In the late 19th century, a significant colony of talented artists began to develop in Santa Barbara. The growth of this artistic community was such that by the late 1920s, Santa Barbara could lay claim to being the most important art center between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two artists who helped forge this reputation were the father-and-son painters, DeWitt and Douglass Parshall.
DeWitt Parshall has been called “one of the foremost American landscape painters of the early 20th century.” Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1864, he took his first formal art training at Hobart College where he graduated in 1885. Although his later reputation would rest on his landscapes, while at school he developed a local notoriety for his caricatures of faculty members and fellow classmates.
After graduation, he studied in Europe and attended the Royal Academy in Dresden, Germany, and the academies Corman and Julian in Paris. In an interview decades later, Douglass pointed out that his father got much more out of his studies in Germany than in France. Nevertheless, it was while in France that Parshall garnered his first honors, including inclusion in the extremely prestigious exhibition of the Paris Salon in 1890. He also made the acquaintance of a number of other American artists studying in Paris.
One of these, San Franciscan Charles Rollo Peters, who became celebrated for his nighttime landscapes or nocturnes, extolled the beauties of California to Parshall, which encouraged the latter to eventually visit the Golden State.
Acceptance of one of his canvases at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892 hastened his return to the U.S. Parshall was known as a tonalist, one who visited the sites he painted, but would execute the paintings from memory, which added a romantic, moody feel to his works. Perhaps the watershed event in his artistic career came in 1910, when the Southern Pacific Railroad sponsored the first in a series of trips to paint the Grand Canyon. These landscapes came to be held in such high regard that Parshall became known in some circles as the outstanding artist of this natural wonder.
In 1913, while on one of these trips out west, he visited his friend, artist Thomas Moran, in Santa Barbara. Four years later, Parshall relocated permanently here and became an active member of the local artists’ colony. Here he developed an international renown for his California landscapes and seascapes until his death in 1956.
His son Douglass, born in New York City in 1899, came under his father’s influence early on, executing landscapes, but eventually included portraiture, murals, and animals, especially horses, in his work. He attended Ojai’s Thacher School when his family moved here and continued his education in art schools in New York, Paris, and Boston.
Parshall also became very active in the area art scene. In 1933 he was appointed local district supervisor of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project. Some 25 to 30 local artists earned $77 a month to produce murals and other works of art for public buildings and schools. Parshall estimated that more than 60 schools were graced with art from this program. In 1939 he served as Santa Barbara chairman for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and for the New York World’s Fair.
In 1952, he became the first president of the Santa Barbara Art Association. The association was dedicated to promoting and encouraging the best of artistic talent and to expanding exhibition space to give these artists greater exposure to the public. In his own work, Parshall moved to a more impressionistic style, with an emphasis on a brighter palette.
Douglass Parshall died at age 91 in 1990. With their artistic talent and their efforts in education and advocacy, the Parshalls had immeasurably enriched the culture of Santa Barbara.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.