sculptor, Archibald Dawson, who taught him the cire perdu (lost wax) bronze casting technique. He then traveled and studied in Mexico. Successive scholarships allowed brief periods of instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy as well as the Beaux Arts Institute in New York City. Hord used the Indian motif almost exclusively as the subject in his works. His “Guardian of the Waters” overlooking the San Diego harbor area is a familiar sight to residents and visitors alike who pass by on Harbor Drive. He has left San Diego a heritage of Southwest figures comfortable in their environment. The sculptor died of a heart attack in 1966.
EVERETT GEE JACKSON
Everett Gee Jackson (1900- ) was born in Mexia, Texas at the dawn of the new century, 1900. Subsequent to his formal training at Texas A. and M. and the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied at San Diego State College, where he became a member of the staff. He retired as head of the art department thirty years later. A diversified artist, Alfred Frankenstein referred to him as “one of the finest craftsmen of the lithograph working on this coast.”12 In his paintings, with their monumental figures occupying a space devoid of time and motion, viewers sense an intellectual and esoteric quality. Mr. Jackson has earned an enviable reputation as an outstanding illustrator. In 1955 he was recognized by the Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press for “outstanding contributions to the publications of beautiful books over the preceding twenty years.” Among the best known classics in the world of literature which he illustrated are Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson and the marvelous tale of Paul Bunyan and Babe. A specialist in the area of Pre-Columbian art, he has published articles in professional journals on that subject.13
LESLIE W. LEE
Leslie W. Lee (1871-1951) was born in Manchester, England, March 26, 1871, of American parents. He received his formal training in Paris at the Academie Julian with Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens. He also studied in Munich and London. In the United States, he was an instructor at the School of Applied Design in New York. His paintings reflect the influence of the dark background and palette championed by the German art centers as well as the technique of loaded brush and paint applied with characteristic bravura. Lee traveled and painted extensively in the Southwest and in Mexico. He seems to have been publicity shy, for among the members of the group, least is known about him. He died April 6, 1951.
Charles Reiffel (1862-1942) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 9, 1862. From the age of thirteen to twenty-six he worked in a clothing store. He began his art career late to become one of the most accomplished of the group. His appeared to be a natural talent. Essentially self-trained as a painter, he studied portrait painting in Munich, Germany, with Carl Marr. Subsequent travel found him sketching from Scotland to Tangiers; and for a while he created posted designs for English business firms. Upon returning to the United States, he began to paint in earnest in Buffalo and several years later in New York. Heading West in 1925, with Santa Fe as his destination, he was detoured to San Diego where he became enchanted with its landscape. Here he made his home for sixteen years. He was first recognized for his lithography which, using vibrant patterns and dynamic rhythm, suggests undulating movement in the grandeur of the rising hills and mountains. Reiffel had been in sympathy with the modern tendency toward pure color and bright light. He died in San Diego, March 14, 1942.
OTTO H. SCHNEIDER
Otto H. Schneider, landscape and figure painter, was born in Muscatine, Iowa. In 1890 he was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago studying with John F. Vanderpoel and Pennett Gover. In New York he joined an art group in Buffalo. At the Art Students League, he specialized in drawing under Lucius Walcott Hitchcock, and studied with John H. Twatchman, George de Forest Brush and Henry Siddons Mowbray. In 1910, he was in Paris receiving criticism from Baclet, Schommer, Gervais and Royer at the Academie Julian. His art was considered worthy of being hung in the Paris Salon in 1911. He visited the cultural centers of the Netherlands, France, and Italy before returning to America. He traveled and painted in the West Indies, Canada and throughout the United States. From 1921 to 1923, he taught at the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts and was an instructor at the San Diego Academy of Fine Arts the following year. His color, according to a number of writers, gave his work its strongest impetus.
A kinsman of Dr. John Torrey, discoverer of the famous Torrey Pines, Elliot Torrey (1867-1949) was born in East Hardwick, Vermont, January 7, 1867. He studied art in Italy and France and established a studio in Boston for a few years. In the first decade of this century, he spent a number of years in Paris studying and exhibiting. Upon returning to New York in 1911, he established a studio there. He migrated to California in 1923, stopping first at Pasadena, and finally settled in San Diego. Depictions of children and the sea were his specialty, and he treated both subjects with verve and brilliance on canvas. He died following a lingering illness on March 10, 1949.
These men had a common bond in their extensive exhibition records, in their honors as prize winners, and in their recognition by major American museums which added their works to their permanent collection.14
They worked independently and collectively with vigor and enthusiasm to contribute to the development of artistic activity in the San Diego community. In addition to being practicing artists, they were members of the San Diego Art Guild and the Fine Arts Society of San Diego whose membership sustains the Art Gallery even today. Some served as directors and officers of both organizations.
The objectives of this group of talented artists were to hold exhibitions of the work of its members in San Diego and elsewhere; to place works of art in as many places as possible in the business section of the city; and to send representative exhibitions on tour in California and throughout the United States.
The first local exhibition was held in the Hotel San Diego, July 20 through August 18, 1929. There were no sales. A succession of six annual major exhibitions were held at the Fine Arts Gallery from 1930 through 1934, with a final show in 1937. The schedule was broken as a result of the Exposition held in San Diego in 1935-36.
