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Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource

California Plein Air Painters: 1900 to 1930

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By the 1890s, the traditional California landscapes by artists like Bierstadt, Keith, and Hill, had fallen out of favor with the San Francisco art-buying public. European paintings, especially those of the French Barbizon artists, were now popular with collectors. The Barbizon style paintings, usually painted outdoors, 'Plein Air', differed from the realism and romanticism of a Hill or Bierstadt painting in having a quiet, somewhat understated mood about them. Barbizon inspired paintings by Californian artists were acceptable, and some artists made a good living. But this style too went through a major change. The Barbizon movement, named for the village of Barbizon, had also helped to develop the ideas of the French Impressionist painters, whose characteristic Plein Air paintings showed quicker, more brusque paint strokes and whiter, more vibrant colors.

In 1894, at the California Mid-Winter fair in San Francisco, Barbizon paintings by Corot, Daubigny, Troyon, Courbet, and others were displayed alongside of Impressionist paintings by Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Boudin, and Monet.179 The work of these independent-minded French artists must have further influenced both the sensibilities of the local artists and the tastes of the art buying public.

During the early 20th century California Plein Air painters developed a style which borrowed from both the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists. The California Plein Air artists demonstrated an honest and often colorful sense of the landscape, a sensibility which shows in their paintings and which makes their work highly sought after at today's galleries and auction markets.

Henry Joseph Breuer (1860-1932)

Henry Joseph Breuer was a noted turn of the century Plein Air painter. In 1903 he came to Mount Shasta for a two week painting trip. This trip was spoken of in an interview he gave to a reporter from the Cincinati Times Star newspaper:

For the purpose of the true landscape painter all landscapes are good, only some are better than others, meaning that certain phases of nature suit the individuality of some better than others. So it was to satisfy my choice of subject that sent me afield as early as in April 1903, the year wherein the studies for the larger canvases were made. They are all of California, which affords a wide range for the seeker of the beautiful. Therefore I prepare myself something like this when prospecting for pictures. I wear old serviceable clothes and heavy shoes, I carry a sleeping bag, a food sack, a tin cup, a large pocket knife, a small sketch box, and a thousand mile railway ticket, the outfit weighing twenty-five pounds, but for the first week it feels like sixty.

I board a train to some station somewhere near Mount Shasta, and thus into the woods. I made a one-man camp every night for two weeks. It was cold and sometimes miserable in the thick, wet, cold mist of the mountain side, but the days were grand before that high, white altar, Shasta. I shall feel for all my life that I was a true pilgrim, and for the sake of days like that, I am happy to be what I am, a landscape painter... though very happy in the freedom of all outdoors, I can assure you it is nine-tenths hard work and physical endurance. In my choice of subjects I am unfortunately so fortunate as to choose the grand and big and strong, therefore I have often to travel far and endure much, but the game is worth the effort, and a trophy brought in by my brush is worth more to me than a 'big kill' of mountain sheep or antlered elk.180

Integrity such as Breuer's was its own reward, and yet it brought income too. Adolphus Busch (the beer magnate) became Breuer's major collector. A letter in 1906 reads:

My Dear Mr. Breuer: Enclosed please find my check for $2,500 in full for the pictures. I expect to be out in California in the middle of January, and hope to have the pleasure of seeing you. If you have anything on hand, I may buy it, and I shall keep on buying your works as long as you paint and paint well for I am very confident that your works will become more and more appreciated. - Sincerely, Adolphus Busch.181
In 1907 Busch gave an exhibition of Breuer's paintings held at the Busch Gardens in Pasadena.

Mount Shasta by Henry Breuer courtesy Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
Mount Shasta by Henry Breuer.
Oil on canvas.
Courtesy Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

Breuer also won a gold medal at the Pacific Panama International Exhibition of 1915. A large portion of north San Francisco had been rebuilt to house this exhibition, which was a major World's Fair; the Palace of Fine Arts and several other buildings from the PPIE still stand today. At the exhibition, the Plein Air paintings of California artists competed successfully with important paintings from artists of many countries, and for perhaps the first time modern California painters were recognized as serious world class artists.

Mt. Shasta, California by Henry Breuer. Courtesy Butterfield and Butterfield.
Mt. Shasta, by Henry Joseph Breuer, 1922.
Oil on canvas. 9 inch by 12 in.
Courtesy Butterfield and Butterfield.

Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947)

Carl Oscar Borg was a Swedish artist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1900 and who came to California in 1902. Then only 22 years old, his talent, ambition, and profound sensitivity brought him in contact with some of the most influential people in the state. One of these was Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the widow of George Hearst, the state senator and major protagonist in the development of the Anaconda and Homestake mines. She was also the mother of the famous newspaper publisher William Randolf Hearst. Mrs. Hearst often vacationed at her 'castle', Wyntoon, built on the banks of the McCloud river, at the base of Mount Shasta. Having seen some drawings of Borg's, and knowing him to be a friend of a friend, she sent him the following letter:

August 20, 1909 - Dear Sir; When Mrs. Lummis came to visit me she gave me a most charming sketch made by you. It has given me a desire to see more of your work and to meet you.

