Way back in the 1970s, when Santa Barbara was but a sleepy beach town whose most famous export was a soap opera, County Arts Commissioner Paul Mills discovered a number of unframed architectural paintings stacked in a dusty corner of the basement of City Hall. In 1981, after intensive restoration work, these paintings by Colin Campbell Cooper were put on public display at the County Administration Building’s Channing Peake Gallery.
Although the American Impressionist painter spent the majority of his life on the East Coast, Santa Barbara can rightfully claim him as one of our own. Cooper studied under Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia and at a number of Parisian academies before settling in New York in 1904, where he painted his most famous works: those of the modern city’s streets, skyscrapers, and skylines. “He understands the beauty of the city,” one critic noted, “as reflective of the spirit of the age.”
Cooper moved to Santa Barbara in 1921 and soon became a beloved figure in the city’s arts community. He turned his eye to a new cityscape, capturing the tiled roofs and rounded arches of the region’s Spanish architectural style, as well as the bright, saturated colors and warm sunlight of his Southern California home. In 2006, six of Cooper’s paintings were selected for a touring exhibition titled Colin Campbell Cooper: An American Impressionist in Context. Earlier this month, after completing their cross-country sojourn, they returned home to hang at City Hall.
Among the six paintings now on display in the first floor hallway are works spanning the period from 1903-1916 and depicting both East and West Coast subjects. Pictured above is the soft, cool-hued “Lily Pond, Balboa Park,” a gouache on canvas from circa 1916. In stark contrast is “Cliffs of Manhattan,” a scene of skyscrapers bronzed by a low sun and painted in oil on canvas circa 1903.
The Commission’s Visual Arts Coordinator and Curator of Collections Rita Ferri is thrilled to welcome Cooper’s paintings home for a semi-permanent installation. “I hope that Santa Barbarans will visit them with renewed appreciation,” she said, “knowing that thousands have visited and celebrated them while they were away.”