Bicoastal Artists of the 1870s

by Ann Harlow


The goal of this exhibition is to call attention to a number of prominent artists who painted in both Northern California and the Northeastern United States between 1870 and 1880. The travels of these artists, and in many cases their friendships with each other, contributed to an active cross-fertilization of artistic ideas.

The exhibition budget only provided for borrowing works from Northern California sources in addition to the 14 works in the Saint Mary's College Collection. It is therefore not surprising that there are considerably more California scenes than East Coast ones. Wherever possible, Eastern views by artists who also worked in California are included.

The predominance of California scenes also reflects the fact that, as William Gerdts has stated, San Francisco "became a mecca for painters for about a decade."[l] Many artists whose careers were already well established in the East came to California, presumably seeking new patrons as well as new subject matter. They made numerous "sketches," often small oil paintings on paper or art board. These were then taken back to the studio as sources for larger exhibition paintings, chromolithographs, or illustrations for magazines and books including William Cullen Bryant's Picturesque America, published beginning in 1872.

The Yosemite Valley, some 150 miles east of San Francisco, was perhaps even more of an artists' mecca. Yosemite scenes are well represented in this exhibition, along with views of many other "picturesque" Northern California locations.

There was clearly a fascination with the mountains of California, even the more modest ones close to San Francisco like Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo. Lakes were also favored subject matter; the exhibition includes views of Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake; Clear Lake, Glacier Lake and Mirror Lake. But the waterfalls of Yosemite exerted a special fascination, perhaps as counterparts to the spectacular Niagara Falls often painted in the East.

The 1870s were some of the liveliest years the San Francisco art world ever experienced. The San Francisco Art Association was founded in 1871 and its School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute) opened in 1874. The Bohemian Club, established in 1872, soon became a gathering place for prominent artists and art patrons as well as writers, and featured paintings by artist members in its lounge. The Mechanics' Institute exhibited art as part of its annual fair. The Art Association held large, well-attended exhibitions in its own headquarters and in the Mercantile Library Building, which also housed a number of artists' studios. Art auctions were frequent, and there were several active art dealers. There was extensive coverage of art news in newspapers including the San Francisco Bulletin, Alta California and San Francisco Call and in magazines including the Overland Monthly, California Art Gallery and The Album.

The prosperity brought to the city by gold and silver mining and railroad development had helped to stimulate the art market. Newly wealthy residents sought art for the walls of their mansions, and art receptions were important gatherings for the socially prominent. Unfortunately, however, this boom was short-lived, and by 1880 San Francisco had fallen into a depression and art patronage was at a low ebb. But the boom-and-bust cycle of the San Francisco art market during this period very likely made a positive contribution to the artistic growth of the city's painters, both by attracting major Eastern artists to California and by encouraging California artists to travel and seek out new ideas.

Even during the late sixties and early seventies, some of San Francisco's best artists chose to spend some of their time working and exhibiting on the East Coast. Just as it does today, recognition outside California would have given an artist increased credibility and salability back home. New York and Boston were also experiencing a surge of public interest in art and a movement for the formation of artists' associations and art museums. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were founded in 1870. In these cities as in San Francisco, art and artists were the focus of frequent news reports, not only on new exhibitions but on the travels of the artists and their works in progress.

Typical of the "bicoastal" artists of the period were Norton Bush, Thomas Hill, William Keith and Virgil Williams. All four began their artistic careers on the East Coast, moved to California by the age of 35, and spent most of the remainder of their lives there. But all made long visits of months or years to Boston.

Virgil Williams, a native of Massachusetts, was in San Francisco from 1862 to 1866 after eight years in Italy and a brief stay in Boston, where he had quickly become well known (in part because of his marriage to the daughter of prominent artist William Page). Williams again had a studio in Boston from 1866 to 1871, then returned to San Francisco in time to be involved in the founding of the San Francisco Art Association and to become the first director of the School of Design. Thomas Hill was an old friend of Williams's from San Francisco and a neighbor in the Studio Building in Boston from 1868 to 1871.[2]

William (Karl Wilhelm) Hahn, who had met artists William Keith and Lizzie (Elizabeth Emerson) Keith in Düsseldorf in 1869, accompanied them in moving to Boston in 1871 and to San Francisco in 1872. In Boston the three artists shared a studio in another artists' complex, the Lawrence Building, and their work was well received by the local press, as had been Hill's and Williams's.

Some of these artists who are now thought of as California painters established themselves so well in Boston that they were referred to in the newspapers there as Boston artists. San Francisco's writers, in turn, also claimed them:

Some of the Boston papers have the audacity to claim Keith and Hill as "Boston artists." Boston's penchant for literary and artistic celebrities is well known, but we do not intend to yield to her these, our own two choice bits of artistic humanity. We do not think that their short sojourn in that city entitles Boston to claim them and we are almost certain that Keith has spent more of his purely artistic career here than in the East. At least we have present possession and that is nine points of the law and we believe that it will not be easy to alienate them from this pleasant land in the future.[3]

Artists who spent the majority of their careers in the East but who painted in California for sustained periods in the 1870s were Albert Bierstadt, William Bradford, Herman Herzog, John Ross Key, Thomas Moran, Enoch Wood Ferry and the brothers James and George Smillie. Another variation on the bicoastal theme was Easterners who relocated to San Francisco in the middle of the decade, including James Hamilton, J. Ferdinand Richardt and Raymond Dabb Yelland.

The phenomenal success of Albert Bierstadt's California and Rocky Mountain landscapes on the East Coast during the 1860s no doubt encouraged movement in both directions: California artists seeking out the Eastern market and Eastern artists visiting California to paint its natural glories.

Many of the largest, best-known nineteenth-century paintings of California were actually painted in East Coast studios, based on sketches made on site months or years earlier. By the same token, there are cases of artists completing New England landscapes in California studios.

The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 contributed to this constant migration of artists between East and West. During this period many American artists also traveled to Europe to attend art schools, study with individual artists both European and American, and visit the great museums of the Continent. Often the California artists who settled temporarily in the East were on their way to or from a stay in Europe. William Keith, for example, was in Maine in the fall of 1869, then in Europe (primarily Dusseldorf) through most of 1870, then in Maine and Boston until May of 1872. He returned to San Francisco at that time, apparently intending a temporary visit at first, but settling down there until 1880, when he again returned to paint in New England and also spent some time in New York City and Philadelphia.[4]

The 1870s were not only a very active period in American art, but also a transitional one. Twenty years earlier there had been much talk about the importance of establishing a distinctly American style of landscape painting, and of the "Hudson River School" artists taking the lead in this area with their precisely rendered depictions of rocky cliffs, waterfalls, specific species of trees, and other features of upstate New York and New England. But by 1880 the work of the Hudson River artists as well as the grand panoramic views of Bierstadt, Frederick Church and others were seen as "entirely out of fashion." Now it was said that "the American school of painting seems almost to have disappeared.... We are beginning to paint as other people paint."[5]

In the face of growing industrialization and urbanization, nineteenth-century Americans developed a strong desire to seek spiritual experiences through contact with unspoiled nature. Landscape paintings were considered a worthwhile surrogate for and reminder of such experiences. But this tendency evolved during the third quarter of the century from a search for the "sublime" and awe-inspiring in nature to a quieter, more personal interaction with scenes conducive to "poetic sentiment." There was less concern with precise details -- in fact, they were increasingly derided as "niggling finish" and the like. Looser brushwork contributed to softer, moodier effects. Many American artists were greatly influenced by the French Barbizon painters such as Corot, Daubigny, Dupré, Jacque, Millet, Rousseau and Troyon, whose paintings were being collected and exhibited in ever greater numbers in the United States. Even the American artists who went primarily to Germany were likely to at least visit France and see Barbizon art. William Keith wrote admiringly from Dusseldorf in 1870 of "the modern French school of landscape."[6]

Boston was the major center for Barbizon influence in the U.S., partly because of the proselytizing of artist William Morris Hunt.[7] Perhaps this is one of the reasons Keith and others from California relocated temporarily to Boston; or perhaps they were there for other reasons but found themselves absorbing some of this Barbizon aesthetic. In an item about the Boston Art Club in 1875 the Art Journal reported that "the most brilliant pictures which adorn the gallery are usually productions of the modern French school, from which it has become the habit of wealthy Boston men of taste to order liberally at Paris.... The excellence of these French specimens has rather encouraged native artists to strive to rival it, than dissuaded them from competition."[8]

