San Diego Beginnings

by Martin E. Petersen


During the late nineteenth century, America's southwestern-most corner was far from the absolute cultural wasteland some writers and historians pictured it to be. Evidence indicates that there was activity, especially in the visual arts and the development of landscape painting, from at least mid-century on. Admittedly, the first artists to pass through California's southern-most city, San Diego, were hardly more than amateurs accompanying military and expeditionary forces and recording views and landscapes. John Mix Stanley and John W. .Audubon were two of the more talented who passed through quickly, unimpressed and uninspired by the area. [1]

After two land booms in the 1880's, the population of San Diego began to show a marked increase. Professionally trained and practicing eastern artists began setting up their easels in the city, advertising their trade in the local press as portrait painters. Some who settled permanently came late in their careers to live out a few remaining years. The San Diego Business Directory listed six in 1886 and twelve in 1889. Included in this group were Frank L. Heath, A. H. Slade and Charles A. Fries.

Perhaps the first accomplished artist to settle in the San Diego area was Ammi Farnham (1846-1922). He was born in Silver Creek, New York, January, 1846. A precocious talent, he began his artistic career at the age of twelve. As an 18-year-old student of the Munich Academy, he traveled in Italy and France. A student of Frank Duveneck at the Royal Academy of Bavaria, Farnham's colleagues were William Merritt Chase, Frank Freer and other familiar names in the annals of American art history.

Back home, he served as curator of the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts. Being a professional portrait painter, he exhibited in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other major United States cities. In 1886, he settled in San Diego and lived there until his death thirty-four years later.

The appearance of Farnham in the late nineteenth century in Southern California signaled the beginning of a period in which quality work was being done by local artists who were familiar with international currents in the visual arts through both training and travel. Absorption of European culture through travel, in addition to academic attendance, was a prerequisite of the curriculum vita expected of any serious artist and gave the artists a sense of belonging to an international tradition.

By 1895, H. A. Streight was one more artist attracted to the West by its natural beauty. He left his position as professor of drawing and painting at the Chicago Female College and headed west. An 1895 notice in the local press announced plans to exhibit his work, including an impressive canvas depicting Mount Shasta which measured 7 1/2 x 51/2 feet.[2]

The Theosophical Society, established by Katherine Tinguely, who had arrived in San Diego in 1896, attracted other professional artists. These included Edith White and the Englishman Reginald Machell, who were employed by the Society as instructors. In the mainstream of the European movement, these artists, generally, were more interested in their subject matter's mystical interpretations than in portraiture or landscape, per se. They seem, however, to have exerted little influence locally.[3] Maurice Braun, a practicing Theosophist, attracted here in part by the Society, was advised by Madame Tinguely to remain apart from teaching at the Society headquarters on Point Loma. She encouraged him to devote his full rime to independent work by giving him a studio. He seems to have made the only obvious contributions to the development of the pictorial arts in the San Diego area from this group of artists.

An arts and crafts movement developed in San Diego with the arrival of Anna and Albert R. Valentien in 1908. They were two prominent members of the American arts and crafts movement which traced its beginnings to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1870's. Albert's contributions to glazing methods are well recorded.[4] For twenty-four years he was a designer and technical innovator for Rookwood Ceramic Ware. In 1900 he had been assigned the task of managing the Rookwood exhibition at the International Exposition of Paris where a special medal of honor commending his contribution to pottery was awarded him. Forced to rest in 1900, he painted flowers to amuse himself, and subsequently decided to follow that branch of painting. He and Anna left Rookwood in 1905.

In San Diego, he received a commission from the Scripps family to record the floral life of California from the Mexican to the Oregon border. As a result, he painted 1,200 watercolors of wildflowers during a period of ten years.[5]

Although she studied portraiture with the important American painter Frank Duveneck, and sculpture with Luis T. Rebisso, and in Paris at the Academies Colarossi and Rodin, Anna Valentien is best remembered as a teacher of San Diego's well-known sculptor, Donal Hord. Whether or not she received "lavish praise from Rodin" seems unimportant.[6] She was an accomplished sculptor, having won several major competitions.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw an ever-increasing tempo of artistic advancement in the visual arts in Southern California. In San Diego, established arts were becoming recognized as a modicum of refinement and maturity for the community described by some as a dusty little Mexican village. As early as 1904, the San Diego Art Association was incorporated. Six years later, the Art Students League was organized. The San Diego Art Guild held its first meeting in 1915. That year, the Panama-California Exposition brought the first major American art exhibition to the area. It included works by Robert Henri and his circle of fellow artists, the avant-garde of the day. Their works were shown in the California Building located in Balboa Park in an exhibition designed and planned with the assistance of Henri. Today, its tall tower is a symbol of San Diego and it is called the Museum of Man. This attraction had been accomplished largely because of the efforts of Alice Klauber, a San Diego artist and patron who had studied with Henri in Spain in 1907. They had continued to correspond over the years. In 1914, Henri personally visited and worked in the San Diego area as a result of Klauber's persuasion.

