By Molly McClain
One hundred years ago, tourists travelled west on railways and steamships to see California—its mountains, valleys, deserts, and ocean. Their destination: two great World’s Fairs held at opposite ends of the state. In 1915, San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition and San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition celebrated a technological marvel— the Panama Canal—that promised to bring untold numbers of immigrants to the West Coast. They also invited visitors to learn more about the history, culture, and achievements of The Golden State.
“Masterworks: Art of the Exposition Era” at the San Diego History Center through January 3, 2016, recalls the panoramas of sea, hills, and sky that visitors expected to see on their arrival. The scenic beauty of Southern California rivaled that of Tuscany and the Italian Riviera, causing more than one writer to describe the region as “Our Italy.”1 Guidebooks, meanwhile, promoted the romantic vision of Spanish California described by Helen Hunt Jackson in her novel, Ramona (1884). Tourists imagined orange groves, shady patios and verandas draped with vines, amid picturesque adobe ruins.
Curators Bram Dijkstra and Harry Katz have organized an inspiring exhibit that contains two-dozen landscape paintings by the plein air painters known as California impressionists, along with select works by East Coast and San Diego modernists. The catalog contains valuable essays by Dijkstra and Derrick Cartwright along with short biographical profiles of the artists. Together with “San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Expo” and the Noel Baza Fine Art Gallery’s “Under the Same Sky,” the current exhibit helps us understand what drew early twentieth-century visitors to California, and why many decided to stay. Art not only imitates reality; it can create it.
San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, like most World’s Fairs, combined art, industry, and entertainment with salesmanship. One writer described it as “California’s County Fair.”2 Promoters sold the West as a confident and forward-looking place to do business, develop a ranch or farm, or vacation among the cottonwood and pepper trees. Agriculture was a focus of the exhibition, so much so that the International Harvester Company showed tractors, harvesters, and other machines in a five-acre demonstration field. There was a model farm and bungalow, orchards with citrus and other fruit-bearing trees, even a vineyard. Murals depicted the grains and grasses found in the San Joaquin Valley, while other exhibits focused on economic opportunities in western states such as Utah and Nevada.
Thanks to the energy and organizational skills of the Woman’s Board of the Panama-California Exposition, there were several modern art exhibits at the fair: one in the Southern California Counties Building, one in the Woman’s Headquarters, and two others in the Fine Arts Building located across the quadrangle from the California Building. In 1914, Alice Klauber, chair of the Art Committee, persuaded both the California Art Club of Los Angeles and the New York artist Robert Henri to organize shows. Having responded enthusiastically to avant-garde Cubist and Futurist art on display at the Armory Show in 1913, Klauber believed that the time had come for San Diegans to “awake” to the new possibilities presented by modern artists who had painted in the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast.3
The Southern California Counties Building hosted the largest group of paintings. The palatial Spanish colonial revival structure stood on the site of what is now the San Diego Museum of Natural History. On the lower floor, visitors could see prosaic products typically displayed at county fairs, like china painting and hemstitched aprons. There was even a refrigerated sculpture of a milkmaid and a cow made entirely of butter.4 Upstairs, the fine art gallery contained 100 paintings and 14 pieces of sculpture by some of the best artists in Southern California. Visitors came away astonished by the quality and variety of the show. “California is ideal landscape country,” gushed one Los Angeles critic, “I realized as never before that we of the Big West have at last attained to an art of native expression.”5
The California Art Club of Los Angeles organized the 1915 show. Artists who had been living in Southern California for at least two years were invited to submit their work to a jury of fellow artists. Among those selected were William Wendt, a founding member of both the California Art Club and the Laguna Beach Art Association; Maurice Braun, whose interest in Theosophy led him to seek the California light; and Charles A. Fries, a prolific San Diego landscape painter. Female painters included Donna Schuster who often painted outdoor scenes of women and girls, and Anna A. Hills, active in the Laguna Beach art colony. The gallery in the Southern California Counties Building also contained display cases holding hand-made jewelry, pottery, needlework, and decorative tiles.6
