By Bruce Kamerling
Curator of Collections, San Diego Historical Society
It seems in any discussion of San Diego’s early artists, the same names surface again and again. Charles Fries,1 Maurice Braun,2 Donal Hord,3 Alfred R. Mitchell,4 Charles Reiffel,5 and Everett Gee Jackson are widely known to connoisseurs of local art. The region’s first professional artists’ organization, Contemporary Artists of San Diego6 founded in 1929, included those six men as well as five others, Elliot Torrey, Leslie W. Lee, James Tank Porter, Otto H. Schneider and Leon Bonnet. Several of these artists were fondly called “Dean” of San Diego painters, including, in turn, Charles Fries, Maurice Braun, and Alfred R. Mitchell.
So, where are the women? If the deans were all men, the Contemporary Artists were all men, and the half-dozen “best-known” local artists were all men, one might reasonably wonder if any talented women ever lived in San Diego. With the possible exception of Belle Baranceanu, who is known primarily for her W.P.A. murals and through a recent exhibition, the average person would have a hard time naming a single female artist of importance in San Diego. Why is this? Certainly there were well-trained, talented, and professional women artists living in this area. In fact, San Diego’s first resident professional artist was a woman.7 Although not all practicing artists, the 1909 membership of the San Diego Art Association was seventy-five percent female. The 1928 membership of the San Diego Art Guild was almost two-thirds female. Many of these women were highly regarded in their day and their present obscurity is something of a puzzle.
Several factors have contributed to the lack of attention given these talented ladies. Perhaps some of it is due to the condescending view of women as “Sunday” rather than “serious” artists. According to Dorr Bothwell, “. . . in the days when I started painting, if you had a feminine sounding name, they didn’t even bother to look at the painting, they simply threw it out, period. No woman could paint well enough to be in any kind of show.”8 This chauvinism resulted in Bothwell changing the spelling of her first name. Some women were overshadowed by more famous, though not necessarily more talented artist husbands.9 There is also the reality of women as mothers and housekeepers with endless distractions and limited time to work.
In discussing the all-male membership of the Contemporary Artists, Everett Gee Jackson felt that “…in those days, it didn’t occur to men much that women wanted to belong to organizations of that kind. Men and women were pretty separated professionally.”10 In fact, this may have been the women’s own choice to some extent. At the various expositions held around the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was often a separate “Women’s Department” in the art exhibitions. Participation in this women’s department must have been up to the individual artist as many women preferred to compete in the regular art exhibition and frequently won awards. In San Diego, there may not have been a separate Women’s Department at the 1915 Panama California Exposition, but at the Panama California International Exposition of 1916 the women did have their own department.11 This type of separation was eventually abandoned, and no such division was present at the California Pacific International Exposition held in San Diego in 1935-36.
Although at the present time there is a great deal of interest in California’s art history, most of this interest is focused on the so-called plein-air or California Impressionist painters. This may also account for the obscurity of many of these women, for although women artists certainly painted landscapes, the majority of them appear to have been more frequently attracted to other subject matter. Figure compositions and portraits particularly seemed to attract women painters, as well as still-life, miniature and animal pictures. Of all the male painters previously mentioned, only Leslie W. Lee and Everett Gee Jackson used the human figure as an important element in their work. Although most of the men produced an occasional still-life, their primary interest seems to have been landscape painting.
So what role did women artists play in the local art scene? Many were founders and officers of the major art organizations in the county.12 Several were respected members of juries for competitive exhibitions.13 Most of the studios in the Spanish Village were occupied by women between the 1935 exposition and World War II, when the cottages were taken over by the Navy. Los Sureños Art Center was a group founded by local women which had over thirty members and exhibited regularly. In addition, many of San Diego’s women artists had their pictures shown in important national art exhibitions.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, women seem to have been the more progressive members of the local art community. In the 1930s, Fries, Braun and Mitchell were still producing landscapes similar to those they had been painting since the 1910s, while Belle Baranceanu, Dorr Bothwell, Anni Baldaugh and Margot Rocle were producing remarkably innovative and modern pictures. In addition to Bothwell and Rocle, Katherine Morrison Kahle, Ruth Powers Ortlieb and Ruth Townsend Whitaker, along with four male artists,14 organized the informal group calling themselves the San Diego Moderns, which started exhibiting in the early 1930s.
My intention, with this article, is to reintroduce some of San Diego’s forgotten women painters. I have intentionally excluded female sculptors, 15 and have limited myself only to women who resided here for at least ten years, and who were established in San Diego before 1935. I have chosen to highlight a number of women that I feel can hold their own next to any male member of the local of the local art community in regards to training, talent, professionalism and awards, and any one of these is worthy of a full-length biographical study. It is my hope that this brief introduction will inspire continued scholarship in this field. It would be inappropriate to consider the length of any of these biographies as an indication of the artist’s relative importance, but rather as a commentary on the quantity and content of surviving records. Those artists whose names are marked with an asterisk are represented in the collection of the San Diego History Center.
1. Ben Dixon, Too Late, The Picture and the Artist (San Diego: Don Diego’s Libreria, 1969).
2. Martin Petersen, “Maurice Braun: Master Painter of the California Landscape,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXIII (Summer, 1977).
3. Bruce Kamerling, “Like the Ancients: The Art of Donal Hord,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXXI (Summer, 1985).
4. Martin Petersen, “Alfred R. Mitchell: Pioneer Artist in San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIX (Fall, 1973).
5. Martin Petersen, “Success at Mid-Life: Charles Reiffel, 1862-1942, San Diego Artist,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXXI (Winter, 1985).
6. Martin Petersen, “Contemporary Artists of San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History, XVI (Fall, 1970).
7. See Emma Chapin in: Bruce Kamerling, “The Start of Professionalism: Three Early San Diego Artists,” The Journal of San Diego History, XXX (Fall, 1984).
8. Dorr Bothwell, interviewed by Bruce Kamerling, Joshua Tree, California, February 3, 1980 (transcript at San Diego History Center Research Archives).
9. Among local women artists who were married to artists are Dorr Bothwell, Pauline De Vol, Margot Rocle and Isabel Schneider.
10. Everett Gee Jackson, interviewed by Bruce Kamerling, San Diego, California, August 7, 1985 (transcript at SDHC Research Archives).
11. San Diego Sun, September 9, 1916, 12:4-5.
12. Women who were founders or officers of local art organizations include Belle Baranceanu, Martha Jones, Annie Pierce, Mina Pulsifer, Hazel Shoven and Sarah Truax.
13. Women who served on juries include Anni Baldaugh, Esther Barney, Margot Rocle, Elizabeth Sherman and Mabel Sumerlin.
14. The males were Donal Hord, a sculptor; Everett Gee Jackson; Ivan Messenger; and Marius Rocle, who had been trained by his wife.
15. The author is currently preparing a separate article on San Diego’s early sculptors