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Robert Butler, Curator of Art,


Background – European roots, the aspiring artist was highly trained in the techniques of the trade. A strict hierarchy was observed relative to the importance of specific subject matter: religious, mythological and historical subjects headed the list along with portraits.

The 17th century Claude Lorrain and Peter Poussin’s work on landscapes gave this rather neglected area a new respectability.

Another factor, emerging first in Holland and then England, the middle class began to collect and display art in their homes, frequently it was landscapes. They were much smaller in size than the art produced for the clergy and aristocracy.

American Art at Birth


1. No classical tradition.
2. Highly limited training facilities.
3. The wealthier classes were wedded to classic European styles and artists.


1. With the acceptance of landscape art, the new world was a vast storehouse of subjects.

2. The lure of the ever-changing West with colorful Indians and brave pioneers had a great appeal to East Coast Americans as well as Europeans.


Led first by a recent English émigré in the early 19th century, Thomas Cole, found acceptance with his formidable landscapes of the Hudson River Valley of up-state New York. The Hudson River school emerged with the larger than life paintings of mountains, waterfalls and deep forests.

As the nation expanded West the artist followed at first with scouting parties and later in growing numbers on the cross-country railroads. The successful artist of this era Bierstadt, Moran, Church and Hill for example were all European trained. A few without the European credentials such as Ralph Blakelock appeared but they were more the exception.

American art running through the 19th century was an appendage of the European scene. The subject matter now focused on landscape but native born and trained successful artists were rarities.

San Francisco – West of the West

Taking the place of the European “grand tour” some of the most adventuresome Europeans and East Coast Americans toured the West, coming to rest in San Francisco. From there boats sailed for Panama. After crossing, by railroad, the site of the future canal they sailed for home.

An increasing number found the California climate, scenic attractions and general ambiance to their liking and delayed often for years their departure from the Golden Gate. Gold, of course, amplified this many times over by mid-century.

San Francisco quickly became a sizable and rich city. The new found wealth, especially by the parvenu had to be displayed with big homes and not the least artwork.

These “new rich” elites drew their pattern of culture from the East Coast elites which in turn drew inspiration from European aristocracy.

This euro-centered conceit would be seen in turn of the century writer, Gertrude Stein’s comment on her home area of Oakland “There’s no there there”. She and many others spent much of their lives in Europe.

Counter Influences

Particularly among the middle class was a strong patriotic streak of “Americanism” as it relates to art it expressed itself a series of Western artist where rugged individualism replaces old world values. Remington, Russell, and later Bensen expressed these values.

San Francisco tended to take its lead from New York in the art world (and still does); hence, the “west of the west” tag. Several events in the city reinforced this:

Two world fairs in 1894 and 1915 brought an influx of worldwide art but primarily European to the city. After the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair in Golden Gate Park, the Arts Building, emulating an Egyptian temple was kept on as the deYoung Museum. The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a replica of the replicated Paris building at the 1915 Fair.

The Palace of Fine Arts, Maybeck’s masterpiece at the 1915 Fair, contained probably the finest display of world art, again mostly European, that was ever seen in North America.

These events put San Francisco on the map as far as a city involved in the art world. The city’s elite was snugly enmeshed in the Paris- New York world of aesthetics. Creating and honoring local artists was another story.

Jumping ahead to World War II dramatic changes came to the world of fine art. Paris was occupied by the Germans. Many of Europe’s artists were making their way to the new world.

In short the center of the art world became New York. The disillusionment of World War I had brought many new issues that in summation were moving away from the past with its emphasis on technique and beauty to abstractions that were expressions of the artists’ feelings. Pollack caused a sensation with his “drip” painting and de Kooning with his mostly abstract but horribly ugly women.

Two critics ruled the art world of New York, Rosenberg and Greenberg, set the rules for what was “in”.

San Francisco a minor league player in this scene never completely bought in to this world. The art certainly became abstracted but in most cases kept a semblance of reality. Park, and a number of other emerged and gained regional and later national recognition.

The Situation Today

The two aforementioned museums plus the successful Museum of Modern Art, play a central role in San Francisco art scene. The leaders of these museums are largely East Coasters.

With abstract art diminishing in acceptance, new ideas are bubbling up certainly in the direction of realism. The scene is fluid, gimmickry; attention getting antics and outright bad art are flung around with the assurance that since there is no standards anything goes.

The public was told and believed during the heyday of abstract art that a piece was great and if they did not see it, it reflected their ignorance. It was to San Francisco credit that they never totally bought into this nonsense.

Art schools in San Francisco also are reinstalling some genuine training; i.e., anatomy, perspective, etc. This gives some hope for the future.

The major critics that rave about a blob of color on a smeared canvas or bent iron construction beams parading as great sculpture (see the red “Peace in Palestine” in front of the Legion of Honor) still dominate local and national taste and remain the final arbiters of what is good and bad. Unless the public, local and national, refuses to be buffaloed into acquiescence this situation will remain.

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