Crocker Art Museum’s ‘Eloquent Palette’ features bold colors, but Tonalist works shine

Victoria Dalkey

Granville Redmond (1871-1935) thought of himself as a “painter of silence and solitude.”

The Crocker Art Museum features Redmond’s works in “The Eloquent Palette,” which runs through May 17. His early subtle and poetic Tonalist works, said Crocker Chief Curator Scott Shields, evoke a quiet calm, evident in works, such as “Moonrise Beyond the Bay,” 1903, and “Fog Burning Off,” 1905. The muted yet shimmering tones of the latter and the moon’s luminous reflection in the water of the former are magical yet contemplative.

In contrast, Shields and co-author Mildred Albronda noted in the exhibition catalogue, Redmond’s friend and supporter, movie star Charles Chaplin, remarked upon “the wonderful joyousness” of Redmond’s later canvases, “the gladness” of his skies, and “the riot of color” in his paintings of poppies and other wildflowers.

“Sometimes, Chaplin opined, “I think the silence in which he lives has developed in him some sense, some great capacity for happiness in which we others are lacking.”

The silence that surrounded Redmond was the result of scarlet fever he contracted as a toddler that left him permanently deaf and mute. After moving from his birthplace Philadelphia to San Jose in 1879, his parents enrolled him at the California Institution of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind in Berkeley (now the California School for the Deaf in Fremont) as a boarding student. There, his aptitude for art was nourished by teachers painter/photographer Theophilus Hope d’Estrella and sculptor Douglas Tilden.

In 1889 he began attending summer classes at the California School of Design in San Francisco, where his teachers included Raymond Dab Yelland, whose landscapes have been compared to those of 19th century Luminists, and Arthur Matthews, a leader of the California Arts and Crafts Movement who allowed his students to work from life rather than casts of classical sculptures.

In 1893, taking inspiration from a new teacher, Ernest Peixoto, who had studied in Paris, Redmond was determined to follow suit. Because he was not from a wealthy background (his tuition at the school for the deaf had been provided by that institution), he sought further funding to travel to Paris and study at Peixoto’s alma mater, the Academie Julian. With support from the school and other sources, he arrived in Paris that November and enrolled at the Academie Julian in November.

The following summer, he set off to paint in the countryside, returned to Paris in the fall and began working on a painting to enter in the Paris Salon, one of his goals. That painting, “Matin d’Hiver (Winter Morning),” a scene of barges in the Seine on a gray and misty day, greets you at the entry to the Crocker exhibition. It was hung in the Paris Salon, though it didn’t win a prize (another of his goals). In color and atmosphere, it reminds one a bit of canvases by Monet and Seurat, but heralds the quiet Tonalist works to come when, forced by poverty, he returned to California in 1898.

Settling in Los Angeles where his parents lived, he found the region’s terrain even more appealing than that of France and opened a studio there. He also fell in love and married Carrie Ann Jean of Illinois, who was also deaf from an early age. Ultimately, Shields said, because neither was born deaf, they had three hearing children, one of whom, a son Jean, became his business manager.

With 85 paintings in the Crocker show, viewers will want to take their time going through the jam-packed installation. I liked best Redmond’s earlier paintings, somber in hue and soulful in spirit, among them “Cloudy Day at Monterey,” 1906; the almost ugly “Restful Song of the Deep,” 1906; and the moonlit “California Oaks,” 1910, and his later exquisite yet at times almost Minimalist,‘“Nocturnes.” Mostly undated, these paintings must have provided a relief from his more popular and salable poppy paintings.

Redmond himself preferred doing Tonalist works set in the waning light of dusk or moonlight, but, he once lamented, “people will not buy them. They all seem to want poppies.” Reflecting that, nearly half of the paintings on view are of fields ablaze with poppies, occasionally in conjunction with blue lupines, the orange flowers’ complementary color. They are wonderful paintings, bold Impressionist scenes with thick paint and lively brushwork, that due to the medium Redmond used, literally sparkle.

You move from one after another delight, from the Crocker’s own undated “California Poppies and Lupine” and the stunning “Golden Wildflowers,” 1920, to the charming ”Among the Flowers,” 1918, a small scene of women in white picking poppies on a hillside. Perhaps because so many of these are hung in succession, I felt a bit of retinal fatigue before I got to the end of the show. That’s probably an unfair comment since it was the sale of those paintings that made Redmond more comfortable financially, though the shadow of World War I made landscape painting less profitable for a time.

Having long been accomplished at pantomime, in 1917 he decided to test his talents in Hollywood’s film industry to supplement his income. That’s how he met Chaplin, who admired his paintings so much he offered Redmond a studio and cast him in several minor roles, which led to parts in movies by other directors.

One of the delights of the Crocker show is a screen showing clips of movies Redmond acted in, including one in which he may have been the first deaf actor to play the role of a deaf character in a movie. Another pleasure is an interactive area where viewers can try their hand at drawing a still life of lemons and a white cup based on a very early Redmond painting.

Even if you don’t feel up to trying your drawing skills, there’s much pleasure in looking at sketchbooks with drawings others have made. Following the display at the Crocker, the Redmond exhibition will travel to the Laguna Art Museum on view from June 27 to September 20.

If You Go

Granville Redmond: The Eloquent Palette

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street

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

Cost: $6-$12, free for museum members and children 5 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

More info: (916) 808-7000, crockerart.org