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Monday, November 20, 2017

Modernism in Monterey

Modernism in Monterey by Karen Crews Hendon
by Karen Crews Hendon

Since the late nineteenth century, California’s Monterey Peninsula and its wondrous landscape has been a magnet for artists: Its first art colony was settled in 1875 by Jules Tavernier, making it one of the longest established art colonies in the country. Once the Southern California Pacific’s Del Monte Express Railroad and the Hotel Del Monte were completed in 1880, tourism boomed and people from all over the United States came to the Peninsula. The public was exposed to a new lifestyle, new terrain, and local artists—subjects never seen in California painting before the works were exhibited in the hotel’s art gallery in 1907.1

By the early twentieth century, Impressionism, which arose in France in the 1870s, was in full force on the West Coast. After the groundbreaking 1913 International Exposition of Modern Art (commonly known as the Armory Show) in New York City introduced the American public to European avant-garde art, many American artists turned away from the light-infused style of Impressionism in favor of the vibrant, even violent color and simplified forms of modernism as practiced by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. After the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, the West Coast was introduced to expressionism, futurism, and cubism. While the excitement of modernism reverberated throughout the San Francisco Bay area, the general public was also exposed to the work of contemporary California artists. Thus, a particular California aesthetic became a participant in a new dialogue, and California art, once criticized for its provincial subject matter, became more accepted and praised for its intellectual and artistic merit.2

Fig. 1: Francis John McComas (1874–1938) Coastal Landscape, 1904 Watercolor, 7 x 15-1/2 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif. Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. W. R. Holman
Fig. 1: Francis John McComas (1874–1938)
Coastal Landscape, 1904
Watercolor, 7 x 15-1/2 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. W. R. Holman

Fig. 2: Francis John McComas (1874–1938) Monterey Cypress, 1914 Oil on canvas, 41 x 60 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif. Gift of Jane and Justin Dart
Fig. 2: Francis John McComas (1874–1938)
Monterey Cypress, 1914
Oil on canvas, 41 x 60 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
Gift of Jane and Justin Dart

The work of Monterey artists such as Francis McComas (1875–1938) and Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945) were influenced by California’s atmospheric beauty; their startling simplification of form and muted palette heralded abstraction and modernist concepts. The lack of detail—and later the addition of expressive brushstrokes—gave way to progressive compositional structures where broad patches of color and simpler lines became the dominant subjects. These simplified forms are referenced also in the artwork of Armin Hansen, Margaret, Esther, and Helen Bruton, John O’Shea, Henrietta Shore, Emmy Lou Packard, Pedro Joseph Lemos, and the many others who helped establish the Monterey Peninsula as a significant American art center.

The Tonalist paintings of Francis McComas and Gottardo Piazzoni emphasized simplicity and stillness with visually meditative imagery. Their practice of minimizing composition down to the simplest formal elements anticipated early abstraction by a decade (Fig. 1). McComas’ circa-1914 Monterey Cypress (Fig. 2) blurs Post-Impressionist and modernist styles in a way that is unique to this region. Born in Tasmania, McComas worked his passage to America while still a teenager. He studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and later in Paris. After he moved to Carmel, his watercolors were chosen to be in the influential 1913 Armory Show.

In the work of Gottardo Piazzoni it is also possible to see both a prefiguring of modernism and its influences on his later work (Figs. 3, 4). The Swiss-born American landscape painter trained at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris before returning to California to begin his career and set up a teaching studio. A founding member of the California Society of Artists and of the California Society of Etchers, and a member of the Bohemian Club, among his students were George Post, Rinaldo Cuneo, and Dorr Bothwell.

Fig. 3: Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945) Seascape (The Sea), 1915 Oil on canvas mounted on board, 48 x 124 inches Courtesy, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif. Gift of Kevin and Ansley K. Salz
Fig. 3: Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945)
Seascape (The Sea), 1915
Oil on canvas mounted on board, 48 x 124 inches
Courtesy, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif.
Gift of Kevin and Ansley K. Salz

Fig. 4: Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945) Golden Hills and Shadows, 1928 Oil on canvas, 52 x 32-3/4 inches Collection of Teresa and Eric Del Piero
Fig. 4: Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945)
Golden Hills and Shadows, 1928
Oil on canvas, 52 x 32-3/4 inches
Collection of Teresa and Eric Del Piero

Under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, many Monterey artists produced prints. Among the most celebrated was Pedro Joseph de Lemos (1882–1954), who produced wood block prints that depicted the region’s iconic Monterey cypress trees. His use of long, flat planes and thick line treatments recall his studies of Japanese-style printmaking and parallel the motifs of modernist painters in Monterey (Fig. 5). The sense of emotion in the shapes of the trees lends a lyricism similar to that seen in Piazzoni, McComas, and Henrietta Shore’s later works. The first president of the Carmel Art Association and a founding member of the California Society of Etchers, like many other artists on the Peninsula, de Lemos attended the Art Students League in New York. In California he taught classes in decorative design and etching at the University of California, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He was the chief organizer of the California Print exhibition at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where California wood block printmakers gained recognition, and where one of his prints won honorable mention.

