Barse Miller was a bold watercolorist who continued to grow and mature, in both his life and his art, right up to his death.
Table of Contents
Barse Miller was born on January 24, 1904 in New York, to a very interesting family. When asked why he chose to become an artist, Barse Miller responded, “I had no choice.”1 After more prodding, Miller explained that his father, Warren Hastings Miller, was an avid outdoorsman who spent his time traveling the world looking for the most formidable challenges to overcome. During his more “civilized” intervals, he wrote books and was the editor of Field and Stream making Barse his “specimen outdoor boy.” Barse revealed that, “I had to go half naked into the woods, cut trees, kill deer and catch more fish than any boy of my age, simply because, you see, my father’s son simply had to be a real man of the great outdoors.”2 Luckily enough for Barse, his mother, Susan Barse Miller, was a very successful painter, so from a very young age he began drawing. At age eleven, he rebelled against being his father’s “specimen boy” by spending his afternoons studying at the National Academy of Design. Realizing his passion for art, at age sixteen, he began pestering his parents until they agreed to send him to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied and later became a member.
His years at PAFA changed his life more than he ever could have expected. To begin with, he studied under Hugh Breckenridge (1870-1937) and Henry Snell (1858-1943), both of whom inspired him to keep setting his sights higher and both of whom had a huge influence on his style of painting. Also, while attending the Academy in 1922, Barse entered a competition for the Cresson Traveling Scholarship, which awarded the winner a traveling scholarship in Europe to further their studies. Soon after entering, he met Mary Elizabeth Smith of Wilmington, Delaware, who was a fellow student. From the day they met, they got on fabulously and began their relationship that same day with a date to the gallery at the Academy of Music.
Barse won the competition, however, and went off to Europe to further his education. While in Europe, Barse entered the competition for a second year, and was again awarded a year’s worth of study in Europe. He spent most of his time in Paris and Italy, staying in port cities where he could paint familiar activities like fishing and familiar scenes like fishermen and sailors. When his time in Europe was coming to an end, his parents wrote him and told him to stay a bit longer as they were coming to visit him. Barse wrote back threatening them to bring Mary or he would return to America without seeing them. Mary came, and they traveled Europe together as an engaged couple.
As soon as he and Mary returned to the United States in 1924 they settled in Los Angeles, where he began teaching at the Chouinard Art Institute. Once in Los Angeles, Miller quickly made a name for himself. He married Mary in 1925 at the age of 25. As soon as they settled, Barse began showing the art that he made while in Europe and began painting the vast new subjects he found in California: the desert, the Sierras, the coast, the movie studios and Yosemite. Becoming a member of the California Art Club was a major career booster as the Club had annual exhibitions which earned him great exposure at a young age. His work was instantly appreciated and admired for his impeccable technique and his bold use of color and shadows. While teaching at the Chouinard Institute, he met many artists who had the same opinions and visions for the medium of watercolor. As a group they started the California Watercolor Society who were noted for painting on large format paper, using wet on wet techniques and for popularizing the California landscape and its easygoing way of life.
The 1930s proved a hard time for Americans, as the Stock Market Crashed and the Depression set in. Things began to look up when F.D.R. set up government systems like the WPA to help artists get work by having them paint murals at schools as well as government and public buildings. Barse was one of many to participate in these programs throughout the 30s, painting murals at the University of Southern California, the Burbank Post Office and many more.
During the 1930s, the progress that the California Style of Watercolor had made in gaining recognition and prestige was quashed. But, the California Style of Watercolor soon received national acclaim when Rex Brandt and Lawson Cooper created a traveling art show called The California Group that featured many of the artists from their Society while it toured the U.S. Soon after Dodd, Mead and Co. published a section on California Regionalist Art in their Modern American Painting book in 1939. A sudden interest in California Watercolor sprang up all over the country and Miller was exhibiting on the East Coast in major galleries in New York City. A sign that the California Watercolorists had finally arrived came when they were invited to show in the New York World’s Fair also in 1939.
In the 1940s, the United States was slowly approaching entrance into World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Miller was approached in 1942 to join the Corps of Engineers. He arrived overseas in May 1943 as head of the first official War Art Unit on field duty. Once there, Miller made landings at Arawe, where he sustained a minor wound, and Cape Gloucester. He covered nearly every phase of aerial warfare in the 5th Air Force. Later, Miller also made landings at Leyte and Lingayen Fulg and entered Manila with the 1st Cavalry Division. Miller was later presented with the Legion of Merit by Major General Hugh J. Casey at General Head Quarters in Manila on July 26, 1945. The award was made in recognition of the bravery Captain Miller displayed in gathering material for his paintings. After completing his tour of duty, he returned to Manila to complete his paintings of his Philippines campaign.