The current exhibit, “Masterworks: Art of the Exposition Era,” includes a number of exceptional paintings from the exposition, many of which remain in the hands of private collectors. William Wendt’s Mountain Infinity (1913), which won the Grand Prize, reveals the vitality of nature through rugged mountain forms and patches of snow illuminated by the early spring light. He described how it felt to paint outdoors: “Here the heart of man becomes impressionable. Here, away from conflicting creeds and sects, away from the soul-destroying hurly-burly of life, it feels that the world is beautiful; that man is his brother; that God is good.”7
Paintings depicting a largely empty western landscape suggested that the region welcomed settlement, one of the main themes of San Diego’s exposition. California, in particular, offered renewed health, spiritual sustenance, and the possibility of personal transformation. Today, we see these images through a lens of nostalgia for many of these natural landscapes have been lost to human habitation. In 1915, however, paintings were viewed as evidence that modern industrialization had not affected California, and perhaps never would. One art critic wrote, “This is a state of natural health. It is the land of the great out of doors, a region where art…may put aside its dreary, tortuous intellectualism and the bighting madness of self-deification, and turn its eyes once again to the stars, to the great mountains, and to the sea, not merely for their own sakes, but because, real and actual as they are, they are but symbols of divine realities.”8
Charles Fries’ prize-winning Cuyamaca Mountain (c. 1910-15) captures the stern beauty of San Diego’s east county landscape. Rocky outcrops among the chaparral-covered hills of Alpine lead the eye towards Cuyamaca Peak. Dijkstra’s essay in the exhibition catalog characterizes it as a “prehistoric environment, both forbidding and oddly inviting; a brilliant rendering of the not-yet civilized, not yet ‘humanized’ world of rocks and rolling hills at the time still interposing itself between Southern California and civilization.”9 After being shown at the 1915 Exposition, it hung for many years in Russ High School’s library.10
Artists tried to read meaning into the western landscape, some more successfully than others. Everett C. Maxwell noted, “There is a rich mellowness, a brooding melancholy, about the Southwest that allures and eludes, and painters, poets, and romantics never tire of trying to read the hidden meaning that lies back of the smiling mask of the rolling hills of Southern California and the stern, merciless beauty of the Pacific.”11
Maurice Braun believed that the natural world offered a channel for subjective emotion. His California Hills (1914) offers a brilliantly colored vision of the southland from the point of view of a Theosophist, one who believed in the visible manifestation of spiritual ideas. A foreground of poppies and lupines, eucalyptus, and oak trees draws the eye to a sunny valley surrounded by overlapping mountain ranges, tinged with vivid greens and purples. His arrangement of colors was intended to delineate physical, mental, and spiritual realms. Several of his works are on view here, including Bay and City of San Diego (1910), Landscape with Poplars (1914), Southern California Hills (1915), California Tower (1915), Summer Pond (c. 1915-20), Autumn Tints (1919), and an untitled view from the California Tower.
Western landscapes often had more appeal to visitors than to residents of California, many of whom saw “too much local brown” to accept purple shadows and golden hills.12 Ellen Browning Scripps remarked on a retrospective of Braun’s work before the artist left San Diego to establish a studio in New York, “Maurice Braun has a room all to himself—full of glow and color, 65 paintings in all. He takes them East where I hope he will find more appreciation than he does here. I suppose he puts his prices beyond people’s consciences or purses and there is an aggressiveness of color which wouldn’t fit in when the real thing is at hand. Nevertheless, it is a joy to look at them!”13
Among the modernists who experimented with line, color, and form was Alice Klauber who showed her work in the Little Gallery in 1915. Six of her works, some rarely exhibited, are on view in the current exhibit. After a 1912 trip to Europe to study with modernist Robert Henri, her painting became looser in style, less strictly representational. One might compare an untitled landscape consisting of houses and a bridge under a bright blue sky, composed in 1910, with her California Tower (1915), a modernist work that expressed the energy and dynamism of the exposition’s architectural style. Klauber said that her aim was to illustrate life, “not life arrested to a pose.” She valued art that expressed “the universal vitality” of the human experience and argued that a sketch could be more valuable than the finished product because “the vital essence had been caught in these first impressions.”14 Theosophists, aestheticians, and romantics worked side by side at the turn of the twentieth century to create a distinctive Southern California style that sharply emerges into focus in the “Masterworks” exhibition.
