The Legacy of the California Art Club in San Diego


Despite its being centered in Los Angeles, the California Art Club nonetheless had a strong influence in forming the early foundations of San Diego's fine art community, both through major San Diego exhibitions and through four active and influential local members who were dedicated to bringing cultural life to San Diego while painting the San Diego scene.

When plans were made for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, it was the California Art Club which was asked to mount the juried Fine Art Exhibition, part of the first such major art showing ever to be held in San Diego. Seminal San Diego painters and California Art Club members Maurice Braun and Charles A. Fries won Gold and Silver medals, respectively, in the exhibition which played a major role in the cultural founding of our present day Balboa Park. Alfred Richard Mitchell -- a student of Braun's and later a Club member -- also won a Silver Medal. Together, they were represented by 10 works in total. Down the mall, CAC member Joseph Sharp was also represented in the sister art exhibition featuring Robert Henri and some of his followers.

The Exposition was such a resounding success that, at the end of its year-long run, the city extended it for another year, adding some of the foreign exhibits from San Francisco's concurrent Panama-Pacific Exposition (where Braun had won a second Gold Medal), and renaming it the Panama-California International Exposition. The works in the Henri exhibition were returned to their lenders, the Fine Art Exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, and a new Fine Art Exhibition was assembled to fill the vacated Fine Arts Building. As in the previous year's exhibition, the California Art Club was substantially represented, including two new pieces from Fries and three from Braun. At the final close of the Exposition, the Fine Arts Building (now the south wing of the Museum of Man) continued to serve for the next ten years as San Diego's first public art gallery.

The San Diego Art Association, the first local organization of artists, had been founded in 1904 by Charles Fries. From 1910 to 1919, Maurice Braun was one of the first art instructors in San Diego at his San Diego Academy of Art downtown, teaching students such as Mitchell in the classic traditional European methods. In 1915, Braun, Fries and Mitchell participated in the founding of the San Diego Art Guild (supplanting the San Diego Art Association and much later renamed the Artist's Guild) dedicated to aiding local artists in encouraging the cultural growth of the community by sponsoring lectures and exhibitions. Fries was also a founder of the Friends of Art in 1920, created with the purpose of bringing traveling exhibits to San Diego and obtaining a gallery to show and offer for sale work by local and other contemporary artists, and to collect and show permanent collections. (Braun and Mitchell were temporarily away in the east, but joined upon their returns and were active, lifelong members.) Emphasis was also placed on bringing school children into the gallery for educational talks. The Friends' official motto was "To encourage an interest in -- and to promote the growth of -- Art in San Diego." Their first annual report concluded with this quotation: "A knowledge of art can give you more pleasure than almost anything else. It can make you rich; it can give you a vista -- and a vision. It reveals hidden beauty ... As your acquaintance with art grows, your capacity for a richer enjoyment of what you see in the everyday world will become manifest."

Stressing its importance to San Diego's cultural growth, the Friends of Art's very first traveling exhibition was of The California Art Club of Los Angeles. Sixty-seven works by 38 club members from the Club's 11th Annual Autumn Exhibition were loaned by the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, including two by Charles Fries. Interest was so great among the literally thousands of San Diegans who came to view the show, that it was held over for an additional week. For the following three years, bringing the California Art Club's Fall Exhibition to San Diego was a regular event.

Between the years 1921 and 1925, the Friends of Art brought the exhibitions Modern American Painters from the American Federation of Arts (which the Friends had become a chapter of), A Traveling Exhibition of Western Painters from The Western Association of Museum Directors (which association the Friends had co-organized), Impressionistic Paintings by Western Artists from the Oakland Art Gallery, The Third Exhibit of the California Watercolor Society, The Taos Society of Painters, and An Exhibition from Cannel and Chaffin Galleries, all prominently featuring works from California Art Club members, as well as one-man exhibitions from Club members Charles Fries and Colin Campbell Cooper, among others.

