Coastline to Skyline: The Philip H. Greene Gift of California Watercolors, 1930–1960

Posted on September 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2008
Barbara J. MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art

Not surprisingly, American art collections in American museums most often have a regional flavor, reflecting an institution's history, location, and patronage. The Hood, for instance, has particular strengths in White Mountain landscapes and portraits of Dartmouth luminaries and, in general, works by artists based in the Northeast. Although there is much to be gained from building collections with local resonance, the introduction of works from more distant locales offers a welcome and instructive entry point for discussions of regional distinctions. This is exactly what Philip H. Greene, a native Californian and now resident of Hanover, New Hampshire, had in mind when he donated his collection of California watercolors to the Hood Museum of Art in 2007. He was excited by the prospect of presenting these bold, luminous works to an East Coast audience and giving the Hood staff the opportunity to bring new perspectives to this material. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue attempt to do just that, by exploring not only the regional significance of the group but also the larger artistic and cultural context in which these artists flourished.

This group of thirteen watercolors represents some of the best-known of the California-style watercolorists, who were particularly active from the 1930s through the 1950s, especially in southern California. The exhibition and its accompanying fully illustrated catalogue (which includes an essay by Paul J. Karlstrom, an authority on California art) explore the regional and national influences that helped to shape the work and careers of these watercolorists. Regional factors include the state's temperate weather, which facilitated painting out of doors; the existence of a small but supportive arts community; and a less hierarchical view of artistic genres than existed on the East Coast, which enabled artists to move freely between "fine" and commercial art without stigma (most of the group produced work for magazines, advertisement agencies, or the Hollywood studios). In terms of national influences, these artists drew selectively upon the lessons of the urban realists, the modernists, and, most directly, their regionalist and American Scene contemporaries. Momentous national and international developments also affected their careers, including the Great Depression and World War II. Several of the artists, for instance, benefited from New Deal artist programs during the 1930s and worked as artist-correspondents for the U.S. military and for Life magazine during World War II.

Two small displays of additional California art from the same period complement this exhibition. One features five California-style watercolors that were already in the Hood's collection before the Greene donation (four of them by Paul Sample, Class of 1920, who studied and worked in Los Angeles before serving as Dartmouth's artist-in-residence from 1938 to 1962). The other mini-exhibition, curated by the Hood's Homma Family Intern, Virginia Deaton '09, features six works associated with Hollywood's "Golden Age," which coincided with the heyday of the California-style watercolorists. These include production drawings on celluloid for Walt Disney's 1939 animated feature Pinocchio and Hollywood studio photographs of such glamorous stars as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper donated by Robert Dance, Class of 1977.

With the addition of the Philip H. Greene collection, the Hood has added an important West Coast dimension to its impressive holdings of American works on paper and provided an illuminating window onto the physical and cultural milieu of California during a dynamic era of regional—and national—artistic and social change.

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Written September 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan