Landscape painter Fernand Lungren was primarily known for his portrayals of the American Southwest. Soon after his arrival here in 1907, he became a leader of the area art colony.
He was born in Maryland in 1857 and grew up in Ohio. Early on he evidenced an interest in art; as a teenager working in a bank, he had a habit of sketching on the backs of customers’ checks.
Lungren studied mining engineering at the University of Michigan, before dropping out at 19 to develop his art. He moved to New York City, where he found work as a magazine illustrator. He became top in the field, while at the same time developing his painting skills. He produced a series of city scenes in pastels to great critical acclaim.
Lungren then made his way to Paris. He attended the prestigious Académie Julian but quit after two months. He felt that academic training stifled creativity, although later in life he expressed regret over his decision to leave. He remained largely self-taught.
In the early 1890s, he returned to the U.S. He took a commission from the Santa Fe Railroad to go to the Southwest to paint scenes to be used in the company’s publicity; he was enchanted by the region and the Native Americans who lived there. He befriended a number of tribes, was allowed to observe secret religious rites, and was made an honorary member of the Hopi. During this period he developed what he called “memorism,” a method whereby he combined direct observation with recollections of what he had seen to produce his landscapes.
Lungren returned to New York, married Henrietta Whipple in 1898, and moved to London for a few years. He traveled to Egypt, where he was deeply moved by the sub-Saharan desert. Lungren became ever more reluctant to show his works in public exhibitions and galleries. In Santa Barbara, he increasingly would sell paintings only to those he deemed worthy. Numbered among the painter’s admirers was Theodore Roosevelt.
After the Lungrens settled here, they built a studio home in Mission Canyon. During his years in California, Lungren became fascinated by and made numerous pilgrimages to Death Valley. He determined to paint a series of canvases that would show the desert in all its moods. Many of these landscapes are devoid of man or animal; only the desert remains to be appreciated in its stark beauty.
Lungren’s wife died in 1917, a blow from which the artist never fully recovered. Yet he carried on, and in 1920 he helped found the Santa Barbara School of the Arts and remained on its board until his death in 1932. He became a charter member of the Santa Barbara Art League and executed two works for dioramas at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Lungren bequeathed his remaining works to Santa Barbara State Teachers College, forerunner of UCSB, “for the use of the people.” Today his bequest is part of the collection of the University Art Museum.