Art in Los Angeles Before 1900, by Henry Winfred Splitter

“In early Los Angeles before 1870, there was but little pictorial art and few artists as compared with San Francisco, where flush mining days made for artistic prosperity. Yet in spite of Los Angeles’ modest tempo in those decades, considerable of interest occurred which is worthy of recording. In 1859, the editor of the San Francisco Herald , when visiting one day at the home of his friend, Dr. Hill, was shown an exceedingly curious painting representing the Mission of San Gabriel near Los Angeles as it stood in 1828, during the Mission’s most flourishing period. It was painted in 1835 in Mexico City from a detailed drawing made by Ferdinand Dieppe of Berlin, who, in 1828, was commercial representative on this coast for Mirment & Co., a Mexican firm. Dieppe enjoyed the high esteem of the old settlers of this area and of the Mission Fathers and is said to have made a valuable collection of notes and scientific specimens in California. These he took with him when he returned to Berlin to become superintendent of a botanical garden.

This oil painting measured twenty-eight by thirty-eight inches, and being, according to Hill, the only proper painting ever made of any of the Missions during their florescence, was held worthy of careful preservation. Realistic in style, it pictured in the background Mt. San Bernardino’s snow-capped summit and green wooded slopes, with the nearer hills tinged a May-time emerald and the whole flushed by the glowing gold of an afternoon sun. In the close middle distance stood the Mission, proud in its youthful beauty, with its surrounding greenery of trees, hedges, and the river flowing by. Spanish Californian communicants were grouped about the entrance watching a feast day procession as it left the church. The Indians as well as the Spaniards were represented as dressed in the colorful regalia of the times — the women in red flannel bayetas and the men with broad-brimmed black hats and bright satin waistcoats.

Conspicuous in the foreground was famous old Father Sanchez at- tended by two Indian boys in red robes, the Father speaking to a foreign trader, perhaps representing Dieppe himself.

Among the skills and practical techniques taught the local Indians by the early padres was that of drawing and figure painting. In 1901 there were still in the vestry of Our Lady of the Angels at the Plaza some twelve or fourteen paintings, cracked and worn by time but still colorful, that had been done more than a century before. The inscription in the vestry entrance reads, ‘Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross). Painted by San Fernando Mission Indians in the year 1800.’ Coarse linen cloth similar to butcher’s linen was used as canvas material, which cloth was thoroughly glued to preserve the fibre and heavily covered with oil paint as a ground. The figures were then executed in colors made from earth pigments and from native herbs and roots mixed with a base of common white house paint.

The figures were drawn in inexact and childish outline with a stiff, somewhat Egyptian-like effect; the men’s faces were stained a deep pink or dark brown while the women’s were almost white, like that of the Savior. Though there was no shading and very little perspective on these canvases, the facial expressions were strikingly varied, ranging from love to deepest hate and vice. The pastoral environment of the artists was reflected in the numerous horses introduced, it would almost seem, whenever and wherever possible. Though generally the execution was rough, there was throughout a kind of pathos, sweetness, and sincerity that proved quite affecting.

There is also some evidence that this pre-American, pastoral period in Southern California boasted its wandering artists, who, in quest of portrait commissions, migrated from one great rancho to another, painting dons and their ladies as well as an occasional altar-piece for a private chapel. In the Coronel collection 3 is preserved the work of at least two of these early, unfortunately anonymous, artists. Primitive though these paintings were, there was an admirable sense of both beauty and character.

Since the technique of photography in the early 1850’s had not yet advanced to the practical stage, pictorial representation of the far western scene was largely dependent upon artists’ drawings, and in sequence upon lithography, which enabled ready duplication at reasonable cost. The first drawing of Los Angeles is ascribed to W. R. Hutton, who visited here in 1847. Next came that of H. M. T. Powell, who on March 17. 1850, sketched the little, flat-roofed, adobe town as seen from Paredon Blanco, the mesa bluffs across the Los Angeles river now known as Boyle Heights. Powell s drawing was published for the first time in 1938. Another view of the town by W. R. Hutton was drawn in 1852.