Upon returning from war, Miller was a changed man. The things he had seen and experienced gave him a whole new perspective on life, leading to problems at home. Differences between him and Mary became so bad that she filed for divorce in 1946 after 21 years of marriage. Mary received custody of their children, their property in La Canada, as well as, 25% of all his earnings. Nonetheless, his changes were obvious in his art and critics loved it. Miller’s fame only grew after the war as many of the stars of the California Group began to fade away. Proof of this came when Miller was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946, which he used to illustrate the country around the Sacramento River.
For the rest of his life he continued painting, teaching and pursuing his outdoor hobbies. An avid sailor, he took this time to hone his skills and he won Star class titles while living in California and Snipe class titles on the East Coast. He also formed a summer school called Rangemark Master Class in Watercolor in Maine, where he influenced a new generation of artists. Miller was also one of the founders of the Port Washington Public Library’s Art Advisory Council. He continued to exhibit his work all across the country in major galleries. Barse Miller died in 1973 in Matzatlan, Mexico while on a teaching cruise at the age of 65.
- 1. Millier, Arthur. "Our Artists in Person, no. 21-Barse Miller." Los Angeles Times (1938): B6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Los Angeles Times.
- 2. Ibid.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Barse Miller’s style evolved and matured right along side him throughout his life. The more he worked and studied, the better his work became and the more in touch with his true passion he became. From the time Miller was born he was surrounded by art as his mother was a very successful painter. Because of her influence, he began taking classes at age 11 at the National Academy of Design. From there, he moved on to studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art at age sixteen. At the PAFA, he was highly influenced by Hugh Breckenridge and Henry Snell, major players in the modern art scene. Upon receiving the Cresson Traveling Scholarship, Miller began his studies abroad, allowing him to mature his style and subject matter.
When he returned from Europe and settled in the Los Angeles area, he began showing the pieces he had worked on while abroad, which won him many awards and the recognition of local artists. He also began teaching at Chouinard, where he met artists of the blossoming California Watercolor School. These painters wanted to, and succeeded in, taking watercolor to a whole new level. As a group, they used large format paper, wet on wet technique, plein air style and bold, spontaneous colors and brush strokes. Together, they formed the California Watercolor Society and began to popularize the medium throughout the nation.
During this period of the 1920s, Miller was noted and praised as being an innovator of the watercolor medium and a great technical painter, but critics, for the most part, stopped there. They appreciated his strong, aggressive brushwork and his bold, fresh colors that contrasted with his areas of dark shadows, but many described his work simply as decorative, not as soulful or provocative. Still, Miller was one of the most successful members of the California Style and exhibited all over the Southwest. Mostly, he was praised for not treating the land of California as a tourist attraction, like most artists of his time, but as his native environment. His subjects included the desert, Yosemite, the coast and the glamour of Hollywood. What further set Miller apart from the other artists in the California Group at this time was his inclusion of people and urban scenes in his subject matters - he was not just a typical landscape artist. In a retrospective on Miller’s work, where he is praising Miller’s older, more mature works, New York Times Journalist David Shirley claims that, “Even his earlier watercolors, although not on an expressive level with those of his mature years, are strikingly appealing.”3 His fresh outlook and variety of subjects helped him stand out amongst the other watercolorists of his time.
During World War II, Miller was commissioned to enter the Corps of Engineers for the Army, where he soon became the first official head of the war art unit in the field, in 1943. Experiencing war in all its gore and “glamour” gave Barse an entire new outlook on life and painting. When he returned to the U.S. in 1945, it was clear that he had changed and matured – proof was easily found in his painting. Art Historian Kathleen Valentine explains that, “prior to WWII Miller was largely a landscape painter, but after serving under General MacArthur as a major in the Pacific Theater, his work became profoundly spiritual.”4 It was clear to critics and art lovers across the country that Miller had arrived.
After the war, he made sure that he truly connected with each painting he made - each painting moved him in some way and he conveyed that easily in his painting. Even after he was done showing his work from the war, Miller was still praised for his masculinization of his medium. David Shirley admired Miller’s work when he said that, “Barse Miller is a painter who understood the nature of watercolor. Not only did he grasp the technical imperatives of the medium and the necessities of controlling it, but also he could do something that many watercolorists fail to do: bring out the artistic toughness of watercolor.”5 He goes on to explain that, “Miller uses the fluidity of watercolor as a means to convey expressive boldness, and its density to convey compositional strength. There is nothing sweet, cloying or melancholic about his watercolors.”6
The theme that ties together Miller’s work through his vast array of subjects is this masculinity that he conveys through a typically subtle and delicate medium. This ability to make such a strong statement is what set Miller apart throughout his career. Because his work is described as masculine and strong, does not mean that he is always portraying stereotypical “masculine” subjects. One critic explains that, “Miller could paint anything he chose, but he preferred scenes that offered his palette a distinctive ruggedness. Even his still lifes such as “Maine Classic” have a brawniness about them.”7 The subtlety of his work shines through the nuances of his composition, shading and modulation of form.
