The Mas­ters at Cham­pion Place

An ob­scure street in Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia, once played host to some of the big­gest names in West­ern and Amer­i­can art.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

Much has been writ­ten about Brandy­wine, Old Lyme and Taos, all places—some­times just ideas re­ally—where artists con­gre­gate to take in the sights, lay down their artis­tic roots and flour­ish in the plea­sure of the scenery. In Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia, one art colony has largely been hid­den from his­tory, and it’s easy to see why when look­ing at a map. Just blocks long, Cham­pion Place is the kind of street you’d drive past if you didn’t know where to turn. The tree-lined street, gor­geous on both sides, is fairly mod­est and ends in a cul-de-sac.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, Cham­pion Place was home to some of the most prom­i­nent names in Amer­i­can art: Nor­man Rock­well, Frank Ten­ney John­son, Jack Wilkin­son Smith, Eli Har­vey, Tex Wheeler, Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe, Sam Hyde Har­ris and Mar­jorie Reed. They had been dubbed “the Eight” af­ter Robert Henri’s “The Eight.” But where Henri’s eight largely hud­dled around the Ash­can School, Al­ham­bra’s eight came from a di­verse ar­ray of back­grounds and art styles, hence the more com­mon nick­name of the street and its most fa­mous res­i­dents, Artists’ Al­ley.

In an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “’The Eight’ of Al­ham­bra: The Artists of Cham­pion Place,” art writer Barry Ke­hoe sets the mood of the non­de­script Al­ham­bra road. “Just off Main Street where Al­ham­bra be­comes San Gabriel, a short dis­tance from the Mis­sion San Gabriel, it is still a syl­van lo­cale. A street of dis­tant coun­try charm, with tra­di­tional homes and wooden Cal­i­for­nia bun­ga­lows fac­ing a nar­row lane densely treed with palms, eu­ca­lyp­tus and ole­an­der hedges. On the artist’s side of the block, in the rear of the homes, the stu­dios hang over the slope of the north branch of what the first Span­ish scouts called the Ar­royo de San Pasqual, amidst a grove of eu­ca­lyp­tus, with the back­drop of the San Gabriel Moun­tains. Down in the ter­raced back yards, where artists and stu­dents painted, and the fa­mous use to con­gre­gate, it has changed lit­tle in 50 years, ex­cept for the ce­ment chan­nel gird­ing the stream, now called the Al­ham­bra Wash. Cer­tainly no other block in the West, com­posed

of no more than three stu­dios—the sa­lons of 16, 22 and 130 Cham­pion Place—was more of an artist’s mecca than this street which was known lo­cally as Artists’ Al­ley or ‘Lit­tle Bo­hemia.’”

The first artist to ar­rive to Al­ham­bra, and the only artist wor­thy of the ti­tle of founder of the colony though it was never be­stowed to him, was Forsythe, who was an il­lus­tra­tor in New York City be­gin­ning in 1904. He worked for Red­book and Col­lier’s, as well as news­pa­pers, where he would cre­ate comic strips such Joe Jinks and, later, Way Out West. Dur­ing World War I he cre­ated war bond posters and later, in 1920, left il­lus­tra­tion to pur­sue easel paint­ing in his home state of Cal­i­for­nia. He even­tu­ally moved north­east of Cham­pion Place in nearby San Marino.

John­son, the West­ern mas­ter and heir to the cow­boy throne af­ter the pass­ing of Charles M. Rus­sell and Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton, came next. While liv­ing in New York, where he stud­ied un­der John Henry Twacht­man and other greats, John­son made sev­eral trips west, in­clud­ing a sig­nif­i­cant jour­ney in 1904 that cau­ter­ized his West­ern sub­ject mat­ter. Sev­eral more trips would take place be­fore John­son and his wife would rent an Al­ham­bra house in 1922, and then buy a house on Cham­pion Place in 1926 af­ter John­son had a surge in pop­u­lar­ity.