Although influential, the three artist-sisters Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton remain under recognized for their pivotal roles within the region. Margaret Bruton (1894–1983) is known for her landscapes and portraits, Esther (1896–1992) for her murals and etchings, and Helen (1898–1985) for her wood block prints and mosaics. All three took classes in New York at the Art Students League and in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1929, the sisters gave a joint exhibition at the Beaux Art Gallery in San Francisco. Although Margaret is considered the most influential of the group—due to her modernist painting style—Helen studied sculpture with Stirling Calder (Alexander Calder’s father). She worked as an artist in the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) program and was one of the first local artists to be commissioned for her tile mosaic murals. Esther was the only one in the family that studied commercial art at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and won several awards. All three sisters were well traveled and had exposure to the many celebrated art scenes of the time. They collaborated on large mosaic projects from the University of Southern California to the University of California, Berkeley and executed many major commissions.

Fig. 5: Pedro Joseph de Lemos (1882–1954) Old Pines at Monterey, 1918 Woodblock print on paper, 16-1/2 x 22-1/2 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif. Gift of Paula and Terry Trotter, Trotter Galleries
Fig. 5: Pedro Joseph de Lemos (1882–1954)
Old Pines at Monterey, 1918
Woodblock print on paper, 16-1/2 x 22-1/2 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
Gift of Paula and Terry Trotter, Trotter Galleries

Fig. 6: Margaret Bruton (1894–1983) The Harmonica, c. 1930-5 Oil on canvas, 40 x 34-1/2 inches Collection of Teresa and Eric Del Piero
Fig. 6: Margaret Bruton (1894–1983)
The Harmonica, c. 1930-5
Oil on canvas, 40 x 34-1/2 inches
Collection of Teresa and Eric Del Piero

Margaret and Helen Bruton studied with Armin Hansen (1886–1957). That the teacher can sometimes learn as much from the pupil seems to have been the case in the interaction between Hansen and Margaret Bruton. There are similarities in color, shape, subject, and even brush strokes between Bruton’s Barns on Cass Street (Fig. 7) and Hansen’s Before the Storm (Fig. 8), which was painted ten years after Bruton’s Barns. In both works, the undulating hills emulate waves on which the landforms float. The sharp rooftops of the barns appear like the sails on a sea and the billowing clouds appear to foretell a foreboding future. Hansen studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, and subsequently taught at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1913, he moved to Monterey. He was also a founder of the Carmel Art Association and one of the region’s most influential teachers.

California modernism is evident in Margaret’s The Harmonica, circa 1930–1935 (Fig, 6). Formalist in composition, her shapes come together with the figurative representation of a worker during the Great Depression. The simple shapes that illustrate the rolled up sleeves and worker’s hat pulled low over the eyes purposefully lack detail, the imagery meant to represent the common man. The instrument—completely hidden—is merely suggested. Perhaps the blue tonal palette is a hint to the viewer about what kind of song is being played. The image boldly revolves around a robust pair of hands held up to the mouth. A recurring symbol in WPA artwork, hands often signify strength, endurance, or perseverance.

Fig. 7: Margaret Bruton (1894–1983) Barns on Cass Street, 1925 Oil on canvas, 38 x 44 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.  Gift of the artist
Fig. 7: Margaret Bruton (1894–1983)
Barns on Cass Street, 1925
Oil on canvas, 38 x 44 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
Gift of the artist

Fig. 8: Armin Hansen (1886–1957) Before the Storm, 1935 Oil on canvas, 35 x 41 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif. Gift of Jane and Justin Dart
Fig. 8: Armin Hansen (1886–1957)
Before the Storm, 1935
Oil on canvas, 35 x 41 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
Gift of Jane and Justin Dart

Fig. 9: Henrietta Shore (1880–1963) Women of Oaxaca, 1927 Lithograph, 21-1/4 x 26 inches Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif. MPMA purchase fund
Fig. 9: Henrietta Shore (1880–1963)
Women of Oaxaca, 1927
Lithograph, 21-1/4 x 26 inches
Courtesy, Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, Calif.
MPMA purchase fund

Another modernist artist who worked in Monterey was Henrietta Shore (1880–1963). A nomad at heart, she was a close friend to photographer Edward Weston and muralist José Clemente Orozco. Born in Toronto, Canada, Shore studied in Toronto, New York, Europe, and Mexico. Leaving Canada in her twenties, she toured the California coastline and exhibited in Los Angeles, where she helped found the Los Angeles Modern Art Society and won a silver medal at the Panama-California Exposition in 1914 and 1915. In 1930, at the age of fifty, Shore eventually settled in Monterey. Prior to this she followed her muse back to New York where she began a strong interest in abstraction. Like many other Monterey artists, she shifted from post-impressionism to modernism. In some works, she still remained representational, as in Women of Oaxaca (Fig. 9). While living for a while in Carmel, her compositions followed an organic and rhythmic nature. As detailed by Roger Aikin and Richard Lorenz in Henrietta Shore’s 1986 retrospective exhibition catalogue organized by the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art, “Shores artworks and life filled an important gap in historical literature.” Similar to artist Georgia O’ Keeffe, Shore’s artworks bloom with interconnectivity and become one in spirit, much as she did with nature in her many travels.

The work of Shore and other artists who established the Monterey Peninsula as an important American art center may be seen in Monterey Modernism at the Monterey Museum of Art, April 6 through June 17, 2012. The show is in tandem with two complementary exhibitions, A New Deal: Art of the Great Depression and Urban Life: Photography in the City. For information call 831.372.5477 or visit www.montereyart.org.


Karen Crews Hendon is curator of the Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, California.


1. Scott Shields groundbreaking work, Artist’s at Continent’s End, The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875–1907, identified and recognized the important collaborators who helped establish the Monterey Peninsula as a significant American art center.

2. As Emily Ballew Neff keenly observed in The Modern West, American Landscapes 1890–1950, the West “is a place where the groundbreaking effects of Modernism took hold.”

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