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Alfred R. Mitchell
Pioneer Artist in San Diego
In 1927 the opening preview of an exhibition of paintings by Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972) was described by a San Diego newspaper as "one of the smartest functions" of the season. Mitchell’s contributions to art in San Diego were significant and his influence was an important factor in establishing the foundations of the art scene that succeeding generations of San Diegans continued to enjoy. Although he was not the first eminent artist to reside in San Diego, he was the first serious San Diego painter to develop his talent and spend his entire professional career in the area.
Ammi Merchant Farnham (1846-1922) appears to have been the first prominent artist to settle in San Diego.1 Academically trained in the East and properly traveled in the cultural centers of the world, Farnham’s appearance signaled the beginning of an era of art activity in the southwest corner of the United States. The next generation of San Diegans witnessed the arrival of other artists who had received their training in the East and had won recognition in other parts of the country.
As early as 1904 the San Diego Art Association was incorporated and six years later the Art Students League was organized. The San Diego Art Guild held its first meeting in 1915, the year the Panama-California Exposition brought the first significant exhibition of contemporary American painting to the area. It was comprised of works by Robert Henri and his circle. The second quarter of the century was heralded with the opening of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego in February 1926. Among the professional artists who played leading roles in the formative years of the Gallery was Alfred R. Mitchell. Throughout his life he directed much of his attention to the Gallery’s needs.
Mitchell was born in York, Pennsylvania, June 18, 1888. His home environment and background fostered his interest in art. As a small boy in New Jersey, where the family had moved, he sculpted animals from clay he found along a brook. Under the guidance of a sympathetic art supervisor, he produced work which delighted his school mates and teachers. His mother conducted a private school and she influenced him to model in wax. It was through his mother's encouragement that Mitchell chose art as a career even though, along the way, he switched from sculpture to painting.
Prior to coming to San Diego in the spring of 1908 he drove a stage over miles of desert from Mina, Nevada, to Atwood in the southeast corner of Oregon, during the Mina gold rush. His love for the land and especially the desert, which became the chief subjects of his paintings, he attributed to this experience. In 1913, at the age of 25, he began studying seriously with the local landscape artist, Maurice Braun (1877-1941). It was at this point that his interest changed from sculpture to painting.
During this time America was experiencing a revolt in the visual arts. The famous Armory Show of 1913 had introduced the avant garde of European movements and trends. In the 1920s Impressionism was belatedly catching on. Mitchell, like many of his American contemporaries, accepted its positive, concrete facets and welcomed the atmosphere of experimentation it introduced. Of the innovative and new he wrote:
Many contributions of modernism are here to stay .... No other school, for example has carried the analysis and scientific use of color as far as have the impressionists. The worthwhile and valuable development will remain.2
A portrait of the artist’s wife, with its brilliant color, short broken brush strokes and strong accent on light effects, is obviously dependent upon the impressionist style of Childe Hassam (1859-1935), whom Mitchell admired.3 He briefly adapted the technique of Impressionism, although he did not embrace the deeper implications of the style.
While Mitchell may have sympathized with the new, he was essentially a realist, a product of the academy, a colorist whose approach to art was less theoretical and more straight forward. His work was based on sound academic training. In 1937 it was said of his work: "Alfred Mitchell paints drama too, but in a different way. He paints not nature's moods but her portrait in jewel-like brilliance. Delighting in strong color, he paints dramatic contrasts rather than subtleties."4
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was the oldest professional academic art school and was considered the best academy for aspiring young artists. In the fall of 1916, one year ofter [sic] receiving a silver medal at the Panama-California Exposition, Mitchell entered the Pennsylvania Academy for three years, at Maurice Braun’s suggestion.5 Here his instructors included eminent personalities in the art world. His most influential teacher was Joseph T. Pearson (1876-1951). Others were Daniel Garber (1880-1958), Hugh Breckenridge (1870-1937), Edwin H. Blashfield (1848-1936), Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952) and Philip Hale (1865-1931).
Awarded the Cresson European travel scholarship by the Academy in 1920, the same year he earned the Edward Bok Philadelphia Prize, Mitchell was able to visit the important art centers of England, France, Italy and Spain in the summer of 1921.6 Despite this contact with European art be seemed to prefer American production.