In 1924, the Friends of Art and the Art Guild, under Guild president Alfred Mitchell, were formally amalgamated, becoming the Friends of Art of San Diego. The former Friends of Art were entrusted with the business, social and financial responsibilities, while the "Art Guild Members" of the Friends were responsible for "the professional knowledge, critical faculties and living interest of actual producers of pictures, sculpture and applied arts." A local newspaper remarked: "Having brought together into one strong association the patrons of art and the workers in art, The Friends of Art of San Diego are now in a position to, in a large way, promote and foster the art interest in San Diego...."

In 1925, with a brand new building donated in Balboa Park by Mr. and Mrs. Appleton S. Bridges, the Friends of Art of San Diego was incorporated as the Fine Arts Society to administrate the operation of the new Fine Art Gallery, which opened in 1926. By this time, California Art Club member Charles Reiffel had relocated to San Diego and joined the San Diego Art Guild. By 1930, Reiffel was on the Fine Art Gallery's important acquisitions committee.

In addition to their work culminating in today's San Diego Museum of Art, Maurice Braun, Charles Fries and Alfred Mitchell had also been founding members of the La Jolla Art Association in 1918, and from 1929 to 1936, Braun, Fries, Mitchell and Reiffel were founding members, with six other local artists, of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego, which exhibited regularly during its existence at the Fine Arts Gallery (which became the San Diego Museum of Art in 1979). This group's goals were the promotion of local art and artists on a national level as well as the development of a wider appreciation of fine local art at home. The Artist's Guild and the La Jolla Art Association remain active organizations in San Diego to this day.

Mitchell was further instrumental in the formation of several other local art associations in the county during his career, including what has become the San Diego Art Institute . Braun, in addition, was a gifted writer and Theosophical philosopher who was widely published during his lifetime.

While also showing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the eastern centers, the cosmopolitan Maurice Braun, Charles Fries, Alfred Mitchell and Charles Reiffel nonetheless all remained committed participants and leaders in the active art community in San Diego throughout their lives. Remarkably, Braun, Fries and Reiffel all died in the short span between the years 1940 and 1942. Alfred Mitchell continued on as a professional artist and highly influential teacher in San Diego until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1972.

The Fine Arts Gallery mounted retrospective exhibitions of the works of Charles Reiffel, Maurice Braun, and Alfred Mitchell in in 1942, 1951, and 1972, respectively, and in 1988 Mitchell received a similar honor from the San Diego Historical Society. Braun was honored with a second retrospective at the M. H. deYoung Museum in San Francisco in 1954. Throughout the decades, the works of these pioneering San Diego landscape artists and California Art Club members have been featured often in various special museum exhibitions, as tributes both to their mastery of art and their contributions to their community.

It is doubtful that San Diego's cultural life would have grown nearly as quickly or as well without the dedicated efforts of these professional local artists who were also experienced in the worlds of art beyond the borders of San Diego County, through their work with the California Art Club and other national organizations and activities. That they looked to the example of their fellow California Art Club members in their efforts to bring art and culture to San Diego in the early decades of the 20th century cannot be disputed.

Although the Great Depression, World War II, and changes in official tastes in art diminished the strength and influence of the California Art Club for several decades after, the club persevered, and with the recent revival of traditional plein air painting, it has been marvelously resurrected. Under the leadership of president Peter Adams since 1993, membership has swelled, the club has organized several museum exhibitions and large annual shows, and has participated in many outdoor painting festivals throughout the state which have benefitted environmental, civic, and historic organizations, such as Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The California Art Club is dedicated to setting a high standard in the realm of traditional art. Members look for their artistic inspiration to the principles established by the Classical Greco-Romans, the Renaissance Masters, the 19th century European Academies, and the French and American Impressionists, as well as the founders of the California Art Club. Integral aspects of the traditional art philosophy include strengths in the representation of nature, light and atmosphere through refined design, color harmony, composition, communication, and an overall emotional effect. Technical skill is also highly prized and must express a knowledge of draughtsmanship, perspectives, and values.

One of the goals of most Contemporary-Traditional artists is to exemplify ideal beauty and to lift the human spirit into a higher consciousness. The California Art Club aspires to a modern interpretation of these artistic philosophies and aesthetics.