I am writing to ask you if you will come to my mountain home near Shasta and stay until Sept. 12th. There are many lovely places where I think you will enjoy sketching. After the 12th of September I should be glad to have you make a visit of two weeks at my Hacienda not far from San Francisco. You will find there a few scenes to please you. I am requesting my business manager to send you a check for fifty dollars to cover the expenses of your trip here. As you are, I hope, to be my guest, it is my privilege to send the amount to meet all expenses. Enclosed find directions for the route from S.F. to McCloud. Please send a telegram to let me know if you can come and when we may expect you. Yours sincerely, P.A. Hearst.182

Mount Shasta by Carl Borg courtesy Hearst Family.
Mount Shasta by Carl Borg.
Courtesy Hearst Family.

Accepting the invitation, Borg soon discovered that he had much in common with Mrs. Hearst, and they became lifelong friends; she supported him for many years while he traveled and painted the Western scenes which won him international acclaim. Borg and Hearst found that they shared 'membership' in a circle of friends that has come to be referred to as 'Garvanza'. Garvanza was a residential area of Los Angeles where the writer and publisher Charles Lummis created that city's most important social and cultural community. Artists, writers and scientists lived in and about Garvanza at the turn of the century, and they embraced the ideas of Lummis as their common denominator.

Garvanza, says Helen Laird, in her book entitled Carl Oscar Borg and the Magic Region,

...believed with Lummis that by grafting the European-spawned culture, increasingly materialistic and decadent, onto the indigenous culture of the American Indian, a great new American civilization could develop in the West. Spiritual descendants of Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, they believed in the brotherhood of man. They were suspicious of the culture of things; they respected continuity, the symbiotic relationship of man and nature, past and present; they felt within themselves and through nature the working of the Great Spirit. Mankind, as Emerson said, 'has ever been divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists.' The men and women who came together in Garvanza at the beginning of the century belonged to the latter group. They were, they thought, 'at the dawn of a new era of spirituality.'183

Far from being muddled-headed and uncritical, these were educated and powerful people who formed a cultural elite, and who wielded great influence on the intellectual and artistic achievements of California at the turn of the century.184 Borg's role was that of the artist. He had great depth of spiritual feeling toward the land and its inhabitants.

At least one of his paintings, entitled 'Wyntoon,' and painted in 1910, was a full landscape view of Mount Shasta as seen from McCloud. Most of Borg's work, however, was of the Hopi and Navaho areas, where he had fully participated as a close friend of the tribesmen. After several years of trust, he was initiated into the Hopi Snake Dance clan, a rare honor and a sign that he valued the Indian ways.

As a California Plein Air artist, Borg was one of the first to achieve an international standing; his Paris exhibition of 1913 stunned the French critics and earned him rare and unbridled appreciation. One French journalist , Thaddeus De Gorecki, understood the importance of integrity in the life of the Plein Air painters and wrote:

According to Carl Oscar Borg, the best way to be original is first of all without any other thought to follow beauty, beauty which even to her elect only reveals herself slowly and little by little, and then to try to conceive and to realize works far from the beaten paths. He who thinks and feels by himself is assured of giving to the universal symphony the note which will save him from oblivion."185

For the rest of his life, until he passed away in 1947, Borg would win awards nationally and internationally.

Henry Percy Gray (1869-1952)

Percy Gray earned a reputation as being one of the finest artists in California. His watercolor paintings of oak and eucalyptus trees, and of pastoral landscapes, belie an uncanny technique and sensitivity. He seldom worked with oil paints; he is said to have been allergic to them.186 He was a student of Emil Carlson at the California School of Design beginning in 1886. He later worked on illustrations for newspapers on both coasts, living for eleven years in N.Y.C. and becoming head of the N.Y. Journal's art department. While in New York he studied at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase. After 1906 he returned to San Francisco. Like another Mount Shasta Plein Air painter, Henri Joseph Breuer, Gray won a medal at the Pacific Panama International Exposition at San Francisco in 1915.

Mount Shasta by Percy Gray from
Percy Gray (1869-1952) Mount Shasta. Watercolor.
From: Carmel Art Association. The Legacy of Percy Gray. Carmel: Carmel Art Association, 1998.

One art critic summed up Gray's approach to art by saying "By heritage and temperament, he was inclined more toward the soft spoken lyric poetry of the rustic British landscape tradition than the epic paeans of full-blown romanticism."187 Later in his life, as art turned more and more modern, he joined the nationwide group known as the Society for Sanity in Art, which was devoted to preserving traditional art values.