For cheap and rapid reproduction of drawings, the lithographic process was widely used during the 1850’s and later. A view of Los Angeles drawn by Charles Koppel, artist in 18o3 of the Lieut. Williamson Pacific railroad survey, was lithographed and included in the official report of that expedition. This is the first published picture of the city. Koppel made his sketch, it is believed, on the morning of November 1, 1853, since he was here only from the evening of October 31 to the morning of November 2, and the view shows the high mountains behind present Santa Ana which even in pre-smog era, were seldom seen from Los Angeles except in the early mornings of fall and winter when the air was clear and free from haze.

Another lithographer. Charles C. Kuchel, with his partner E. Dresel, was here in 1857 and sketched not only a general view of the town, but encircled it with a border of vignettes showing the stores and homes of the principal residents of that day. Kuchel brought out, in 1858, a set of twenty-five scenes from throughout the State, with their accompanying titled vignettes, of which set the vista of Los Angeles was one. The series was being exhibited in San Francisco in 1932 and an observer remarks that the lithograph of Los Angeles differed from all the others by its pronounced Spanish influence ‘The spirit of manana seems to encircle us as we note the names of Don Ramirez, Don Sepulveda, Don Vincente Guerrero, Stephen C. Foster, Don Juan Domingo, and Don Lorenzo Leek.’

Painters likewise were here in the 1850’s and 1860 s, mainly portrait artists, sometimes connected with one or another exploratory government expedition. H. B. Moellhausen, a portraitist with Lieut. Whipple’s surveying expedition, arrived in Los Angeles in March 1854 and during his stay painted numerous portraits of Mojave and other Southern California Indians. 8 S. N. Carvalho, the artist of Fremont’s 1853-54 exploring expedition, came in June, 1854 and exhibited here the portraits he had sketched or daguerreo-typed on his way in from Salt Lake City and the East. There were likenesses of the celebrated Ute chiefs Walker, Grosapine, Squash Head, and Petetnet; also paintings of chiefs of the Pauvan, San Pete, Pah Utes, Riede, and Digger Indians, all drawn from life. In addition, he had sketched a large number of scenes illustrating the whole course of his travels. The Indian portraits and landscapes drawn and photographed while on the expedition were never published and it is thought that they were all destroyed in a fire that swept a storehouse where Fremont material was kept, though some may still be in the Matthew Brady papers collection in Washington. Brady developed Carvalho’s daguerreotype plates and may have kept copies.

For several months Carvalho operated a daguerreotype gallery here. On one occasion he advertised a raffle of three of his paintings, eighty chances at a dollar each, with three additional consolation prizes. The tickets were for sale at the Bella Union Hotel and the paintings on exhibition at the Daguerrean Gallery over the Nueva Tienda de China. Carvalho, while in Los Angeles, painted the portraits of Don Manuel Dominguez of the famous rancho and his wife Donna Gracia, and one of their daughters, as well as that of ex-Governor Pio Pico and several other gentlemen.

A landscapist and later religious artist, William H. Jackson, painted a water color of Los Angeles as viewed on April 1, 1867, from the bluffs east of the river. The town, huddled unimpressively at the foot of its low hills, is seen to the westward against a back- drop of the mountains around Cahuenga Pass. In the foreground are two mounted men driving a herd of horses along the road to town. The whole scene is pleasantly realistic. This water color is at present held by the Los Angeles County Museum.

Painters were sometimes, even at this early date, employed in the field of technical and advertising art. As evidence we have the description of a ‘handsome oil painting’ representing the Sainsevain Bros, wine processes in 1860, with laborers at work bringing in grapes, operating the presses, and coopering barrels. Over the whole busy scene as unifying motif spread the mammoth Old Aliso or sycamore, a local landmark near the Los Angeles river, which great tree also gave name to the Sainsevain vineyard nearby. This picture was being exhibited at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Fair in September, 1860, with samples of Sainsevain’s wines.