After completing his formal training in 1921, interrupted by two years in the Army, Mitchell continued independent study which lasted all of his life. He believed that "great ability in art, as in other things in life, must be earned by diligent study. It is not given to the indifferent and the idle."7
Because of his academic proclivities, Mitchell's admiration for the American realist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) should be noted. Unfortunately, Eakins was no longer at the Academy in 1916 when Mitchell began his studies there. However, Mitchell’s admiration never diminished. In correspondence with Susan Eakins in the decade of the 1930s, the painter revealed an interest in her husband's "methods of study."8 Mitchell visited Susan, an artist in her own right, in 1931. As a result of the ensuing friendship, Mrs. Eakins offered to give a painting by her late husband to the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. In 1937 she presented a portrait of the famous American painter, J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917),9 to the Fine Arts Society for its permanent collection, giving Mitchell full credit for her gift. It remains one of the Gallery's important pictures in the American collection.
Competent at both painting and teaching, Mitchell’s administrative and organizational talents also developed. Art guilds sprang up in several neighboring cities as a result of Mitchell’s talents and influences. In Chula Vista his class of approximately twenty-five students formed the Art Guild in that community.10 He was a frequent exhibitor at their annual exhibitions.
Mitchell was also instrumental in the organization of the La Jolla Art Association which began in 1918 when a group of cultural-minded individuals met at the home of Miss Ellen Scripps. Later, when the La Jolla Library was built in 1921, the Association exhibited there. From 1951 to 1961, Mitchell was president for a little less than three terms. He was an annual exhibitor, featured in a one-man show from 1923. After 1931 the artist traditionally exhibited in February. He exhibited for forty-three consecutive years, until 1966, at the Association.11
With the anticipated opening of a Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego an organization was formed to maintain its operation. The Fine Arts Society of San Diego was incorporated in 1925. The Fine Arts Gallery actually opened in February 1926. Among those who signed the incorporation papers was Alfred Mitchell.
A group of practicing community artists regularly exhibiting at the Fine Arts Gallery, and still known today as the San Diego Art Guild, was a part of the newly formed Society. Mitchell was elected President of the San Diego Art Guild for the years 1922 and 1923.
Although crises infrequently threatened the unity of the Guild, in 1949-1950 the Art Guild Exhibition stirred the community because a "modern" picture had captured the top award. An artistic battle involving the conservatives and the moderns ensued and the press covered the conflict with apparent zeal. Mitchell, in an effort to still the growing hostitity [sic], called for a little common sense. In a letter to the editor in the San Diego Union the artist wrote:
Not many are qualified to say what art is…behind the effort to define art is the assumption that there is only one kind.12
He called for tolerance. It was a diplomatic approach attacking neither party, attempting to smooth over the quibbling of the public and to keep the art community from falling apart. Eventually the controversy died.
In the annual exhibitions of the Art Guild, reported by the press as among the outstanding cultural and social events, Mitchell earned important awards in 1926, 1927, 1931, and 1937.13
During the late 1920s Mitchell and other local artists attempted to make their works known on a wider geographic scale and to help the artists financially through subsequent sales. On June 22, 1929, eight San Diego artists met in the studio of Leslie Lee and formed the Associated Artists of San Diego. This first professional artists’ organization in San Diego changed its name to the Contemporary Artists of San Diego at its August meeting.14 James Tank Porter (1883-1962) became its first President and Mitchell was elected secretary. Other members included Leon D. Bonnet (1868-1936), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Charles A. Fries (1854-1940), Leslie W. Lee (1871-1951), Charles Reiffel (1862-1942), Otto H. Schneider (1875-1950) and Elliot Torrey (1867-1949). They were joined by two younger men, Donal Hord (1902-1966) and Everett Gee Jackson (1900- ). Collectively they shared an extensive exhibition record and won many honors and awards. Their works were counted among many private and public collections. The group first exhibited at the Hotel San Diego on July 18, 1929. They were featured annually at the Fine Arts Gallery between 1920 and 1937. The Exposition of 1935-36 broke the schedule. Sales always proved slim.
