The Carmel Monterey Peninsula Art Colony: A History

By Barbara J. Klein


At the turn of the twentieth century, history and nature set the stage for an unparalleled gathering of the arts on California's Monterey Peninsula, where romantic remnants of a Spanish colonial past melded with the beauty of a pine-covered shore bound by blue-green bays and cypress-studded headlands.

In a brief interlude, before transcontinental railroads brought tourists and development, America's epic landscapists found new inspiration painting the intimate scenery and historic adobe buildings of old Monterey. Relics of the Mission era proved especially fascinating for artists and many painted the Carmel Mission, among them Juan B. Wandesforde, the founder of the San Francisco Art Association in 1871, and one of the most revered mountain landscapists of the nineteenth century. Painted before its restoration, his depiction of Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo captured the building in an advanced state of deterioration.

Though the peninsula had long been a magnet for artists, its first real art colony was settled in 1875 by a flamboyant Frenchman named Jules Tavernier. Tavernier's impressive credentials included an education at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and exhibitions at the Paris Salon. His active participation as an officer of the San Francisco Art Association and as a member of the elite Bohemian Club provided him a following when he established a studio and home in Monterey.[1]

Tavernier's exotic studio, where Japanese kimonos and oriental rugs shared space with native American relics and innumerable other curiosities, became a gathering place for fellow artists who soon discovered that Monterey had more to offer than scenery -- it had cheap studio space and good food and drink. Many found lodging at an inexpensive hostelry called Girardin House, later renamed Stevenson House in honor of Robert Louis Stevenson, who stayed there in 1879.[2]

Raymond Yelland, one of the last generation of Hudson River artists, painted an elegiac work entitled Moonrise over Seacoast at Pacific Grove. After studying and teaching at the National Academy of Design in New York, Yelland joined the faculty of Mills College in Oakland. He later became director of the California School of Design, in 1888, and director of the San Francisco Art Association. [3]

After Tavernier left the peninsula in 1879, his former student Charles Rollo Peters followed in his footsteps and entered the Ecole De Beaux Arts, exhibiting at the Paris Salon. While in Paris, Peters met James McNeil Whistler, who encouraged him to paint nocturnes, a lucrative specialty that established Peters career.[4] Returning from Paris in 1900, Peters settled on a thirty-acre estate overlooking Monterey Bay. His lavish home supplanted Tavernier's studio as retreat for San Francisco Bohemian Clubbers and other visiting artists and writers. [5]

The Monterey Peninsula changed forever when the Southern Pacific Railroad built the Del Monte luxury hotel at its Monterey terminus, bringing thousands of tourists to the area. One of the most popular attractions was a guided tour in horse-drawn coaches along a scenic seventeen-mile drive which followed the coastline from Monterey to Pacific Grove, passing through the Del Monte Forest to the Carmel Mission. [6]

While Monterey flourished as a resort community, nearby Carmel remained a destination distinguished only by the ruins of its mission, until 1902, when two idealistic young men, Frank Devendorf and Frank Powers, formed the art colony that became Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Carmel evolved from the combined visions of its developers, and the artists, writers, and poets who settled there in the early half of this century. The canopy of pines which enveloped the village leading down to the beach was sensitively interspersed with environmentally compatible cottages and a main street for commerce limited to small businesses which serviced the community.

Transportation from the Monterey train depot must have been memorable as guests were met by an open-buckboard stage and often had to disembark and walk as the horses strained to crest the ridge's steep grade above the beach. Nonetheless, bargain prices at Carmel's newly situated Pine Inn brought record crowds on that first Fourth of July in 1903, celebrated with a parade down Main Street and fireworks on the beach. By 1904, the Pine Inn had to erect tents nearby to house the crowds.

The 1906 earthquake and fire which devastated San Francisco spurred a mass exodus from the city. Many refugees came to Carmel, where developer Devendorf generously offered lots to artists for a mere ten dollars down and whatever they could pay per month, often at no interest. Artists and writers already settled in Carmel embraced the new arrivals.

San Francisco poet George Sterling, who had arrived a year earlier headed the welcoming committee. His entourage included celebrated writers such a Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Joaquin Miller, Upton Sinclair, Charles Stoddard, and photographer Arnold Genthe, who provided convivial companionship at Sterling's home above the Carmel Mission. [7]

Responding to the needs of artists displaced by the earthquake, the Del Monte Hotel opened a large gallery in 1907, catering to a wealthy, worldwide clientele. The project was spearheaded by William Keith, California's most successful landscapist of the nineteenth century, Arthur Mathews, and other leaders of the art community. California artists whose works were selected for exhibition profited well, and helped introduce the best of California art to an international audience. The new gallery, which exhibited forty artists annually, helped develop the careers of many Northern California artists, including 1915 Panama - Pacific International Exposition award winners Anne Bremer, E. Charleton Fortune, Armin Hansen, and Clark Hobart. [8]


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