Only one watercolor of Mount Shasta by Gray exists; it was painted in 1925. However, one of Gray's biographers states that "In 1926 he traveled to the state of Washington, where he depicted Mount Rainier from several vantage points. Gray also painted in the Rogue River Valley, Oregon."188 Thus Gray may well have passed through the Shasta region in 1826. It is also known that he traveled to the Northwest soon after the San Francisco earthquake, at which time he may well have done earlier views of Mount Shasta. It might be added that although he was well known as a landscape artist, he also would do fine portraits, including one of the Indian 'Sitting Bull'.

Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934)

Thomas G. Moses developed a unique impressionist Plein Air style of gouache painting. He applied his techniques to paintings of Mount Shasta, Castle Crags, the San Diego Foothills, and other picturesque spots in the West. As a member of the Laguna Beach Art Association in the 1920s, he would have come in contact with the work of many of the finest southern California impressionists, people like William Wendt, Granville Redmond, and Edgar Payne. The Laguna Beach Art Association in the 1920s was an institution that drew artists from all over the country, and the many classes and art community events fostered an intensive creative atmosphere.189

What is interesting about Thomas G. Moses is the fact that in the late 1920s, the date of several of his mountain scenes, he was already in his seventies. His paintings indicate that he traveled widely, and had as sharp an eye as anyone, even in his later years. He must have had considerable vitality to visit and paint his accurate and energetic scenes. Large rock formations were a favorite subject for his unique and effective gouache technique. Unfortunately not much is known about his early work, nor about what influenced him in developing his unique style.

He was born in England, and was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a member of the California Art Club, the Chicago Society of Artists, the Palette & Chisel Club, the Salmagundi Club, and as mentioned, the Laguna Beach Art Association.190

Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972)

Based in San Diego for most of his adult life, Alfred Mitchell was one of the best-known Southern California plein air artists. His work often used areas of contrasting primary colors in oils that had the liquid, translucent, tangible quality which presaged the work of modern Califonia artists like Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney. Mitchell's paintings today are highly sought after. As to Mount Shasta, he has done at least two known works, both painted probably in the mid-1930s. Interestingly enough, as a teenager decades earlier he had worked as a stage driver on a route not so far from Mount Shasta, between Mina, Nevada and southeast Oregon, during a period of renewed mining activity. Sometimes known as the "Dean of San Diego County Artists" he was a tireless art teacher and at one point stated the oft-forgotten but obvious truth 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." (requoted from: Ruth Westphal. Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland. Irvine: Westphal Publishing, 1982.)

Maurice Logan (1886-1977)

Maurice Logan was a member of one of the most artistically rebellious art groups to emerge in California during the 20th century. The group became known as the "Society of Six" and their rebellion took the form of producing mostly boldly colored impressionistic paintings and watercolors; an art that was in stark contrast to the muted tonalism and traditional romantic landscapes of the earlier generation of San Francisco artists like Keith and Hill. The Society of six was created in 1917 and consisted of Selden Connor Gile, Maurice Logan, William H. Clapp, August F. Gay, Bernard von Eichman, and Louis Siegriest. These artists worked primarily in Northern California and their art experimentation was not generally appreciated by contemporary art critics. Nonetheless, Logan was very much a successful commercial artist in his time. By 1915 Logan had established a studio in San Francisco. He was comissioned by Southern Pacific Company to produce covers and illustrations for railroad magazines and brochures. His Mount Shasta painting with eagles was published circa 1927 both as a cover for a Shasta Route souvenir book and as a souvenir postcard. Around this time he was hired and sent to Africa as preparation for painting dioramas of Africa at the Los Angeles Museum of History and later at the San Francisco Academy of Science. In an interesting philosophical turn-around he reacted to the modernism of contemporary art and late in life joined the anti-modernist Society for Sanity in Art.

Information from: Chelette, Iona M. California Grandeur and Genre. Palm Springs: Palm Spring Desert Museum, 1991.

Southern Pacific Shasta Route by Maurice Logan, 1927.
Southern Pacific Shasta Route by Maurice Logan, 1927.
From: Southern Pacific Company. A Picture Journey Over Shasta Route. Cover Picture. Circa 1927.
Courtesy: College of the Siskiyous Library Mount Shasta Collection.


[179] Official History of the California Mid-Winter International Exposition. p. 123.

[180] Haily, Volume 5. p. 83.

[181] Ibid. p. 83.

[182] Laird. pp. 43-44.

[183] Ibid. p. 23.

[184] Some of the people Lummis considered his good friends were listed by him in a note to his son: David Starr Jorden, John Muir, John Burroughs, Earnest Seton, Mary Garden, William Henry Holmes, Remington, Dixon, Borein, Keith, Moran, Burbank(the painter) Borglum. Reference: Dudley, Gordon. 'Charles Lummis' Cultural Assets Press. 1972.

[185] Laird. p. 65.

[186] Hughes. p. 184.

[187] Seavey. p. 22.

[188] Whitton and Johnson.

[189] Dominik, Janet. California Impressionism in Laguna Beach, pp. 39-41 in Antiques and Fine Arts, October, 1986. This article is a discussion of the Art Association, but makes no mention of Thomas Moses.

[190] Hughes. p. 321.

 

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