Monday, January 16, 2012

Amédée Joullin, forgotten SF Painter


Amédée Joullin. Untitled, (Dunes, 1910, oil on canvas, approx 12 x 17". Bequest of Max Hochhauser, image courtesy of FAMSF, photo @ Andrew Fox, used with permission.

When I saw the current show at the Legion on "Artistic San Francisco,"  I read a checklist of familiar names - Diebenkorn. Thiebaud, Obata, Park and Bechtle, But one name was totally unfamiliar to me - Amédée Joullin. Yet, even in that illustrious company, his painting stood out.

The piece is fairly small, and, until you look closely, seems a typical 19th century Barbizon landscape. The image is roughly divided into thirds, with the dunes and silhouettes of trees and foliage further dividing the center of the painting. The sky is a solid cerulean blue which merges into an indigo blue sea. A grove of trees is silhouetted against the skyline on the left side and a wedge of lower trees and bushes breaks the space on the right. Grey-green grass and moss are scattered around the light ocher portion of the dunes. The brushwork is fluid and expressive, with flecks of color worked into all parts of the painting. The surface is lightly glazed and the color glows and and sparkles.

Perhaps the piece doesn't sound very exciting. It's not revolutionary or bizarre. Joullin is not an experimental painter. Although Picasso and the Fauves in Paris were beginning to revolutionize the boundaries of painting, that news hadn't reached San Francisco.   Its simplicity is deceiving and although painted in a style which is completely out of fashion, is exquisitely beautiful and visually compelling.

Who was Amedee Joullin? There's not much about him in the art books so it has been difficult to recreate his life, But, born in SF of French parents who were early immigrants to California,  (June 13. 1862), he was part of the SF arts scene until his death in 1917.

His father, Etienne Joullin wanted to see him follow the printer's trade. But the young man was stubborn and pursued his own artistic goals.  He studied with Julies Tavernier, a native Frenchman who set up a studio here and attained artistic fame. Unlike Tavernier, he seems to have been more serious, more disciplined and so, there are less colorful stories to recount.

Nevertheless, he was a bon vivant and an early member of the Bohemian Club.

In his early twenties,  Joullin traveled to Paris, France for two years to gain more academic experience at the Julian Academie where he studied under Jules Lefebvre and Robert Fleury (1882-1884). He exhibited twice in the Paris Salon, winning first and second rank in his classes. He was later honored by the Academy of France in 1901 for his contribution to art education, the only American painter at the time to receive this decoration.

The Mark Hopkins School of Art

He returned to San Francisco in 1887 and promptly opened a studio at 207 Sansome St, in what is now the heart of the financial district. From 1887-1897 he worked as an instructor, proving a demanding teacher. The list of his students is a roll call of early 20th century Northern California artists.

Overland Monthly, California Artists, III. by Arthur Street (UMICH edu on line archives) Photo of his studio, approx 1900. 

He was fascinated by the Chinatown of the day, making studies of what he considered the "exotic" and picturesque atmosphere. He wasn't immune from the prejudices of the day.

In an 1901 article in the SF Call, he lamented the changes in Chinatown, the cleaner walls, electricity and modernization. "Of course it was never a pleasant place to work because of the dirt and the way the Chinese had of scrambling over one's shoulders. But an artist would have it so than as it is. Now. that it is being made clean, there will soon be nothing to paint." (SF Call, Nov 1, 1901). Given that his paintings of the Chinatown of the day were very successful - one sold for $1000 to the then Mayor James Phelan - it's no wonder that he didn't like the change.

Using Chinatown and the Chinese for his paintings also brought him into conflict with another local artist, Theodore Wores, who used the same subjects. The SF News letter Op-Ed piece of March 19, 1882 was not very complementary toward either artist, proving that there is nothing new under the sun, either in artistic rivalries or journalistic disdain. 


By 1897, he resigned his professorship at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art to travel to Mexico, painting Aztec temples, landscapes and interiors.  A few years later he travel to New Mexico to paint the Pueblo Indians, work which was again successful. One piece "The Weaver" was purchased by Phoebe Hearst for $1500.

He was living in SF in 1906 and survived the earthquake and fire. Although his studio burned down on Pine street, he fell in love with the women who became his his wife while both were trying to salvage what they could from the ruins.

Lucille Joullin had studied under him at the Mark Hopkins Institute. She was married briefly at the turn of the century to artist Jules Mersfelder; however, the marriage failed and she married Joullin in 1907. A article from the SF Call Bulletin says that they were going to Algeria for their honeymoon but returned to San Francisco to live.

In 1910, he held his first solo exhibition at the Helgesen Galleries in San Francisco receiving great praise. The works in that exhibit were a collection of paintings with subjects from all of his travels in France, Algeria, Mexico and California. He was known for bringing new cultural elements into already popularized landscapes.

His artistic creed was an honorable one, "I have always adhered strictly and faithfully to nature. It has been the only guide that I have had. I have obtained all my subjects from it, and I could ask nothing more (Overland Monthly, 1899, p 13) 

Joullin died in San Francisco in 1917, after a 6-week illness. At the time a memorial exhibition was held at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco featuring thirty of his canvases of landscapes, still life, and figures, providing a conclusive retrospective of his prolific career.

But all of that has disappeared somewhere, the victim of changing tastes. All we now have is one painting, enough to show what we are missing.

Artistic Landscape at SF Legion, closes Jan 22
catalog of the exhibit:James A. Ganz.  Artistic San Francisco, . FAMSF, 2011
Birgitta Hjalmarson. Artful Players in Early San Francisco, Balcony Press, LA, .
SF Call Bulletin, various issues from 1985 - 1917.
Overland Monthly, January 1899
California History, v 79, #4,

1 comment:

Zoomie said...

Nice piece, Nancy. Thanks for giving us the background on one of my favorite pieces in that show.