California has always been as much a state of mind as a geographical entity. For the better part of two centuries, artists have been defining its splendid promise.
Many of San Francisco’s early artists were Europeans or Easterners with good professional training. Like other forty-niners, they had left their homes, attracted by the dream of instant wealth. But at first even well-trained painters had to do every kind of hackwork, from portraiture to commercial lithography and engraving. There was little demand for painting as art.
Before very long, however, the new rich moved out of hotel rooms and into palatial houses that needed to be decorated; aspirations toward culture began to stir. The Mechanics’ Institute exhibited art as early as the 1850s; a group of twenty-three artists formed the San Francisco Art Association in 1871; the school now known as the San Francisco Art Institute opened in 1874; and Sacramento’s great Crocker Art Museum—the oldest public museum in the West—was established a century ago next year.
California’s first grand style in painting was inspired by the natural environment; in paintings of monumental size, the Yosemite Valley and other beauty spots were made to symbolize an Arcadia of unlimited possibility.
As the raw days of ’49 receded, they grew sweeter in memory, and in time the gold rush itself became a subject for painting. California’s Mexicans and Indians were similarly transformed: after the tribes had been vanquished, artists and writers could freely celebrate a vanished culture.
By the 1880s monumental landscapes went out of fashion and were stigmatized for decades to come as yet another folly of America’s Gilded Age. In England the revolt against Victorian excess had been led by William Morris, who found inspiration in the culture of the Middle Ages. California had no medieval past, but it did have a landscape that evoked comparisons to Greece and Italy. Just as the workshop of William Morris was intended to create a complete home environment, so the painters Arthur and Lucia Mathews, in San Francisco, oversaw the production of artworks, furniture, and decorative objects inspired by classical art. Beginning in the 1890s, all the visual arts were enlisted as part of an effort to create a way of life marked by healthy living, respect for nature, and refined tranquillity. By and large California avoided the storms and heroic attitudes that marked the birth of modern art in Paris and New York. Only after World War II did America witness the triumph of the avant-garde and its evolution into a new kind of academic art. During the twenties and thirties California artists tended to follow the example of Diego Rivera, who gave up cubism and determined to make art for and about ordinary people.
By the end of World War II, art had been doing its social duty for years, and freedom seemed long overdue. During the late forties in San Francisco, a kind of abstract expressionism was born out of the teaching and example of Clyfford Still. The panoramic mountain landscapes of the nineteenth century had promised the freedoms of an unexplored wilderness; now, the huge, trackless canvas replaced the wilderness. Clyfford Still taught his students that they could and should reject the history of European art; in a similar way the landscape of the Far West had promised an earlier generation that they could make wholly new lives merely by living in so blessed a place.