Arts & Theater

Art review: Woodblock prints by William S. Rice at the Crocker

The block print “Guardian of the Timberline” is the work of William S. Rice, circa 1924.
The block print “Guardian of the Timberline” is the work of William S. Rice, circa 1924. Collection of Roberta Rice Treseder

The watercolors and block prints of William S. Rice give us a look at a prominent California painter of the early part of the last century who ranked with such prominent artists of the time as Gottardo Piazzoni and Armin Hansen.

More than 50 woodblock prints and watercolors illustrate the masterful technique Rice used to describe the natural beauty of the Golden State. They are up in the exhibition “The Nature of William S. Rice: Arts and Crafts Painter and Printmaker” at the Crocker Art Museum through May 17.

Drawn from the collection of his daughter, Roberta Rice Treseder, the works on view epitomize the Arts and Crafts movement of the period, which emphasized the ideals of simplicity and harmony with nature expressed through fine craft.

Born in 1873, Rice grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. From an early age he explored and drew from nature. In fall 1892, he formally began his artistic career at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. Subsequently, he found work as a staff artist for the Philadelphia Times and, around 1898, studied with famed illustrator Howard Pyle.

In 1900 he was recruited by his friend and fellow artist, Frederick Meyer, to work for public schools in Stockton. Beginning as an assistant to Meyer, who was supervisor of drawing in Stockton Public Schools, at a time when drawing was an integral and important part of the curriculum, he eventually replaced Meyer, who had moved to the Bay Area in 1902 as drawing supervisor.

In 1910, Rice relocated to Alameda County where Northern California’s robust Arts and Crafts movement was in ascendance. He taught at Alameda High School and, in summer, at the California School of Arts and Crafts, which was founded by Meyer.

In 1915, he attended the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco where he became fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints. Learning to carve the wood blocks, he soon transformed the 18th-century techniques of Japanese “pictures of a floating world” into compelling graphic images of California’s scenery, realized in strong, stylized lines and planes of pure color.

His stunning prints make up the bulk of the show at the Crocker, though a number of fine watercolor images of Yosemite and other scenic spots in mountains and woodlands also grace the exhibition.

The show begins with his powerful print of a twisted bristlecone pine titled “Guardian of the Timberline.” This muscular image demonstrates the strength of his draughtsmanship achieved through carving several blocks that make up the image.

He achieves a more lyrical note in “Apple Blossom Time,” an image of a tree burst into springtime blossom and in the radiant watercolor “Maples-Leona.” Several prints present romantic images of dark trees in moonlight, while the flamboyant “Parrot & Butterfly” strikes an exotic note. Among the strong images of flowers, “Bert’s Iris” stands out.

A trio of works of stands of intertwining trees demonstrate his skill in a variety of media – drawing, drypoint etching, and watercolor. His strong mastery of abstract principles is evident in “Rain at Atlin,” a dynamic block print of a storm in the mountains. Among the watercolors, I particularly liked “Stockton – Mcleod’s Lake,” a small but beautifully resolved work.

Rice’s work, as well as his teaching, left a lasting impression on the landscape of the Arts and Crafts movement. “William S. Rice Art and Life,” a book written by his granddaughter Ellen Treseder Sexauer, accompanies the show and is a fascinating and thorough account of Rice’s work and life.

The Nature of William S. Rice: Arts

and Crafts Painter and Printmaker

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through May 17, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $10-$5, members and children 6 and under are free. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org

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