A retrospective dedicated to the California landscape painter Granville Redmond is on view at the Crocker Art Museum.
In 1903, California officially adopted the poppy as its state flower. That might seem like a trivial thing, but the vivid yellow-orange blossom was a key visual element in a vigorous publicity campaign that the Sunshine State was waging at the time, trying to attract moneyed tourists and permanent settlers from the East. Not coincidentally, around that time, the California landscape painter Granville Redmond (1871–1935) assigned the California poppy a central role in his iconography, and the flower—often paired with the complementarily-colored blue lupine—would remain an instantly recognizable element in his work throughout the rest of his career, to the point of becoming his trademark.
Of course, there is more to Redmond than poppies, as visitors to the retrospective exhibition of his work at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento can see for themselves. “Granville Redmond: The Eloquent Palette,” on view through May 17, features 85 paintings from public and private collections and is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work ever mounted. It is also the first major Redmond show in 30 years. Redmond’s art crystallized before modernism, but his realistic yet emotionally sensitive depictions of the Golden State’s landscape have had staying power. Rather than seeming old-fashioned, they present themselves as timeless, conveying to the viewer the peace and joy that the artist found in nature. Today, as California struggles with the effects of climate change and overcrowding, Redmond’s images may serve not only as reminders of the impression the landscape made in an earlier era but as an inspiration to protect and conserve.
Often classed as a “California Impressionist,” Redmond worked in styles from Tonalism to Impressionism to Post-Impressionism. While his bright fields of poppies and lupines under sunny skies may be his most iconic works, in his younger years he favored darker, almost monochromatic canvases in which one color—the “tone” in Tonalism—pervades and defines the composition. Some of his Tonalist paintings almost recall Whistler in their moody, single-minded dedication to effects of somber color, only fleetingly relieved by points of light. Later he trended toward Impressionism, reveling in rich colors and bright light, although he was inspired more by the Barbizon school than by Monet or Renoir. Ultimately, Redmond adopted elements of Divisionism, which was particularly congenial to his emphasis on light in its interactions with atmosphere.
Although he was born in Philadelphia, Redmond had California in his blood. His family had migrated to California from New York and New Jersey during the mid-19th century, only to return east in search of work after misadventures and setbacks. Shortly after his birth, he was taken by his parents to Texas and then to San Jose, California, where he was brought up. At the age of two, Redmond came down with scarlet fever, which deprived him permanently of his hearing. As a result, he never learned to speak and was classified as a “deaf-mute,” in the uncharitable terminology of the time. Luckily, though, Redmond had an ebullient and positive personality that enabled him to connect with people and to persevere through difficulties. He showed artistic ability early on, which was picked up while he was enrolled at the California Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind, in Berkeley. His teachers there were the painter and photographer Theophilus Hope d’Estrella and the sculptor Douglas Tilden, both of whom were deaf. At this point in his life, Redmond also became interested in pantomime and theater, which served him in good stead not only as ways to communicate with hearing people but also when he took up a second career as an actor in silent movies.
In 1887 Redmond went on to the California School of Design in San Francisco, presided over by the Arts & Crafts designer and painter Arthur Mathews. There he studied mostly with the mural painter and illustrator Ernest Peixotto, who would become a lifelong friend. In 1893, the school provided Redmond with the funds to go to Paris for further studies, and he enrolled at the Académie Julian, a favorite of American students. While he found Paris artistically stimulating, his deafness made it even more difficult to communicate than it ordinarily would have been, and while he won some distinction, to his great disappointment he never had a painting accepted at the Salon. He slid gradually into financial desperation, and in 1898 had to return, very much with his tail between his legs, to live with his parents, who had relocated to Los Angeles. But out of adversity came success; in the landscape of Southern California Redmond found the inspiration for great work that had eluded him in Europe. Before long, he was selling paintings and making a living at it.
One of the fascinating revelations in the biographical book that accompanies the exhibition, written by Crocker chief curator Scott A. Shields and Mildred Albronda, is the extent to which Redmond’s disability influenced his art. Because of his deafness and the way it was dealt with in the late 19th century, not only did Redmond not speak, but his knowledge of the English language itself, even in written form, was quite deficient until later in his adulthood. The letters he wrote home from Paris as a young man read awkwardly, as if they were written by a foreigner. Although he was an extravert by nature and had several close deaf friends with whom he spoke in sign language, Redmond must have felt very isolated. The silence in which he lived seems reflected in the quietness and contemplativeness of his paintings, and the lack of human figures in them likely has something to do with his inability to speak freely to people. During his lifetime, critics often claimed that his deficiency in one of the senses spurred him to develop another to a supernormal degree, a theory that Redmond himself endorsed and amplified. As he himself put it (in later years, after he had learned to write fluently, and indeed eloquently), “Being an artist, I naturally take great joy in appreciating the beauty and wonders of God and nature. Perhaps my sense of sight and feeling is intensified, due to my affliction (not being able to hear nor speak), and therefore [I] make great consequences of the simple joys and tragedies of life.”
Redmond’s disability also became a source of strength and achievement starting in 1918, when he got involved in the burgeoning motion picture industry. This occurred through a meeting with Charlie Chaplin, the exact circumstances of which are not clear. In any case, the two hit it off right away; Chaplin was impressed not only with Redmond’s painting but with his uncanny ability to tell stories with his hands and facial expressions, honed by necessity. Redmond had always been interested in acting and pantomime in particular, and now Chaplin invited him to use his skills in small roles in the movies he was creating. The actor-director also adopted some elements of sign language and other non-verbal expressive methods from Redmond and included them in his movies.
Economic pressures fed into Redmond’s decision to become a movie actor at age 47; World War I had severely reduced the market for paintings, and, as his critic friend Antony Anderson put it, “Like the rest of us, he wanted to keep right on eating three meals a day.” It is believed that he was the first deaf person to act in a film, and he continued to appear in silents through the late 1920s. This activity did not in any way require him to stop painting, though; in fact, Chaplin installed Redmond in a workspace on the grounds of Charlie Chaplin Studios. He consecrated about two days a week to the movies and the rest of his time to painting, and before long his art sales had rebounded again.
Among his buyers was Chaplin, who said, “Something puzzles me about Redmond’s pictures. There’s such a wonderful joyousness about them all. Look at the gladness in that sky, the riot of color in those flowers. Sometimes I think that the silence in which he lives has developed in him some sense, some great capacity for happiness in which we others are lacking. He paints solitude as no one else can convey it, and yet, by some strange paradox, his solitude is never loneliness. It’s some sort of communion with Nature, I suppose.”
By John Dorfman