Popular in the 1850’s and 1860’s were panoramas, a kind of forerunner of the modem motion picture. On tall rolls of canvas were painted with greater or less realism and skill an extensive scene or panorama, consisting perhaps of a single stationary view as of a famous and crucial battle or a series of such views, which was then set up at some distance from the spectators and dioramic and stereoscopic effects often combined with it; or the panorama might consist of a succession of scenes as in a travelogue, which was then unrolled, unit by unit, before the audiences, with explanatory and entertaining comment, sometimes with musical accompaniment. The basis for these paintings was usually a number of preliminary sketches made, if the subject required it, on the specific location, which were then painted at leisure in the studio on panorama canvas. Often illusion of movement was ingeniously obtained, as in a dioramic scene of a naval battle. The educational value of these exhibitions was frequently stressed in the advertising.

Appearing in Los Angeles in the spring of 1864 was J. W. Wilder & Co.’s ‘Gigantic Polyrama’ of the Civil War from Sumter down to the latest battle. It was said to have been painted from ‘authentic sketches by a corps of eminent artists, and acknowledged correct by members of Congress and the War and Navy Departments.’ It was further declared to be ‘profuse with startling scenic and dioramic effects, including a grand moving diorama of the great naval combat between the iron-clad monsters, the Monitor and the Merrimac.’ There were over a thousand views of the ‘gigantic rebellion’ that were included under the following general heads: The War in the West, The Contest in the East, The War Upon the Ocean, Comic Scenes in Camp Life, and Scenes of Sad and Mournful Interest. Admission was a dollar, back seats fifty cents, and children half price.

A panorama of literary value and interest was that of Paradise Lost, presented here by R. G. Bachelder in 1866. According to the advertisement in the News , ‘This magnificent display of artistic skill surpasses anything ever presented in this State, and is highly beneficial to the mind of both old and young.’

In the 1870’s, with the building of the Southern Pacific from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the first cars arriving in 1876, a mild boom hit the city, stimulating immigration, sales of real estate, and business activity in general. Art, too, came in for more attention. In fact, the sales of art work, especially paintings, were surprisingly large. Though art here was not exactly in the class of big business, it nevertheless employed the ingenuity of a number of alert entrepreneurs. In January, 1874, a large gallery of oil paintings, one hundred ten in number, were transported to Los Angeles by an enterprising young middleman named Levy and put up at auction sale in rooms on Spring street. Before prospecting Los Angeles, he had successfully disposed of similar collections in Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and other coast cities. Among the pictures brought here were marines, German landscapes, ‘Monarch of the Glen,’ ‘Storm in the Mountains,’ setters flushing a woodcock and other hunting scenes, and buxom damsels for bachelor’s apartments.

As the Star put it, ‘For the first time in the history of our town, a gentleman, rashly perhaps, has visited us speculating on our taste and love of art.’ Sales proved slow and art dealer Levy ventured finally a remark to the effect that to his mind Los Angeles did not appreciate fine art. Thereupon the Star spoke up in defense of local artistic taste, saying that Levy ‘must not lose his temper if accidentally one or two are sold thus at auction far below their value,’ and reminded him that at private sale the day previously he had sold seven pictures for a total of $950. After several days of art auctioneering, eighty paintings were still undisposed of. The Star admitted that freight bills, advertising, and other expenses had been high and that Levy stood a good chance of losing about $4000 in the venture. Some of the pictures had hardly fetched the value of their elaborate gift frames. No details of the final outcome are available and Levy may indeed have lost his proverbial shirt.

