Carmel Art Association

Carmel, CA



Percy Gray 1869-1952


Oak Tree, watercolor, 16 x 21 inches, collection of W. Donald Head


Beginning August 6th, and running through September 2, 1998, the Carmel Art Association will present Percy Gray 1869-1952 a significant historical exhibition of over ninety paintings of one of the Art Association's most celebrated eariy members, Percy Gray.

During his career, which spanned over forty years--from 1906 to 1952--Gray's realistic watercolors and oils were highly sought after. His muted landscapes captured coastal and rural California, evoking a certain romantic charm and quiet introspection. When he moved from San Francisco to the Monterey Peninsula to live in 1923, he rebuilt the Bonifacio Adobe in Monterey for his home and studio; he became one of the Carmel Art Association's founding members in 1927.

Above right: When Monterey Was Young, watercolor, 16 x 20 inches, photo courtesy of Paul and Alice Elcano; Left: Pastoral Eucalyptus, watercolor, 7.25 x 9.5 inches, photo courtesy of Donald Whitton.




Percy Gray

by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.


Percy Gray was a talented American painter whose career spanned over forty years from 1906 to 1952. During these years of modernist turmoil in American art, Gray adhered to a single artistic goal -- to extract poetic reverberations from California's natural beauty.

Percy Gray was born in San Francisco in 1869 to a family with a rich artistic and literary heritage. Gray's father emigrated from England to Australia, married and moved to San Francisco, where he thrived in the insurance business. Percy grew up in the young city, which harbored ambitions to become a major cultural center. During a childhood illness, he discovered a talent for art. He attended the California School of Design from 1886 - 1888 and began a career as a newspaper illustrator, ending up with a job at the New York Journal in 1895.

Gray spent the next eleven years as a newspaper artist in New York City but also found time to study at the Art Students League and with William Merritt Chase. As a newspaper illustrator, Gray learned how to get the facts of a scene clown quickly and correctly.

In 1906, Gray was dispatched to San Francisco to cover the catastrophe caused by the earthquake and fire that occurred in April of that year. He then remained in the city of his youth, and launched into a career as an exhibiting artist.

Gray's first paintings, exhibited in 1907, depicted stretches of ocean with waves breaking against headlands. Gray soon began to explore other subjects, including landscapes with eucalyptus trees swaying in the fog, their indistinct outlines full of ghostly suggestiveness. His ability to extract emotional responses from real California scenery was praised in the press. The San Francisco Examiner critic noted: "Although Gray is a painter-realist, he endows his pictures with the eerie charm of romance. He knows how to bring out the misty quality of the air,the mystery of clouds sailing by, the soul of trees and the fragrance of flowers."

In addition to eucalyptus trees, Gray watercolors often depict fields of California flowers seen in springtime. This subject allowed Gray to apply to his watercolors the high-keyed palette and broken brushstrokes learned from William Merritt Chase. "Don't hesitate to exaggerate color and light!" Chase would expostulate to his students, and Gray sometimes added more flowers and brilliant color than the scene actually portrayed.

Although Gray often painted bright works in the impressionist mode, his primary inspiration was directed towards muted landscapes in the style now known as "tonalism." The emotions most typically expressed in his pictures were those of quiet, introspective pleasure, rather than sublimity or joy. He loved to paint clouds. One time he was painting near the coast on a cloudy day when a farm boy approached. "It's a pity, Mister," the farm boy remarked, "that you did not come out to work on a clear day. Why, sometimes you can see all the way to the Farallones (twenty miles)." Replied Gray: "That's just what I don't want."

Gray's work became popular, and his paintings, exhibited at various San Francisco galleries, were sought after. In 1915, his watercolor, Out of the Desert, Oregon, won a bronze medal at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. For most of the time between 1912 and 1923, Gray lived in Burlingame while maintaining a studio in San Francisco.

To the surprise of some of his friends, in 1923, at age 53, the "avowed bachelor" married and moved into the historic Bonifacio adobe in Monterey. Some of Gray's best paintings from his Monterey years celebrate the fortitude of coastal cypress trees in their struggle to survive the constant battering of the elements symbolic of the struggles of human life.

In 1939, the Grays sold their Monterey home and returned to San Francisco. In 1941, they settled in the quiet village of San Anselmo in Marin County, about fifteen miles north of San Francisco near the base of Mount Tamalpais. Gray was in his seventies but continued to paint with considerable virtuosity. After his wife died in 1951, he moved back to San Francisco and set up a studio where he died of a heart attack while at his easel on October 10, 1952.

Mr. Harrison is the director of North Point Gallery in San Francisco. He has written a monograph on William Keith, a early California artist featured in the Distinguished Artist Series of RLM. - Ed.

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

Read more about the Carmel Art Association in Resource Library

Resource Library editor's note:

Also see the biography of H. Percy Gray from Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, vol. one, East Bay Heritage Project, Oakland, 2012 by Robert W. Edwards

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010-2106 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.