A downtown sales room was maintained and operated by the group at 1133 7th Avenue, opening on December 1, 1931. Its door was closed April 30, 1932. From all indications, while attendance and reviews of their exhibitions were generous and enthusiastic, sales were few. Bonnet, who exhibited independently in Boston at this time, was very well received, but the only offer for a sale came from a woman who had seen his work and had proposed to purchase a glossy photograph for a dollar.15
Dissipation of the organization began within a year after its formation. Such lofty objectives as were set forth in their first meetings, such as all new members admitted by invitation would be accepted only with the favorable vote of each member, indicated a noble idealism that is exceptionally rare. Such unity of decision is practically nonexistent. When men of intelligence, talent, and creative ability are involved, disagreement can be expected.
A lay member plan, an arrangement whereby non-members, but local patrons, could draw for works by these men from an exhibit in a major yearly show at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego, proved a critical point of contention. Several felt that patrons were benefiting more than the artists, while others were convinced that the project stimulated lively interest in their works and would increase sales in the long run. Maurice Braun and Elliot Torrey remained precariously balanced between the divergent opinions.
Other contributing factors which led to the organization’s eventual demise was the “condition of the treasury.” Costs for proposed out of town exhibitions made such exhibitions prohibitive, even though several shows were held in Pasadena and Los Angeles by the group. Minutes ceased to be recorded after the meeting held October 8, 1932, in the Chamber of Commerce office. They continued exhibiting as a group until 1936, but after that members seemed to be on their own.
In 1936, death had claimed Bonnet. The organization no longer functioned. The next generation, many who had reaped the benefits of their predecessor’s talents, now stepped forward. None, however, has to date received either the fame or national stature earned by these men.
1. Bibliographic material concerning Ammi Farnham and all artists mentioned in this article may be found in the artist’s files in the Art Reference Library in the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. This source contains exhibition catalogues; local newspaper clippings; miscellaneous clippings from unmarked newspapers and unknown periodicals, as well as written lecture notes; and, personal correspondence and tributes. This material is available to all who are interested in a more comprehensive study of each artist.
2. For a summary account of early personalities, classes and organizations in San Diego see Naomi Baker, “Art Guild to Observe 54th Year,” Evening Tribune, November 6, 1964, a newspaper feature stressing the significance and history of the Art Guild.
3. For details regarding the Panama-California Exposition’s 1915 American Painting Exhibition, see Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, December 2, 1962-January 6, 1963, Modern American Painting, 1915, text and catalogue by Martin E. Petersen. This was an attempt to recreate the 1915 exhibition. Source material was essentially the personal correspondence between Miss Alice Klauber and Robert Henri and the official correspondence between the artist, Henri, and the exposition director, Dr. Edgar Hewett. All letters are in the files at the Fine Arts Gallery. This was the first time American artists George Wesley Bellows, Guy Pene du Bois, William J. Glackens, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George B. Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Joseph Henry Sharp, John Sloan, and Carl Sprinchorn were to show “on the other edge,” as Sloan described it (letter, undated, John Sloan to Dr. Hewett). The majority among this group were associated with the “notorious” Ash Can Group, the leading figures in American Art.
4. Minutes, Associated Artists of San Diego, June 22, 1929, Alfred R. Mitchell, Secretary. Minutes remain in the possession of Mr. Mitchell.
5. Minutes, Contemporary Artists of San Diego, August 10, 1929, Alfred R. Mitchell, Secretary.
6. These three artists were invited to join at the first meeting. They accepted immediately. Another, Aloys Bohnen, was also invited. However, no response was ever received by the contemporary artists. Ref: Minutes, July 22, 1929.
7. San Diego Art Institute, Bulletin, April, 1960, biographical sketch of the artist by Marion Dickes.
8. Springville, Utah, 1942, An Exhibition of the Paintings of Maurice Braun, introduction by Reginald Poland, Director of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. Ref: Biographical notes.
9. Reginald Poland, “The Divinity of Nature in the Art of Maurice Braun,” The Theosophical Path, May, !928,p. 474.
10. “Braun Art Exhibit Indicates Progress,” San Diego Union, November 20, 1951, newspaper article by unknown author.
11. See Journal of San Diego History, XVII (Spring 1970) no. 2, San Diego History Center for account of circumstances surrounding one of the first paintings executed in this area by Fries. The cover reproduction is misleading. True color ranges in the warm tones of beige and ochres which comprised the palette of many of these painters.
12. Alfred Frankenstein, San Francisco Chronicle, December 1, 1940.
13. For example: “The Pre-Columbian Ceramic Figurines from Western Mexico,” Parnassus, XIII (January, 1941), no. 1, pp. 17-20.
14. The list of awards, collections and exhibitions which represent these artists is too extensive to record here. Among major museums which include works by one or more in their permanent collections are the Art Institute of Chicago; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Corcoran Art Gallery; the Reading Museum, Pennsylvania: the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Akron Art Museum; and the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. These and other familiar and important galleries have featured their works in exhibition. The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, featured a retrospective of Maurice Braun’s work in 1954.
Awards also make an impressive and lengthy listing. Many were sizeable both in monies and fellowships received. Hord had received two Guggenheim grants, one of the most sought after grants for study.
15. Minutes, Contemporary Artists of San Diego, November 1, 1930. Mr. Bonnet’s expenses for the Eastern showing were discussed in length. They amounted to $395.00. An expensive venture. The economics of this exhibition are significant in that it was to provide a module for determining the feasibility of out of state exhibitions and undoubtedly served to influence the group to abandon plans for such exhibitions.
Martin E. Petersen has been the Curator of Western Arts at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego since 1957. His varied and extensive experience with the arts includes travel in Europe, where he viewed major public and private art collections, and writing and lecturing on a wide range of subjects relating to his main field of interest and study.