If so, a few months later another optimistic art dealer was willing to take a chance here. This time it was Charles Kaiser, a former resident of the city, who arrived from Ecuador, South America, of all places, with a sizeable stock of oil paintings which he proposed to dispose of by private sale. The pictures were described as of large size, done by Italian, French, and Spanish artists, and illustrative of historical. Biblical, and poetic subjects. Each painting was numbered and catalogued to facilitate inspection and sale. At first a charge of twenty-five cents was levied for admission to the gallery.

Public school pupils were invited to a free view of the collection and they came en masse. Each class was given an hour’s recess to see the paintings and some five hundred persons in all came in a single day. This and other skillful advertising failed, however, to move the stock with sufficient rapidity. Kaiser was forced to resort to the auctioneer, though not at sacrifice prices. At such a sale Judge Brunson had three fine paintings knocked down to him for several hundred dollars. Titles of these were ‘The Nine Muses,’ ‘Susanna and the Elders,’ and ‘Venus.’

Still encumbered by a considerable store of art, and the need for a solution being obviously urgent, a bright idea flashed into Kaiser’s mind — raffle off the paintings at a lottery. One hundred twenty-five tickets were thus disposed of, with twenty paintings as the reward of happy chance. A partial list of the titles is illuminating: ‘Othello,’ ‘Venus,’ ‘May and December,’ ‘Germani,’ ‘The Wine Tasters,’ ‘Two Old Friends,’ ‘Hermann and Dorothea,’ ‘Judith and Holofemes,’ ‘Billiard Players,’ ‘Bacchus,’ ‘Buffalo Hunting,’ and ‘The Jolly Barkeeper.’ Pseudo-classical and story-telling themes are dominant and sentimentality rampant, all perhaps not too dissimilar to a contemporary Saturday Evening Post cover, but apparently this motif had already won friends and influenced people.

Other art merchants came and went, usually with fair profits. One such collection consisting of 83 pieces sold out all but nineteen in the course of a week or two. As to prices, here is one instance: ‘Joe Williams bought the coast scene of Yucatan and the wildwood scene, paying for both $225.’ The balance of nineteen was disposed of at auction.

Auctions were, we note, generally resorted to only as speculations or for remnants of stock and difficult assignments. The financial depression which finally overtook even Los Angeles in late 1876 caught one dealer with a considerable overload. The auctioneer shouted and pounded away, but to no avail. ‘He sold last night over 200 pictures at almost ruinous prices to consignors, as they did not bring fifty cents on the dollar on what we have to pay for the frames here. There are still left about 500 of the pictures, and a great many choice pieces, such as ‘Moonlight on the Thames;’ also Bierstadt’s ‘Head Waters on the Colorado River,’ and his fine ‘View on the Truckee River.’

The practical attitude toward art auctions as Cheap John disposals is illustrated by the exclamatory report in the Express in 1878, that a collection of paintings held by the estate of the late Dr. Monroe L. Pierce was disposed of at administrator’s sale for $105, while its original cost had been $5000. A subsequent note the next day from the auctioneer revealed that actually the paintings had been received in lieu of a bad debt, that all but two were unfinished, and that they had been appraised prior to the sale at $65 for the lot.

Modem devices of merchandising were found sometimes to stimulate art turnover. Here is the text of a dealer’s advertisement in an 1874 issue of the Herald: ‘The only place in the city to get choice engravings, chromos, oil paintings, etc., is at M. V. Ponet’s, 66 Main street, where you can buy them cheap, or pay in weekly installments of from 25 cents to $1, according to the amount purchased.’ Considerably more art, of course, could be and was purchased when the entire periodic income was not yet burdened, by payments for automobile, television, refrigerator, washing machine, and what not. Yet, even without such payments, who today thinks of buying a fairly good picture at a dollar a week, or any other sum? More, what artist would dream of offering to sell on such terms?

