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.
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.