“Fol­low­ing his suc­cess they bought the house at 22 Cham­pion Place, and Frank built a two-story stu­dio with a two-story glass win­dow al­low­ing ideal north light,” Ke­hoe writes. “There was a fire­place and an in­set for dis­play­ing works to prospec­tive buy­ers. On the walls were In­dian buck­skins, Navajo rugs, and other Na­tive cos­tumes he had col­lected. In this stu­dio and along the creek they threw par­ties which at­tracted such per­sons as Max Wiec­zorek, crayon por­traitist; Kathryn W. Leighton, painter of the Black­foot In­di­ans; Mrs. Charles M. Rus­sell, widow of the great painter; Ed­ward Bor­ein, painter and etcher; Dean Corn­well, in­ter­na­tion­ally known mu­ral­ist (known in Los An­ge­les for his mu­rals in the Ro­tunda of the Los An­ge­les Pub­lic Li­brary); Charles Wake­field Cad­man, com­poser; and many more. It is re­puted that movie stars Tom Mix, Glo­ria Swanson, Will Rogers (who was a friend of sev­eral of the artists) came to the colony.”

The third ma­jor ar­rival was Cal­i­for­nia painter Smith, who, like Forsythe, was a prom­i­nent il­lus­tra­tor and car­toon­ist. The New Jer­sey-born artist was paint­ing the West be­fore he ever saw it, and in 1906 he moved to Los An­ge­les. By 1926, he was in Al­ham­bra, nextdoor neigh­bors to Cham­pion Place res­i­dent John­son, where he would live un­til his death in 1949. Smith was widely known for his ex­ten­sive travel, par­tic­u­larly around Cal­i­for­nia. Ke­hoe writes: “In 40 years Smith trav­eled ev­ery road and trail in the West. [A] mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle said that if the Auto Club couldn’t tell some­one a route to fol­low, call Jack Wilkin­son Smith of Al­ham­bra who had taken ‘ev­ery cart-track, trail and cow path on the Pa­cific Coast…’ He boasted of hav­ing ‘cast a fly into ev­ery stream and lake’ between Mex­ico and Ore­gon.”

Th­ese first three artists formed an im­por­tant trio of founders for the Cham­pion Place colony and im­me­di­ately started bring­ing in other artists from all over the coun­try. “Each of the three artists—forsythe, John­son, Smith—prompted the ar­rival of other artists,” writes David Leary in the es­say “Three Cre­ators of Artists’ Al­ley” for the Cal­i­for­nia Art Club. “Forsythe and Nor­man Rock­well had shared Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton’s former stu­dio in New Rochelle, New York. When Rock­well’s first mar­riage ended in

di­vorce in 1930, Forsythe in­tro­duced him to Mary Barstow, whom Rock­well mar­ried later in 1930. More to the point, the Barstows lived on Cham­pion Place, and over the next few years the Rock­wells vis­ited there. John­son had known Eli Har­vey, a sculp­tor of an­i­mals, in New York. John­son sparked Har­vey’s in­ter­est in Cham­pion Place, and Har­vey built a home and stu­dio there. He was el­derly by this point, and how much new sculp­ture he un­der­took is prob­lem­atic. Never mind, his was one of the stu­dios Rock­well used. Smith had a part in all this, too, in a poignant way. Af­ter he died in 1949, Sam Hyde Har­ris, an­other com­mer­cial artist turn­ing to the easel, bought the prop­erty.”

In 1937 Reed was based in nearby Glen­dale, Cal­i­for­nia, when she ar­ranged to take lessons from Smith at his Al­ham­bra stu­dio. At first she walked the dis­tance, 16 miles round trip, and later skated. Af­ter a near calamity in tran­sit, Reed was in­vited to live in a mod­est stu­dio at­tached to the garage by Smith and his wife. As for Wheeler, he grew up in Florida, and be­came a cow­boy, af­ter which he headed west where he found con­sis­tent work sculpt­ing com­mis­sioned bronzes. Hugh­lette “Tex” Wheeler got his name af­ter win­ning an art schol­ar­ship that sent him to Paris at 24 years old. It was in France where his col­leagues dubbed his nick­name. One of his most fa­mous works was a sculp­ture of the race­horse Se­abis­cuit, which was cre­ated in John­son’s Cham­pion Place stu­dio.

Of the eight artists, not all of them in­ter­acted to­gether or had their tra­jec­to­ries over­lap or even cross, but all were linked in some way to Al­ham­bra and Cham­pion Place. One long-last­ing friend­ship that had deep roots in Cham­pion Place was between Rock­well and Forsythe. Not only did Forsythe in­tro­duce Rock­well, nine years his junior, to his sec­ond wife, Mary Barstow, but the two were of­ten thick as thieves, some­times even pos­ing for each other for their re­spec­tive works. It is Forsythe and Irene Rock­well, the artist’s first wife, who ap­pear as mod­els in Rock­well’s Com­fort in Safety (Cou­ple and Dog in Open Auto). The two artists were also pho­tographed to­gether on many oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing in sev­eral pic­tures be­lieved to be taken in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