Lithographs for book and magazine illustration and for separate issue were still in demand in the 1870’s, in spite of the in- creasing competition of photography. In the early months of 1873, an artist named A. E. Mathews was out canvassing for Southern California subscribers to a series of lithographs for which he was making drawings. It included views of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Santa Barbara and the set was to emphasize the picturesque over mere realism, making sketches which in final effect would attract visitors and permanent settlers to the region. ‘His design for Los Angeles,’ said the Express , ‘is not to give undue prominence to the city, but to give a bold view of the beautiful range of mountains in the background, with the city and its surroundings, just such a one as we would like to send East and elsewhere, to give friends an idea of our beautiful situation.’ Mr. Mathew’s work was thus indicative of the beginning surge of the wide-spread advertising of Southern California, soon to become so effective.

In April the sketches, lithographed in San Francisco, arrived and sets not subscribed for were placed on sale at Broderick’s Book Store. Not all purchasers, however, were satisfied, for the attempted picturesqueness had allegedly degenerated into gross distortion of reality. Perspective, said the editor of the San Diego Union, was exceedingly defective in all the sketches excepting the one of Santa Barbara. The mountain ranges in the background were uniformly represented in close proximity, when in fact they were many miles distant. Cuyamaca Peak, forty miles from San Diego, seemed to be crowding the city into the bay; the Sierra Madre range, almost twenty miles northeast of Los Angeles, was represented to be on its outskirts, while the mountains ten or more miles east of San Bernardino seemed scarcely a mile from that city.

Artist E. S. Glover was here in 1876 making a lithographic sketch of Los Angeles, a bird’s-eye view from the hills north of town, and also sketching Santa Monica, Wilmington, and other places in Southern California. According to Glover the lithographers were to illustrate a book relating history and current facts about this part of the State. Bancroft of San Francisco was to be the publisher. Glover had previously published similar views, particularly of Denver, Golden City and other Colorado towns.

Art had some attractiveness in the 1870’s even for clothing stores, as when a traveling artist named Douglass, hailing from Chicago, painted for clothier Winter of the Important Store, two life-sized canvases of gentlemen dressed in the height of current fashion. Said the Herald: ‘These pictures now ornament the sidewalk in front of the Important, and intimate pretty loudly to the passerby that the latest, most excruciating thing m the way of gentlemen’s clothing is for sale there.’

Another economic application of the art of painting appeared when in 1873, the board of directors of the California Vine Growers and Wine and Brandy Manufacturers’ Association resolved to have painted and chromed all important varieties of grapes grown in the State, to illustrate their projected book on California vine culture and derivative industries. Artists throughout the State were invited to join in the competition for position of chief artist, a sample grape painting to be submitted by each contestant. The artist sub- mitting the best painting and lowest bid price per picture would get the contract. A large number of artists, including some from South- ern California, sent in samples of their work, all being in oils except a water color by Hannah Millard of San Jose. At the State Fair, where many of the paintings were exhibited by the Association, Miss Millard won a silver medal as premium and subsequently the con- tract for the art job. Twenty varieties were to be painted the first season, commencing in August.

By the middle 1870’s Los Angeles seemed capable of supporting at least one or more resident artists. Considerable versatility was required, to be sure, and willingness to undertake the simplest of com- missions. Perhaps no artist in Los Angeles later became better known to its residents than Mrs. C. P. Bradfield (nee Miss Jeffrey), her name being a household word with many. She had studied art in New York City and for some time was an art teacher there, one also gained something of a reputation for her sketches in the New York Graphic and in the Floral Cabinet. She came to Los Angeles in 1874, but all her pictures, which she had shipped to the coast via steamer, were lost when the vessel was shipwrecked. Undaunted she gave her first lessons in art in the Methodist church on Fort street. Later she was employed in the Sisters of Mary school and in that of the Misses Achelson. When industrial drawing was introduced into the public schools in 1878, its superintendence was assigned to Mrs. Bradfield, in which capacity she served for many years thereafter. She sent to the World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in London a collection of her paintings of wild flowers of the Middle States, bound in an elegant volume, and, being a British subject at the time, she dedicated it to Queen Victoria. Mrs. Bradfield subsequently received a medal as prize, and also an autograph letter from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Her paintings had made a sensation, as English artists could hardly realize that our wild flowers were so brilliantly colored. The book, it is said, was ultimately purchased by Queen Victoria.

Mrs. S. I. Mayo, who in 1877 established a studio in rooms 48- 49 of the McDonald Block, executed portraits and landscapes to order, worked from photographs, gave drawing and painting instruction, and did free lance canvases. The year previous she had from a photograph done a realistic and colorful painting of the residence of O. H. Bliss, of Kingston in Fresno county. Being personally acquainted with Mr. Bliss, the Herald editor hoped that he would exhibit the painting ‘so that the public may see that Los Angeles has local artists worthy of note.’ The canvas was shown here at the photographer’s gallery of Mr. Ponet. She also displayed a collection of her work at the Los Angeles County Fair, where her ‘Napoleon’ was generally regarded as a masterpiece. On order she did an attractive Madonna for one of the leading Spanish families. Water colors were a favorite medium with her. A Santa Monica scene in oils represented two lovers seated on the beach engaged in earnest conversation.

Paul Petrovits was another local resident artist for a time, arriving in 1876. His story, however, has a tragic finale. He had been an artist of reputation in New York, but was compelled to emigrate to California for health reasons. Before coming to Los Angeles he had spent two years in San Francisco. Setting up his studio at the Pico House, he advertised himself as specializing in portrait work. He soon became popular, painting a life-portrait of the seventy-five year old Pio Pico, and of General Andres Pico, the latter from a small daguerreotype taken twenty years earlier. ‘Considering this fact,’ said the Express, ‘the likeness is a very meritorious one. The artist had to struggle with the difficulty of manufacturing an old man from his likeness when in the vigor of manhood.’ The portrait of Pio Pico was to be exhibited for a time at leading local stores.

In December of this same year, however, we find Petrovits gripped by a mixture of ambition and wanderlust, ready to set sail for South America. Explained the Express, ‘He goes thither in compliance with the invitation of his South American patrons. At the International Exposition in Chili, a medal was awarded to Mr. Petrovits for the finest portraits.’

A year later, after South America, the artist removed to the still booming mine center of Nevada’s Virginia City. The Territorial Enterprise of that town described two of Petrovits’ latest pictures as displayed there in a book-store window. The first, a large canvas entitled ‘The Siesta,’ represented a handsome boy about five years old drowsing with his head pillowed upon a large shaggy dog, asleep on the floor. The figures were nearly life size and Toft minutely and smoothly finished. Harmony in the composition by the background with a rich crimson curtain let fall at the boy.

‘There is also the portrait of a child, the daughter of one of our leading citizens, that is a perfect gem. It is a bust, and is so handled that the face and shoulders seem just rising through a misty cloud. The fresh tints are as soft and clear as the color in a sea shell, and die handling is so smooth that the picture seems to have been done in enamel. The hair, a mass of clustering curls, is most artistically colored and shaded, and appears as though every breeze, so free and floating is it shown. Petrovits pictures, this observer concluded, were painted to last, even to improve with one application of enamel after another being laid on until a perfect and impervious coat had been formed.

Pathos and tragedy marked the end of Paul Petrovits career. At the time of his arrival in Los Angeles he was already advanced in years to 65, while his beautiful wife, whose portrait conspicuously adorned his Pico House studio, was only twenty-three. The couple, nevertheless, seemed happy… and all of Los Angeles was shocked when the news came from Australia, whither Petrovits had gone, that he had, in a fit of what appeared to be jealous rage, killed his beloved companion and then suffered the ultimate penalty of the law…”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of the Internet Archive, Historical Society of Southern California, “The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Volume XLI, Number 1,” March, 1959 (top) Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, C. C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, “Old Los Angeles, 1857,” by Charles C. Pierce, black and white photographic print, from a lithograph, 1857

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s