Under the chairmanship of native San Diego painter Aaron St. John, the first Regional Chapter in the 90 year history of the California Art Club was formed in San Diego in 1998. Using the local enthusiasm and activism of Braun, Fries, Mitchell and Reiffel as inspiration, the San Diego Chapter -- already close to 100 members strong, including artists, collectors and dealers -- is dedicated to being a leading force in furthering and enhancing the history and traditions of San Diego's and California's representational art and cultural life in the years to come.

Resources for this article:

A 2 volume scrapbook of various newspaper clippings covering San Diego art organizations ca. 1904 - 1930 in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art Research Library

Compiled and written by Aaron F. St. John, Chairman, San Diego Regional Chapter, California Art Club. Last revised: 11/11/99. For information regarding the San Diego Regional Chapter: Contact Mr. Aaron F. St. John, Chairman, at (858) 672-3811.


Resource Library features these essays concerning Southern California art:

The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960: Selections from the Michael Johnson Collection by Susan M. Anderson

Dream and Perspective: American Scene Painting in Southern California by Susan M. Anderson

Modern Spirit: The Group of Eight & Los Angeles Art of the 1920s by Susan M. Anderson

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Julia Armstrong-Totten, Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Will South

The Arts in Santa Barbara by Janet Blake Dominik

Ranchos: The Oak Group Paints the Santa Barbara Countryside by Ellen Easton

Speculative Terrain - Recent Views of the Southern California Landscape from San Diego to Santa Barbara by Gordon L. Fuglie

Sampler Tour of Art Tiles from Catalina Island by John Hazeltine

Mission San Juan Capistrano: An Artistic Legacy by Gerald J. Miller

Loners, Mavericks & Dreamers: Art in Los Angeles Before 1900 by Nancy Moure

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California by Nancy Moure

San Diego Beginnings by Martin E. Petersen

Keeping the Faith: Painting in Santa Catalina 1935-1985 by Roy C. Rose

The Art Student League of Los Angeles: A Brief History by Will South

Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945 by Jean Stern

The Development of Southern California Impressionism by Jean Stern

The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles by Julia Armstrong-Totten

The Development of an Art Community in the Los Angeles Area by Ruth Westphal

A Bit of Paris in Heart Mountain by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten

The Historic Landscapes of Malibu by Michael Zakian

and these articles:

California Impressionists at Laguna is a 2000 exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum organized by Florence Griswold Museum curator Jack Becker, the exhibition consists of twenty-six paintings by over a dozen California artists and selected works by members of the Lyme Art Colony, providing opportunity to compare and contrast the styles and subjects of the Lyme and Laguna Impressionists. The exhibition examines how the colonies contributed to the very identity of their regions; in the case of Laguna as a new Eden of perpetual sunshine, and for Lyme as a place rooted in traditional New England values. (left: William Wendt (1865-1946), South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 1918, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II)

Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art 1910-1930 is a 2000 exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art which thematically explores Southern California's early twentieth-century artistic development -- from the expanding influences of East Coast artists, to the building of local art organizations striving for independent expression, and finally the early stirrings of avant-garde Modernism. Presenting over seventy paintings, drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition will focus attention on the progressive artists of Los Angeles and their response to national and international art movements.

Clarence Hinkle: Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight is a 2012 exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum which features over one hundred paintings dating from the early 1900s through the 1950s, and includes many paintings that were in the original exhibitions of the Group of Eight, especially their 1927 show at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.

The Fieldstone Collection: Impressionism in Southern California, a 1999 exhibit at the the William D. Cannon Art Gallery, includes approximately 40 works, created between the late 1800s and early 1900s, depict the natural landscapes of the region in the "plein air" style of the French Impressionists.