The flowering of art magazines in the 1870-1880 period no doubt contributed to the growing interest in "progressive" art styles, although the engraved illustrations could capture very little of the effects of either brushwork or color. In 1880 the American Art Review, commented:

Within the last ten years a great change has taken place in public sentiment. The arts are no longer regarded as comparatively unimportant to our national growth and dignity, and an ever increasing enthusiasm has replaced languid interest or indifference....A desire to keep up with the times in art matters, as in all else, seems to have taken possession of us.[9]

A common thread in many landscapes of the period was a fascination with light effects, such as sunsets, twilight, and the sunlight after a storm. Painters tried to capture light effects in different ways, from the "crystalline" works categorized by John Wilmerding and others as Luminist (of which the Bush, Key and Marple here are good examples) to the more Barbizon-like mistiness of the Hill, Keith, and Rix.

Somewhat like the 1980s, the 1870s were an artistically eclectic decade during which a lively art market helped to inspire a high degree of public interest, which in turn supported those artists who met with public favor, especially those who "kept up" with what was new in art.

During the 1870s American artists, especially those who traveled a great deal, readily borrowed various elements of technique, composition, and motif -- not just from France but from Germany, Belgium, Holland and England; not just from their contemporaries but from the old masters; and not just from Europe but from their fellow Americans. Without slavishly imitating any particular mode of art, each incorporated these new ideas in a unique, personal style. As can be seen in this exhibition, the bicoastal artists' blend of cosmopolitanism and regionalism produced some wonderful works of art.



1. William H. Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of` Regional Painting, 1710-1920 (New York 1990), vol. 3, p. 242.

2. See Ruth N. Post, "The California Years of Virgil Williams," California History, June 1987, pp. 114-129; Marjorie Arkelian, Thomas Hill: The Grand View (Oakland 1980); Edan Milton Hughes' Artists in California, 1786-1940 (2nd ed., San Francisco 1989) was also a helpful source for the biographical information in this essay.

3. Overland Monthly, January 1875 in William Keith Miscellanea, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, p. 171; see also Brother F. Cornelius [Braeg], Keith, Old Master of California (New York 1942), pp. 78, 83-84.

4. See Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary's College Collection (Moraga 1988), Cornelius, ibid.

5. William C. Brownell, "The Younger Painters of America, First Paper," Scribner's Monthly, May 1880, p. 1, quoted in Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1990), pp. 60-61.

6. Letter to Benjamin P. Avery, in Cornelius, p. 42, ibid.

7. Hunt (1824-1879) had studied in France with Thomas Couture and Jean François Millet. He, in turn, taught art, and his ideas were widely disseminated in a book of quotations from his classes, W. M Hunt's Talks About Art, published in 1875. This book was reviewed in the Overland Monthly, so it was known in California.

8. The Art Journal (New York), March, 1875, p. 95.

9. The American Art Review, (Boston 1880), p. 1.


Editor's note

The above introductory essay is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue Bicoastal Artists of the 1870s written in 1992 by Ann Harlow, then director of the Hearst Art Gallery. The exhibition opened June 13, 1992 and ran through August 16, 1992. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Hearst Art Gallery.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's
Overview section for more information.

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: Albert Bierstadt, Estes Park, Colorado, Whyte's Lake, circa 1877, oil on canvas, 30 x 43.7 inches, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  Public domain


(above: William Hahn, Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point, 1874, oil on canvas, 27.2 x 46.2 inches, California Historical Society, given by Albert M. Bender.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Thomas Hill, Resting by a Stream,1866, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 in., Private collection. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: William Keith, Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, c. 1908, oil on canvas, 22 x 27.9 inches, De Young Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon with Rainbow. 1912. Oil on canvas. de Young Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Gill through the Patrons of Art and Music. 1981.89. License: Scuttlebutte, CC BY-SA 4.0 Scuttlebutte, CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikimedia Commons)


For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Also see:

California Art History

California Artists: 19th-21st Century

California Impressionism

California Regionalism and California School of Painters

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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