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Lorenzo Palmer Latimer, California watercolor painter
Magazine Antiques, April, 2005 by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.

Lorenzo Palmer Latimer was a landscape painter who flourished in California from the 1880s until his death in 1941. He became a leader of a significant group of watercolor artists working in Northern California in the early years of the twentieth century, a group that included Alfred Villiers Farnsworth, Chris Jorgensen, Sydney J. Yard, and Percy Gray. Of these artists, only the latter has been the recipient of museum exhibitions and scholarly articles in recent years. Though once highly respected, the others are today virtually unknown.

Latimer was born in Gold Hill, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on October 22, 1857. His father, Lorenzo Dow Latimer (b. 1830), studied law in Chicago before trying his luck at gold mining in California. When that did not work out, he became a member of the California bar, practicing first in Gold Hill and then moving in 1858 to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where he rose to prominence as a local attorney. The artist's mother, Harriet Needham Latimer, known as Maude, died on October 1, 1864, when he was six years old, (2) and his father soon married Sarah Rich, the daughter of a local rancher.

The future artist was a sickly child. He told friends later in life that he had taken up art because he was unable to participate in sports. (3) At some point his father moved to a ranch near Windsor, California, so he grew up in the beautiful rolling hills of the Alexander Valley, today the site of several major vineyards. He may have visited nearby redwood forests, but one source exaggerated in claiming that he "was reared among the redwoods." (4) Nonetheless, the giant trees would become Latimer's favorite subject as an artist.

In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Latimer's father United States District Attorney for Northern California, and the family moved to San Francisco, while retaining their property in Sonoma County. Several years later, the elder Latimer became a superior court judge. He sent his son as a teenager to McClure's Military Academy in Oakland, California, perhaps hoping that a rigorous military regime would strengthen his constitution. Graduating at the age of nineteen in 1877, the young Latimer persuaded his father to send him to the California School of Design in San Francisco, at the time the leading art school in the country west of the Mississippi. In July 1878 Latimer took an excursion to Glenwood Magnetic Springs, a resort located eight difficult miles by stagecoach from Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco. While there, he became friendly with the established landscape artist Julian Walbridge Rix (1850-1903). (5) Numerous groves of ancient redwoods were found in the wilds of Santa Cruz County, and Rix had devoted several major paintings to this uniquely Californian subject for art.

In 1880 Latimer's paintings started to attract the attention of local art critics. In 1881 two small landscapes were accepted for the spring exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, quite an honor for a young man who was still a student. That he stood out in a class that would produce such substantial artists as Chris Jorgensen (1860-1935) and Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) demonstrates that Latimer's career was off to a good start.

In 1882 Latimer graduated from the School of Design and struck out on his own, renting a corner of the studio at 611 Clay Street occupied by the venerable California still-life painter Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816-1892). He soon linked up with another talented young artist, John A. Stanton (1857-1929), and the two formed a kind of partnership, exhibiting paintings for sale and painting designs on decorative items such as mirrors. Perhaps through Rix, Latimer entered the entourage of the colorful and controversial painter Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), also known for his paintings of redwoods, who believed that an artist did not have to pay his bills or exercise moderation when it came to alcohol. Tavernier's bad influence may be found in the fact that throughout the 1880s, Latimer was scolded by critics for not taking his work seriously enough. He may also have followed Tavernier's example when it came to drinking. In a 1900 newspaper interview, Latimer recalled how he and Stanton had once surreptitiously opened and consumed the contents of a bottle of champagne that Brookes was using as a prop for a still-life painting. The two young men then filled the bottle with water and resealed it. When Brookes finished the painting, he invited his studio mates to help him drink the champagne, only to be outraged when he discovered that the bottle contained water. Latimer and Stanton pretended to share Tavernier's indignation rather than own up to their skulduggery. (6)

As early as 1883, Latimer had embarked on a course that would sustain him for the next fifty years--teaching classes of mostly women students and taking them on summer excursions to picturesque parts of California. Following the strictures of the English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), he painted field studies side by side with his students using the highly portable medium of watercolor, and when they returned to the studio they would put the finishing touches on their outdoor sketches. (7) In this way, Latimer honed his own skills in watercolor, although during the 1880s most of the works he exhibited publicly were oils.

In 1884 Latimer joined the newly founded Palette Club in San Francisco, which was presided over by Tavernier. The Palette Club was formed by artists in rebellion against various policies embraced by the San Francisco Art Association, especially the association's management by wealthy businessmen, rather than by the artists themselves. The older institution had offended some artists by allowing unscrupulous artists and dealers to rent its exhibition gallery to hold auctions that undercut local studio prices with inferior paintings known as "potboilers." (8) The Palette Club held exhibitions in competition with those of the San Francisco Art Association, but soon became an object lesson in why it was a good idea to allow businessmen to run an organization composed of artists. By the end of 1885, with Tavernier having fled his creditors to Hawaii, the club quietly faded from view. Latimer and the other members of the Palette Club were welcomed back into the San Francisco Art Association, and Latimer resumed sending his paintings to the association's exhibitions.

Few Latimer paintings from the 1880s are known today, perhaps because his teaching duties prevented him from executing many works deemed worthy of preservation. One major oil painting, owned until recently by collateral descendants of his stepmother, is Geyser Peak from McDonnell Creek, Sonoma County (Pl. II). Dated 1887, this view, close to his family's property near Windsor, is a detailed transcription of nature given a poetic enhancement by the treatment of light and atmosphere. As such, it is very much in the Hudson River school aesthetic, which was rapidly being displaced in California by the influence of the French Barbizon school. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful and authoritative painting by a sophisticated professional artist. Its exploration of the light of dawn, when wisps of fog impose a gauzy harmony over the landscape, is a theme Latimer treated often during his career...


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