The first quarter of the century was climaxed by the opening of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, in Balboa Park, in February, 1926. The gallery became the hub of San Diego's cultural and social calendars. Constructed with private funds, the building had been presented to the city by Mr. and Mrs. Appleton S. Bridges, business and cultural leaders in the community. Its operation was assumed by an incorporation of the Fine Arts Society of San Diego under the direction of a Board of Trustees. Reginald H. Poland was hired as the museum's first director.

At the beginning of the second quarter of the twentieth century, a cosmopolitan professionalism marking the visual arts was introduced by a group of artists who had sound technical training both in America and abroad. In many instances, they had established a reputation prior to settling in San Diego. It was here, however, that most of their mature work was produced. It included several of the artists already mentioned, such as Charles A. Fries, Maurice Braun and Donal Hord.

On June 22, 1929, eight of these dedicated and serious San Diego artists met in the studio of Leslie W. Lee and formed the Associated Artists of San Diego. The first professional artists' organization in San Diego changed its name to the Contemporary Artists of San Diego at its August meeting in 1929.[7] The group consisted of James Tank Porter, appointed president; Alfred R. Mitchell, secretary; Maurice
Braun, Charles A. Fries, Leslie W. Lee, Charles Reiffel, Otto H. Schneider and Elliot Torrey. Three others accepted an invitation to join: Donal Hord, Everett Gee Jackson and Leon D. Bonnet. These three were a generation or more younger in age, but certainly merited membership based on their accomplishments. Elsewhere in this volume the lives and works of Mitchell, Braun, Fries and Reiffel are discussed in more depth.

James Tank Porter (1883-1962), son of a medical missionary, was born in Tientsin, China, October 17, 1883. He was a graduate of Beloit College Academy in Wisconsin and received a B.A. degree from Pomona in 1914. From 1915 to 1921, he attended the Art Students League, studying with George Bridgeman and Robert Aitkin. In 1916, the year he was at Columbia University, he was also working in the Stamford, Connecticut, studio of Gutzon Borglum, most famous for his giant sculptures of American presidents at Mt.. Rushmore, South Dakota. Generally disenchanted with art, Porter entered the world of business and became owner of Brown Manufacturing Company in La Mesa from 1936 to 1956. He died in that community March 13, 1962.

Leslie W. Lee (1871-1951) was born in Manchester, England, March 26, 1871, of American parents. Like so many artists of his generation, he received his formal training in Paris. He studied at the Academie Julian with Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens. Additional study followed in Munich and London. Back in the United States, he became an instructor at the School of Applied Design in New York. His paintings reflect the influence of the German art center, with its somber palette, dark background and paint-ladened brush applied with characteristic bravura. Lee traveled and painted extensively in the Southwest and in Mexico. He seems to have been publicity-shy, for of the members of the group, least is known about him. He died April 6, 1951.

Otto H. Schneider (1875-1950), landscape and figure painter, was born in Muscatine, Iowa. In 1890 he was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, studying with John E Vanderpoel and Pennett Gover. In New York Schneider joined an art group in Buffalo. At the Art Students' League in New York, he specialized in drawing, under Lucius Walcott Hitchcock, and studied with John H. Twachtman, George deForest Brush and Henry Siddons Mowbray. In 1910, he was in Paris receiving criticism from Baclet, Schommer, Gervais and Royer at the Academie Julian. As a practicing artist, Schneider submitted work which was included in the Paris Salon the following year, in 1911. He visited the cultural centers of the Netherlands, France and Italy before returning to America. Successive travels found Schneider painting in the West Indies, Canada and throughout the United States. From 1921 to 1923, he taught at the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts and was an instructor at the San Diego Academy of Fine Arts the following year. His color, according to a number of contemporary writers, gave his work its strongest impetus.

