Arts & Theater

Crocker showcases one of the early great painters of California’s art scene

Raymond Dabb Yelland, Yosemite Valley, 1885. Oil on canvas.
Raymond Dabb Yelland, Yosemite Valley, 1885. Oil on canvas.

“Raymond Dabb Yelland: California Landscape Painter” at the Crocker Art Museum reminds us once again how easy it is for talented painters, well-regarded in their times, can slip into the cracks of mainstream art history surveys.

It also demonstrates that the Crocker has become a major actor in rediscovering and legitimizing many nearly forgotten early California painters and is arguably the premier museum for studying their art.

Born Raymond Dabb in London, Yelland (1848-1900) arrived in America in 1850 and grew up in Union, New Jersey. In 1864, at the age of 16, he served in the Union Army in the Civil War.

From 1868 to 1872, he received training in art at the National Academy of Design in New York City, where he was so well thought of he was hired as an instructor when he completed his studies. Early in his career, he became noted for quiet coastal scenes, such as “Morning on the Shore,” 1872, a beautifully resolved, faithfully observed painting.

Recognized both for his teaching and his artwork, he was soon hired by Mills Seminary (now Mills College) in Oakland as a teacher of painting and drawing. He arrived in California with his new wife Ann Elizabeth in December of 1873 with a new surname, having substituted Dabb (which was dangerously close to “daub”) with Yelland, his mother’s maiden name.

Criticized by some for being too “pedagogical,” too tame and tied to reality, he eventually found greater success by working in a tributary of the Hudson River School known today as Luminism, a style most closely associated with prominent painters of the day, such as John F. Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., president of the North Point Gallery in Berkeley, a noted scholar of early California art, writes in the exhibition catalog that “Sunset, Golden Gate,” c. 1879, a painting so luminous it lights up the Crocker’s walls, depicts a transcendental scene in which “the brilliant sun with its pathway of light on the water casts a blessing on the land.”

The San Francisco Chronicle noted that a similarly radiant and atmospheric painting, “Point Bonita from Point Lobos,” was given a prominent place in the New York’s National Academy of Design’s exhibition and attracted much favorable notice. Best of all, Harrison adds: “Equally gratifying to the artist must have been the fact that it sold to an Eastern buyer,” a reaction that, sadly, still holds true today.

In addition to coastal scenes, Yelland also painted mountain scenery in Oregon and Yosemite. Though he found Yosemite “overpowering” at first, he did come close to rivaling Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt in “Yosemite Valley,” 1885. More exciting and original, though, was “Lower Yosemite Falls,” a small but bold and uncharacteristically painterly field study of coursing water speeding down a high promontory and misty blue cliffs in the far distance across the valley.

Also bolder and capturing the excitement of water rushing and crashing over rocks, “Vernal Falls,” 1884, coveys the power of water as a natural force.

In 1886, he turned his attention to a new theme, moving away from sunsets on coastal waters, which had become a stale subject, to a Whistler-like “nocturne,” “Moonrise at the Seacoast at Pacific Grove,” which earned a rave review in the San Francisco Evening Post and was singled out as “an exquisite marine” and one of the very best works in that year’s California State Agricultural Society Exhibition in Sacramento (which later became the California State Fair Art Exhibition).

One of the distinctive features of “Moonrise” is a small pyramid-like rock that rises up from the beach pointing to the heavens, a motif that reappears as a major element in “Monterey Bay,” as a dark sentinel overlooking the gentle waves of the bay under an impossibly beautiful magenta evening sky.

In the 1890s, taken by the Tonalist paintings of George Innes and William Keith, as well as the emotive Barbizon School paintings of French artists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Charles-Francois Daubigny, he turned to simpler, more humble compositions such as “The Road to the Sea,” 1893; a fresh study of light and dark clouds in “Showery Weather, Glenwood,” 1897; and the remarkably mysterious and softly atmospheric painting of the Alameda marshes, “Where Sluggish Tides Creep In,” 1894. “Where Sluggish Tides Creep In” was praised in the San Francisco Chronicle and named as one of the artist’s best work in the 1899 University of California Magazine.

Abstemious, conscientious, regular in his habits, and dedicated to teaching (in addition to the National Academy of Design and Mills Seminary, he taught for many years at the California School of Design, where he became the director for a time, and late in life at the University of California, Berkeley).

Falling ill in the spring of 1900 with an ailment not thought to be dangerous, he died unexpectedly of pneumonia in July of that year. His last painting, a silver wedding anniversary gift for a friend, was done on his deathbed.

His quiet modesty is thought to have contributed to the obscurity his work fell into after his death. Many of his works were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 and the rise of modernism left the remainder in basements and attics.

His name isn’t even mentioned in a history of California art published in 1915.

Rediscovered in the 1960s after an exhibition of his work at the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum’s new commitment to collecting early California art, Yelland’s paintings were increasingly sought by collectors and dealers.

His radiant, beautifully observed, yet emotive works have been favorably compared to those of major American landscape painters Bierstadt, akensett and Frederic Church.

The Crocker offers us a lovely holiday gift in this exhibition of a 19th century California painter who was almost forgotten by art history.

If You Go

Raymond Dabb Yelland: California Landscape Painter

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street.

When: Through January 27. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thurday.

Cost: $6 to $12; free for Crocker members and children 5 and younger. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

More info: (916) 808-7000.