What’s most re­mark­able is the breadth of work from the artists who grav­i­tated to­ward Al­ham­bra and Cham­pion Place. There were cer­tainly many il­lus­tra­tors, in­clud­ing the great Satur­day Evening Post painter Rock­well, Forsythe and John­son, who did some work for Field & Stream. Har­ris was known for his desert scenes, Smith for his im­pres­sion­ist Cal­i­for­nia

land­scapes, Reed for her cow­boys and stage­coaches, John­son for his cow­boys and his moon­lit noc­turnes, Har­vey for his wildlife bronzes, and Wheeler for his horse sculp­tures. And although the group would not all stay in Al­ham­bra—rock­well, for in­stance, moved to Ver­mont to com­plete some of his most fa­mous works—their con­tri­bu­tions in the area were great sim­ply be­cause artists of this cal­iber don’t con­gre­gate in one area un­less there is some­thing there.

“Graphic art in and of the West and Cal­i­for­nia had had a doc­u­men­tary strain from its start, with re­gional in­spi­ra­tion lin­ger­ing well into the 20th cen­tury,” Leary writes. “In any case John­son, Smith, and Forsythe left scant doubt about where they stood. John­son un­abashedly held his spe­cialty to be ‘paint­ings of West­ern life.’ And one of his men­tors, no­tably, had been Robert Henri. Smith asked, ‘Why go else­where? Where are moun­tains no­bler than the Sier­ras? Where are seas bluer than off the Cal­i­for­nia coast? Where are forests to com­pare with our own?’ In­deed, he said, ‘What­ever I have seen else­where I have found in Cal­i­for­nia, and more glo­ri­ous. It is all here.’ And Forsythe de­clared, ‘The Golden State is so dif­fer­ent in cli­mate and ge­og­ra­phy from other por­tions of the coun­try that she ex­er­cises an in­flu­ence over her painters which they can­not es­cape.’”

Nor­man Rock­well (1894-1978), Com­fort in Safety (Cou­ple and Dog in Open Auto), The Satur­day Evening Post, Jan­uary 12, 1924, oil on can­vas, 26½ x 21½”. Cour­tesy Nor­man Rock­well Mu­seum. Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe and Irene Rock­well were the mod­els.

Frank Ten­ney John­son (1874-1939), Texas Cow­boys, 1930, oil on can­vas, 24 x 30", in­scribed on stretcher: 'Texas Cow­boys by F. Ten­ney John­son 22 Cham­pion Place, Al­ham­bra, Calif.' Cour­tesy Sotheby's.

Sam Hyde Har­ris (1889-1977), Desert Light, oil on can­vas, 15¾ x 20”. Cour­tesy Clars Auc­tion Gallery.

Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe (1885-1962), And They Thought We Couldn’t Fight, for Vic­tory Lib­erty Loan dur­ing World War I.

Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe (1885-1962), The Gold Camp, 1948, oil on board, 32 x 46”. Cour­tesy Coeur d’alene Art Auc­tion.

Nor­man Rock­well, left, with Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe. Cour­tesy Nor­man Rock­well Mu­seum, Pho­to­graphic Print Col­lec­tion/nor­man Rock­well Stu­dio Col­lec­tion/nor­man Rock­well Art Col­lec­tion Trust, ST.1976.20032.176.1.

Jack Wilkin­son Smith (1873-1979), Crest of the Sier­ras, Minarette Range, Cal­i­for­nia, 1928, oil on can­vas, 46 x 50”. Cour­tesy John Mo­ran Auc­tion­eers.

Nor­man Rock­well and Vic­tor Clyde Forsythe. Cour­tesy Nor­man Rock­well Mu­seum, Pho­to­graphic Print Col­lec­tion/nor­man Rock­well Stu­dio Col­lec­tion/nor­man Rock­well Art Col­lec­tion Trust. ST.1976.20032.173.53

Frank Ten­ney John­son (1874-1939), The Short Cut, oil on can­vas, 34 x 24”. Cour­tesy Jack­son Hole Art Auc­tion.

A Coca-cola ad­ver­tise­ment from 1931 show­ing a Nor­man Rock­well paint­ing com­pleted in Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia. Cour­tesy Al­ham­bra His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

Jack Wilkin­son Smith (1873-1979), Sun­shine through the oaks, oil on can­vas, 27 x 32”. Cour­tesy Bon­hams.

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