Elliot Torrey (1867-1949), a kinsman of Dr. John Torrey, discoverer of the famous Torrey pines, was born in East Hardwick, Vermont, January 7, 1867. He studied art in Italy and France and established a studio in Boston for a few years. In the first decade of this century, he spent a number of years in Paris studying and exhibiting. Upon returning to New York in 1911, he established a studio there. Migrating to California in 1923, he stopped first at Pasadena and finally settled in San Diego. Depictions of children and the sea were his specialty. Torrey treated both subjects with a certain verve and brilliance. He died following a lingering illness on March 10, 1949.

Donal Hord (1902-1966) was the junior member of the group, and the only sculptor besides Porter. He was born in Prentice, Wisconsin, in 1902. The family moved to Seattle, then to San Diego in 1916. In frail health from childhood, Hord never received normal schooling. At sixteen, he began art instruction with Anna Valentien, who launched him on his way. He studied at the Santa Barbara School of Fine Arts with a Scottish sculptor, Archibald Dawson, who taught him the cire perdu (lost wax) bronze casting technique. He then traveled and studied in Mexico. Successive scholarships allowed brief periods of instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy as well as the Beaux Arts Institute in New York City. Hord used the Indian motif almost exclusively as the subject of his works. His Guardian of the Waters, located on a site overlooking the San Diego area, is a familiar landmark to residents and visitors alike who pass by on Harbor drive. He has left San Diego a heritage of Southwest sculptures comfortable in their environment. He died of a heart attack in 1966.

Everett Gee Jackson (1900- ) was born in Media, Texas, at the dawn of the new century. Subsequent to his formal training at Texas A and M and the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied at San Diego State College, where he became a member of the staff. He retired as head of the art department thirty years later. In his paintings, with their monumental figures arrested in time and space, viewers sense an intellectual and esoteric quality. A diversified artist, he was referred to by Alfred Frankenstein as "one of the finest craftsmen of the lithograph working on this coast."[8] Jackson was also to earn an enviable reputation as an outstanding illustrator. In 1955 he was recognized by the Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press for "outstanding contributions to the publication of beautiful books over the preceding twenty years. Among the best known classics in the world of literature which he illustrated are Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the marvelous folk tale of Paul Bunyan and Babe. A specialist in the area of pre-Colombian art, the artist published articles in professional journals on that subject.

Leon Durand Bonnet (1868-1936) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 12, 1868. His father, a professional artist, had given him his first painting lessons. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy with Eliot Clark and Edward Potthast. He maintained studios in Tuxedo Park, New York, and Ogunquit, Maine, as well as in Bonita, California. His French forebears were artists of note. Great-uncles Charles and Jean Baptiste Durand were portrait painters. Charles Emile Bonnet, his grandfather, was a distinguished engineer and architect who was invited by the American government to come from France and assist the members of the Bureau of Architecture at Washington in designing the United States Treasury building. The lure of the sea was Bonnet's first inspiration. His early paintings are Sympathetic interpretations of one who is infatuated with the mighty waters. However, while working in California, his motivation became the mountains and deserts. He died June 22, 1936, the year of the last major exhibition of the works by the Contemporary Artists of San Diego at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego.

The list of awards, collections and exhibitions in which these artists participated is extensive. Their awards were impressive both in honors and in monies. Hord, for example, was the first San Diego artist to receive two Guggenheim grants. Among major museums known to have had one or more works included in their permanent collections are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Art Gallery, the Reading Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Akron Art Museum, and the San Diego Museum of Art. Others have featured the artists in special exhibitions such as the retrospective of works by Maurice Braun at the M. H. deYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1954.

They worked both independently and collectively with vigor and enthusiasm, contributing in a major way to the development of artistic achievement in the San Diego community. In addition to being practicing artists, they were members of the San Diego Art Guild and the Fine Arts Society of San Diego, whose membership sustained the art gallery today called the San Diego Museum of Art. Some served as directors and officers of both organizations.

The objectives of this group of talented artists were to hold exhibitions of the work of its members in the area, to place works of art in as many places as possible in the business section of the city, and to send representative exhibitions on tour in California and throughout the United States.

A short-lived downtown salesroom was maintained and operated by the group at 1133 Seventh Avenue, opening on December 1, 1931. Its door was closed April 30, 1932. From all indications, while attendance and reviews of their exhibitions were generous and enthusiastic, sales were few. Bonnet, who exhibited independently in Boston at this time, was very well received, but the only offer for a sale came from a woman who had seen his work and had proposed to purchase a glossy photograph for a dollar.

The demise of the organization began within a year after its formation. Such lofty objectives as were set forth in their first meetings, e.g., new members to be admitted by unanimous invitation only, indicated a noble idealism that is exceptionally rare. When men of intelligence, talent and creative ability are involved, such unity of decision is practically non-existent.

A lay member plan proved to be a critical point of contention.[9] According to this plan, for a small fee local patrons could draw for works donated by these men from an exhibit in a major yearly show at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego. Several artists felt that patrons were benefiting more than they. Others were convinced that the project stimulated lively interest in their works and would increase sales in the long run. Maurice Braun and Elliot Torrey remained precariously balanced between the divergent opinions.

Another factor which contributed to the organization's eventual demise was the "condition of the treasury." Costs for proposed out-of-town exhibitions made such projects almost prohibitive, although several shows were held in Pasadena and Los Angeles. Minutes ceased to be recorded after the meeting held October 8, 1932, in the Chamber of Commerce office, but the group continued exhibiting until 1936. After that, members seemed to be on their own.

In 1936, death had claimed Bonnet. The organization no longer functioned. The next generation, many of whom had reaped the benefits of their predecessors' accomplishments, now stepped forward. But few were to achieve the success or stature, or to prove as influential as these early artists.



1. For a survey of early art activity in the San Diego area, see the unpublished thesis manuscript by Rebecca Lytle, People and Places: Images of Nineteenth Century San Diego in Drawings, Lithographs and Paintings, 1978. Lytle has included works by artists, local and eastern, who worked in San Diego from the 1850's to the 1870's, in addition to those artists who settled there permanently during the 1880's. (Available in Art Reference Library, San Diego Museum of Art)

2. San Diego Evening Tribune, December 2, 1895. This was Volume 1, Number 1, of the daily cosmopolitan newspaper still published today.

3. For an account of the art activity of the Theosophical Society and the Point Loma Art School, see Bruce Kamerling, "Theosophy and Symbolist Art: The Point Loma Art School," The Journal of San Diego History, XXVI, (Fall 1980).

4. For the lives and contributions of Anna and Albert Valentien to San Diego, see Bruce Kamerling, "Anna and Albert Valentien: The Arts and Crafts Movement in San Diego," The Journal of San Diego History, XXIV, Summer 1978, 343ff).

5. Loring, Marge, San Diego Sun, June 18, 1939. Loring is a San Diego potter, who was also a contributing writer to the newspaper during the decades when the Valentiens were active in San Diego.

6. Kamerling, Bruce, The Journal of San Diego History, XXV, 345. In the biographical sketches of many nineteenth century American sculptors who studied in Rodin's studio, mention of praise from the master was generous. Nearly always it would seem like a seal of approval, certifying that the novice was either exceedingly talented or at least showed outstanding promise. Such praiseworthy commentary should be regarded with some skepticism.

7. Petersen, Martin E., "Contemporary Artists of San Diego," The Journal of San Diego History, XVI, (Fall 1970, 3ff); also Nancy Moure, Art and Artists in Southern California before 1930, Los Angeles, 1975.

A separate file on each of these artists is in the Art Reference Library of the San Diego Museum of Art. Works by these artists are included in many public and private collections in the San Diego area, including the San Diego Public Library, the San Diego Historical Society, the San Diego City Schools and the San Diego Museum of Art. The minutes of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego are also on file in the Museum's Art Reference Library.

8. Frankenstein, A., San Francisco Chronicle, December 1, 1940.

9. The program was modeled after one successfully established and used by the Grand Central Art Galleries, Inc., New York.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was written in 1982 by Martin E. Petersen, then Curator of Paintings, San Diego Museum of Art. It is an essay written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, by Ruth Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-0-7

Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists. Following are examples of artworks created by artists referenced in the above article. Artworks and/or photographs shown may not be specific to this article and are likely not cited in it. All images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images. 


(above:  Charles A. Fries, Basket of Grapes, c. 1905-1911, oil on canvas, 17 x 23 inches. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Maurice Braun, Crashing Surf Near Point Loma, California, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, American Eagle Fine Arts, Benicia, California. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Albert R. Valentien, Eschscholzia Californica (California Poppy, CA State flower), early 1900s, watercolor, San Diego Natural History Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above:  Donal Hord, Mexican Beggar, c. 1935-1939, WPA project, image courtesy of Fourandsixty. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


Also see:

California Art History

California Artists: 19th-21st Century

California Impressionism

California Regionalism and California School of Painters

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