The Final Eden: Early Images of the Santa Barbara Region is a 2002 Wildling Art Museum exhibit of paintings, watercolors and prints depicting the Central Coast of California between 1836 and 1960 and celebrating "its rural pristine and fertile nature," selected by guest curator, Frank Goss. It is his thesis that the paradise that once was California, a land of boundless resources and unlimited opportunities, has shrunk through urbanization and exploitation, and the Central Coast, not yet paved over, is "the Final Eden." (left: John Hall Esq. (1808 - ?), "Santa Barbara-Upper California," 1836, hand-colored lithograph.. Lent by Eric Hvolboi

First Generation: Art in Claremont, 1907-1957 is a 2008 exhibit at the Claremont Museum of Art, which traces the art history of Claremont and the region in the first 50 years after the city's incorporation in 1907.

On a clear day a century ago, one could see the peak of Mt. Baldy from virtually every corner of the Los Angeles basin, from ocean to desert. The original inhabitants of this area, the Tongva/Gabrielino Indians, called the mountain "Yoát," or snow. Its siren song has drawn generations of settlers to its shadow. Since the late 19th century, prominent artists have been among those attracted to the foothills of Mt. Baldy and its neighboring peaks-and the city of Claremont, in particular.The exhibit traces the art history of the region, from the work of such artists as Hannah Tempest Jenkins, Emil Kosa, Jr., and William Manker to that of Millard Sheets and his circle in the 1930s. Sheets's influence as artist and teacher extended as well to bringing artists such as Henry Lee McFee, Phil Dike, and Jean Ames to Scripps College, thereby enhancing the existing art community and assuring its lasting influence.

Greetings from Laguna Beach: Our Town in the Early 1900s is a 2000 Laguna Art Museum exhibit which illustrates Laguna's early history through 20 landscapes painted by some of the town's earliest artist residents as well as historical photos and a room-sized installation of a typical period cottage. The paintings include works by Franz A. Bischoff, Conway Griffith , Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Joseph Kleitsch Millard Sheets, William Wendt, and Karl Yens.

L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy is a 2012 exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The figurative artists, who dominated the postwar Los Angeles art scene until the late 1950s, have largely been written out of today's art history. This exhibition, part of the Getty Foundations initiative "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980," traces the distinctive aesthetic of figurative expressionism from the end of World War II, bringing together over 120 works by forty-one artists in a variety of media -- painting, sculpture, photography, and performance

The Legacy of the California Art Club in San Diego chronicles the history of art in San Diego, California from the turn of the 20th century through the beginning of the present century.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings from the Gardena High School Los Angeles Unified School District Collection, hosted by CSU Dominguez Hills in 1999, features works by Franz A. Bischoff, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Benjamin Chambers Brown, Alson Skinner Clark, Leland S. Curtis, Maynard Dixon, Victor Clyde Forsythe, John (Jack) Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Armin Carl Hansen, Sam Hyde Harris, Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Frank Tenney Johnson, Emil Jean Kosa, Jr., Jean Mannheim, Peter Nielsen, Edgar Alwin Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, John Hubbard Rich, Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius, Walter Elmer Schofield, Clyde Eugene Scott, Jack Wilkinson Smith, James Guifford Swinnerton, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, William Wendt (1865-1946) and Orrin Augustine White.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings: The Gardena High School/Los Angeles Unified School District Collection toured to The Irvbine Museum in 1999.

Representing LA, Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art, featured at the Frye Museum in 2000, is the first group exhibition to explore the rich and varied representational painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture produced by Southern California artists from 1990 to 2000, and fills a gap in West Coast and Southern California art history by surveying and interpreting about 80 works by 70 artists working in representational or realist styles and approaches.

Read more about the California Art Club in Resource Library

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists. TFAO's America's Distinguished Artists catalog contains hundreds of copyright-free artwork images included in Wikimedia Commons. The following images from the catalog are representative of art created by artists noted in the above article. They are not specific to the article, however are shown here to provide an indication of art created by the artists. 


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


(above: Charles Reiffel, Summer Session at Ballast Point, San Diego, 1930, Vallejo Gallery. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


*Tag for expired US copyright of object image:

Resource Library articles and essays devoted to individual artists and institutions are not listed in California Art History.

TFAO's Distinguished Artists catalogue provides online access to biographical information for artists associated with California. Also, Search Resource Library for online articles and essays concerning both individual artists associated with this state's history and the history of art centers and museums in California.

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