Granville Redmond
Moonlit Pond (detail)


The Charlie Chaplin Connection

A Student in Paris



The Master of
California's Poppyfields
Had a Quieter Side

By Thomas R. Reynolds

Filled with sunshine and color, the landscapes of California's early plein air painters have soared in popularity and price in recent years. Few are more coveted than Granville Redmond's paintings of springtime hillsides ablaze with golden poppies and purple lupines. They have become icons of the California landscape.

Less appreciated, in every sense, is Redmond's tonalist work. While he painted hundreds of fields of poppies in the early days of the 20th century -- in demand then as now -- he also retreated throughout his career to the quieter moods of sunrise and sunset, twilight and moonlight. These were his favorites.

The soft glow of Redmond's tonalist paintings, in a palette of limited hues and close color harmonies, capture the silence and solitude of nature. They become more powerful still when you learn that Redmond lived in a world of silence, unable to hear or to speak.

A Silent World

Redmond was born in Philadelphia in 1871. When he was two and a half, scarlet fever took his hearing and speech. The next year his family moved west to California, and he found opportunity then rarely offered when he enrolled at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. He learned sign language and pantomime, and a new world opened. He found special encouragement from two teachers, both deaf artists, who recognized his natural artistic ability and continued to open doors for Redmond throughout his life.

When he graduated in 1890, the school's teachers and trustees ensured that Redmond had an opportunity to study further at the California School of Design in San Francisco, the most important art school in the West. When he excelled there, his mentors at the School for the Deaf arranged for Redmond to study further in Paris at the Academie Julian under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. Again he quickly distinguished himself, winning more awards and the ultimate honor when his work was included in the 1895 Salon. Selected was a tonalist painting, full of moody atmosphere, capturing the fog lifting on the Seine on a winter morning.

Though almost desperately poor during his four and a half years in Paris, Redmond was excited to be in the center of the art world at a time of historic change, with the strict traditions of the academy giving way to the liberating influences of the modern era. Redmond took it all in. He sharpened his skills by studying with his masters and copying classical paintings in the Louvre. He learned from direct observation the close tonal harmonies and nuances of nature when he painted in the footsteps of the Barbizon painters in the Fontainebleu forest. He saw exuberant new possibilities of color and light when he spent summers on the Brittany coast sketching and painting in the Impressionist manner. He learned new techniques from the stirrings of the post-Impressionists with their bolder colors and broken brushwork.

Home to California

By the time Redmond returned to California and established a studio in Los Angeles in 1898, he had developed the skills and absorbed the influences that would give him a distinctive style uniquely his own -- part Impressionist, part Tonalist, part Pointillist, with a reverence for the landscape and the joys of sketching and painting on location. He had been reluctant to leave France, but he soon found upon his return that California offered all the natural beauty and atmosphere he would need for a lifetime of painting.

"This is a beautiful place," he wrote a few months after his return. "The scenery excels that of France." Unlike most of California's early plein air painters, who were identified either with the brighter colors of Southern California or the more muted tonal atmosphere of the north, Redmond claimed all of the state and its many moods of nature for himself. For the next 35 years he would travel and paint up and down the coast and through the inland valleys. Though he initially had his studio in Los Angeles, he continued to exhibit regularly in San Francisco, which was still the dominant cultural city. Later he moved to Northern California, but returned south in the summers to paint in Laguna Beach and on Catalina Island.

Redmond's disability became a distinction. "Color King Is Granville Redmond, a Deaf-Mute," said the headline on a full-page story in a Los Angeles newspaper. He was good copy for the art critics and feature writers. His friendly nature and even temperament made him popular with his fellow artists and he communicated easily though sign language, pantomime and his ever-present pad for writing notes. And he found a happy personal life. His and his wife Carrie, who was also deaf, had three children, who were not.

Redmond's "Listening Eye"

"This artist puts the voice of nature into his pictures," a critic wrote near the end of Redmond's life. "He listened with his eyes and caught each accent from the faintest whispering of the pines to the thunder of the tempest." He added: "Redmond, all his long artist life, has been hearing the music of sunlight and moonlight, the symphonies of seascape and landscape."

Redmond continued throughout his career to move easily between the poppy paintings that brought him financial success and the quieter, tonalist pictures he found more artistically rewarding. He acknowledged to a Los Angeles Times critic in 1931 that he preferred to paint pictures of solitude and silence. "Alas," he told the critic in a note, "people will not buy them. They all seem to want poppies."

"At age 60, Redmond remains unrivaled in the realistic depiction of California's landscape," the critic, Arthur Millier, wrote. "Even in his often repeated poppy and lupine field canvases -- potboilers, if you will, just as many of Corot's feathery tree pictures were produced to supply a demand -- Redmond displays his remarkable understanding of color and depth and his sympathy with the delicate beauties of nature."

Redmond died in 1935 in Los Angeles at age 64. His friend and patron Charlie Chaplin paid the expenses of his final illness and sent a huge wreath to his funeral in the shape of an artist's palette. Redmond, like many other landscape painters, was mostly forgotten for much of the 20th century. A retrospective of his work at the Oakland Museum in 1988 brought him back into the public eye. Since then he has regained his position at the very pinnacle of California landscape painting, revered once again as he was a century ago.

Much of the research on Granville Redmond's life was done by Mildred Albronda, a docent for the deaf in San Francisco. Special thanks to the Mildred Albronda Memorial Trust for access to her papers and an opportunity to review her unpublished book-length manuscript on Redmond.