The highly ornate California Building captured the imagination of many artists. The architecture of the exposition commemorated the Spanish who had created a global empire that spanned the Pacific Ocean in the period 1500-1800. Bertram Goodhue mined a variety of architectural styles to produce the Spanish Colonial Revival structure that greeted visitors on their entrance to the exposition. A corner of the “Masterworks” exhibit is devoted to paintings of the California Building, among other structures. It includes works by Colin Campbell Cooper, Alson Skinner Clark, Maurice Braun, and Alice Klauber.
Inside the California Building, on the second floor, hung oil paintings by Donald Beauregard, a post-impressionist artist whose works were filled with vigorous brushwork and brilliant color. Klauber arranged with his patron Frank Springer to have his works shown in the Woman’s Headquarters following his untimely death in 1914. “What the pictures did for that room cannot be exaggerated,” she wrote, “For two years they sang across the spaces of a rather cold interior and made it vibrate with clear, fine tones.”15 It is unfortunate that the curators of “Masterworks” could not bring an example of Beauregard’s painting from the New Mexico Museum of Art, where his works have been housed since 1918.
Only one painting represents the cutting-edge display of modernism held in the Fine Arts Building: William Glackens’ Skaters, Central Park (1912). His brightly colored and animated canvas depicts a popular wintertime activity enjoyed by ordinary New Yorkers. Glackens was a member of “The Eight,” a group that included Robert Henri and John Sloan. Sometimes known as the “Ashcan School,” these East Coast artists produced paintings that depicted urban life and the leisure activities of the working class. Glackens worked in a post-impressionist style while colleagues showed realist tendencies. Ella Foote, a frequent contributor to the “Art and Artists” column of the San Diego Union, praised the avant-garde nature of their work: “These men have seen a new light…. Nearly every picture seems to be painted, not to sell but as a great experiment.”16
Robert Henri organized the 1915 exhibit in the Fine Arts Building, convincing his friends that San Diego welcomed new ideas. Cartwright’s essay in the “Masterworks” catalog describes the artist’s 1914 trip to San Diego, organized by his former student Klauber, and his fascination with the “interesting people” that he found here, among them Mexican-, Chinese-, African-, and Native Americans. It also emphasizes Henri’s exasperation with the conservative practices of established art institutions in the East. San Diego’s exposition gave him an opportunity to “show on the other edge” with “a small group of American art of Today.”17
The modernist paintings in the Fine Arts Building contrasted with Native American artifacts on display in other parts of the fair. These included examples of art, archeology, and material culture from native communities in North, South, and Central America. There were two Indian villages populated by several Southwest tribes, collections of native crafts, and an ancient art exhibition that included full-size casts of Maya steles. Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, an anthropologist, organized these shows in conjunction with Dr. Ales Hdrlicka of the U.S. National Museum in an effort to illustrate the civilizations that “so impressed the Spanish conquerors when they first saw the shores of Mexico and Central America.”18 One visitor thought that these exhibits represented a lost “golden age” in which art was a communal possession, “a manifestation of the spirit of beauty mingling its mystic breath with ordinary, humdrum, daily life.”19
Joseph Henry Sharp, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, documented the vanishing cultural practices of American Indians at the same time that railways and tourists began to transform New Mexico. Several of his paintings hung in the Southern California Building in 1915, among them, Sunset Dance and Moonlight, Grand Canyon.20 On view in “Masterworks” is The Stoic (1914). It is a dark painting, showing a father grieving the death of his warrior son. The Indian has cut the muscles of his back and tied on buffalo thongs; he drags several pony heads behind him in a public display of both stoicism (from Sharp’s point of view) and suffering.