During the economically hard times even a lay member program which supported the artists, and allowed first chance at buying at their annuals, could not make it a solvent venture. Lack of funds and the death of Bonnet in 1936 marked the end of the organization.
During the 1930s attempts to assist artists financially presented new challenges. The first open-air Art Mart held in San Diego was a major enterprise to sell works by the artists of the community. The site selected was the lawn of the public library; the date, August 10, 1933. Mitchell was elected to handle the affair. Correspondence between the artist and Miss Cornelia D. Plaister indicates that the artist was pleased with the results of the three-day affair.15
After the 1930s and into the War years of the 1940s, a new generation of artists came upon the scene. While new names appeared in publications, Mitchell’s importance to the community was now established. One unknown writer commenting on the 28th consecutive exhibition of his work at the La Jolla Art Association wrote:
His personality has shaped San Diego's art community in no small degree through the many students who have passed through his classes.16
One might add "through his talent." By 1950 Mitchell was referred to as the "Dean of San Diego County artists."17 Many of his contemporaries had died and he inherited the title formerly held by Charles A. Fries, Maurice Braun and Charles Reiffel.
Industious [sic] always, Alfred R. Mitchell continued working and teaching until his health failed and he was hospitalized several years ago. He died in November, 1972.
1. Biographical information regarding the artists mentioned in this article may be found in the vertical files of the Art Reference Library at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. The role of A. M. Farnham and the early artists in the San Diego art community during the first decades of the 20th century is described in Martin E. Peterson "Contemporary Artists of San Diego," Journal of San Diego History, Vol. XVI, No. 4 (Fall, 1970), 3-10.
2. H. Kerr, San Diego Evening, Tribune, January 21, 1939.
3. Portrait in the collection of the artist's wife. The influence of Hassam was corroborated in conversation with Mrs. Mitchell, 1973, San Diego. Mrs. Mitchell, also prominent on the art scene as lecturer, is a most helpful source in providing information about her husband and his work.
4. M. Loring, San Diego Sun, May 16, 1937.
5. Ibid. The artist’s award-winning picture was Cold Water Canyon, present location unknown.
6. Mitchell earned the Philadelphia Award with Mission Valley—San Diego, Reading Museum collection. H. Kerr, op. cit. The date of the award was 1920, not 1930. Kerr refers to it as "his best known landscape."
7. Noted in a statement signed by the artist in a "County and City Day" brochure published by the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, January 12, 1929, announcing a demonstration of watercolor painting by the artist. Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego.
8. Letter from Susan Eakins to Mitchell, September 1, 1930. Correspondence between Mitchell and Susan Eakins written during the 1930s is in the files of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred R. Mitchell.
9. Acq. no. 37:30, oil on canvas, 83 3/4"H x 48 1/4"W. Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins, 1937. Ex. Coll: Mrs. J. Carroll Beckwith; Mrs. Thomas Eakins.
10. G. Sorenson, San Diego Union, October 10, 1954.
11. Conversation with Mrs. Alfred R. Mitchell, 1973, San Diego.
12. San Diego Union, February 25, 1950.
13. The Appleton D. Bridges Award was for Mountain Stream, location unknown. San Diego Union, March 6, 1932. The 1937 Leisser-Farnam Prize was awarded for his Muzzy Grade, location unknown. M. Loring, San Diego Sun, January 17, 1937.
14. The Minutes of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego are on file in the Art Reference Library at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. For a history of this group see: Martin E. Peterson, "Contemporary Artists of San Diego," Journal of San Diego History, Vol. XVI, No. 4 (Fall, 1970), 3-10.
15. A folio containing letters, a list of artists represented, results of daily receipts, and related data is in the files of the San Diego Public Library, California Room.
16. San Diego Union, February 11, 1951. The artist conducted classes for many years through the Adult Education Program of the San Diego City Schools. Among the next generation of artists who were his students were Miss Hilda Preibisius, Mines. Arthur Shoven, John L. Perry, G. Frank Nolen. He also conducted classes for San Diego businessmen during the War years. This group developed into the San Diego Art Institute.
17. San Diego Union, March 14, 1950.
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.