The early twentieth-century artists represented in “Masterworks” captured an ephemeral moment in the history of the American West. The landscape, and the lives of people who lived on the land, were poised for dramatic transformation. The same railways that brought tourists to the Panama-California Exposition would bring a wave of newcomers in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. But, in 1915, Southern California artists and residents believed that mountains were eternal and hills would be forever gold.
Note: In July 2015, the curators of “Masterworks: Art of the Exposition Era” will rotate the current paintings on display with others, so plan to visit at least twice before the show closes on January 3, 2016.
- Charles Dudley Warner, Our Italy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892); Grace Ellery Channing, “Italy and ‘Our Italy,’” Land of Sunshine 11 (1899): 24-29.
- Geddes Smith, “California’s County Fair,” The Independent 83, no. 3477 (July 26, 1915): 119-121. Another writer commented, “It would be unfair to call the San Diego exposition an agricultural show, yet that is what, in the main, it really is…” Edward Estabrook, “What San Diego Has Done,” The Bellman (March 27, 1915), 401.
- Alice Klauber, “Plea for Western Art at Fair Entered,” The San Diego Union, May 2, 1914, 12.
- Smith, “California’s County Fair,” 120.
- “Art and Artists,” The San Diego Union, March 8, 1915, 4.
- “Prize-Winning Art Works at Exposition Show Skill of Southern Californians,” The San Diego Union, August 29, 1915, 8.
- Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, William Wendt, 1865-1946 (Laguna Beach: Laguna Beach Museum of Art, 1977), 20.
- Michael Williams, “The Pageant of California Art,” in Art in California (San Francisco: R.L. Bernier, 1916), 62.
- Bram Dijkstra, “Masterworks, World Fairs, and the Fickle Finger of Fame,” Masterworks: Art of the Exposition Era (San Diego: San Diego History Center, 2015), 19.
- Denny Stone, ed., “Memories I Have Heard, Seen, Suffered, and Enjoyed: The Memoirs of Charles A. Fries,” The Journal of San Diego History 47, no. 3 (Summer 2001).
- Everett C. Maxwell, “The Structure of Western Art,” Art in California, 33.
- William H. Gerdts, “California Impressionism in Context,” California Impressionism, William H. Gerdts and Will South, eds. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 65.
- Ellen Browning Scripps to Eliza Virginia Scripps, February 12, 1921, Ellen Browning Scripps Collection, Scripps College, drawer 3, folder 22 (hereafter SC 3/22); Ellen Browning Scripps, Diary, February 12, 1921, SC 24/1; “Artist to Give Farewell Exhibit Here,” The San Diego Union, January 29, 1921, 8; “Friends of Art Open Second Large Exhibit of Paintings,” The San Diego Union, January 30, 1921, 9.
- “Society,” The San Diego Union, March 28, 1912, 7.
- Alice Klauber, “The Paintings of Donald Beauregard,” Art and Archaeology 7, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1918), 83.
- E[lla] W. F[oote], “Art and Artists,” The San Diego Union, February, 2, March 8, 1915.
- Derrick R. Cartwright, “Modern American Painting: Robert Henri’s Exhibition for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition,” Masterworks, 6-7.
- Official Guide Book (Panama-California Exposition, 1915), 20.
- Michael Williams, “The Pageant of California Art,” in Art in California (San Francisco: R.L.
- Bernier, Publisher, 1916), 52. “Art and Artists,” The San Diego Union, March 8, 1915, 4.
Molly McClain is a professor in the department of history at the University of San Diego and co- editor of The Journal of San Diego History. She is the author of three books and numerous historical articles. Her forthcoming biography focuses on the life of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.