When Miller died in 1973, he left one of the most impressive and influential oeuvres of any watercolorist in the United States. From his paintings of ports and harbors in Europe, to his landscapes and cityscapes of California to his drawings and sketches of battle and warfare, he has an incredibly diverse and successful set of subject matters. His ability to “toughen up” watercolor gave his subjects a fresh new look that set him apart from other watercolorists of his day, and the soul and intensity that he put into his work set him apart from most painters of his day.
- 3. Shriley, David. "Barse Miller's Watercolors Have Nothing Sweet About Them." New York Times (1979): p.115. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 4. Valentine, Kathleen. "Families of the North Shore Arts Association." American Art Review. June, 2002, p.172.
- 5. Shriley, David. "Barse Miller's Watercolors Have Nothing Sweet About Them." New York Times (1979): p.115. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 6. Shriley, David. "Barse Miller's Watercolors Have Nothing Sweet About Them." New York Times (1979): p.115. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 7. Millier, Arthur. "Barse Miller Stages Top-Rank Show."
1904 Born in New York January 24
1915 Began studying at the National Academy of Design and the PAFA with Henry Snell and Hugh Breckenridge
1922-23 Awarded Cresson Traveling Scholarship which enabled him to study in Europe
1923 Proposed to Mary Elizabeth Smith
1924 Settled in Los Angeles with his fiancé, Mary
1924 Began teaching at Chouinard Art Institute
1925 Married first wife Mary Elizabeth in February
1927 Son Mills Miller born
1929 Taught summer landscape courses at Chouinard Art Institute
1930 Daughter, Helen, born
1939 Modern American Painting published by Dodd, Mead and Co.
1939 New York World’s Fair Show, American Art Today
1939 Painted murals at U.S.C., Burbank Post Office, and many more to make money during the hard times of the depression
1941 Son, Barse Perviance Miller died
1942 Commissioned to the Corps of Engineers in July
1942 Named a captain in the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army at Ft. Mason, San Francisco in July
1943 Arrived overseas in May as head of the first official war art unit on field duty
1944 Slightly wounded while serving with the 6th Army
1945 Awarded Legion of Merit for bravery in retrieving materials for his paintings
1946 Divorces wife Mary Elizabeth Miller after 21 years of marriage
1946 Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship
1966 Taught at Rex Brandt Summer School
1973 Died in Matzatlan, Mexico on teaching cruise
Art Institute of Chicago
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Burbank Post Office (mural)
Butler Art Institute
Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego
George Washington High School
Glasgow Museum, Scotland
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Municipal Collection of Fine Arts, Phoenix, AZ
National Gallery, Melbourne, Australia
Oakland Museum of California
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
San Diego Museum
Southern California Edison Co. Building (mural)
Toledo Museum of Art
University of Illinois
University of Maine
U.S. War Department
1926 Ainsile Galleries, Barker Brothers
1926 Hatfield Gallery, Los Angeles
1927 Ainsile Galleries, Los Angeles
1927 Biltmore Salon, Los Angeles
1927 Chamber of Commerce Building
1927 Newhouse Galleries, Los Angeles
1927 Olive Hill Art Salon
1928 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California Art Club Annual Exhibition
1928 Newhouse Galleries, Los Angeles
1929 Anderson Galleries, New York
1929 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California Art Club 20th Annual Exhibition
1932 Oakland Art Gallery
1935 Laguna Beach Art Gallery
1935 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1935 San Francisco Museum of Art Inaugural
1936 Ferargil Galleries, New York
1936 Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs
1937 California Group Traveling Exhibition
1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition
1939 New York World’s Fair Exhibition, American Art Today
1940 Art Center School
1941 Ferargil Galleries, New York
1941 Tone Price Gallery
1942 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1944 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “War Art”
1945 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, “War in the Pacific”
1945 National Gallery of Art
1947 Cowie Galleries, Los Angeles - War Sketches
1948 Cowie Galleries, Los Angeles
1967 Cowie Galleries, Los Angeles
1971 Zachary Waller Gallery
1979 Port Washington Public Library
1986 Cunningham Gallery of Art
1986 D. Wigmore Fine Art, inc. New York
1987 Claremont Fine Arts, Claremont, CA
1988 Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1990 Adamson-Duvannes Galleries, Los Angeles CA, The California Vision
American Water Color Society
California Art Club
California Water Color Society (President 1936-38)
Gloucester Society of Artists
Laguna Beach Art Association
Manhasset Bay Snipe Fleet
National Academy of Design
North Shore Art Association
Philadelphia Water Color Club
Rockport Art Association
San Diego Water Color Society
1922 Cresson Traveling Scholarship, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1923 Cresson Traveling Scholarship, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1925 Second Prize, Los Angeles County Fair
1927 First Prize, Arizona State Fair
1929 Second Prize, Logan, Utah
1929 Hatfield Gold Medal, California Art Club
1930 First Prize, Los Angeles County Fair
1932 Dyer Prize, LACMA
1932 Purchase Prize, California Watercolor Society’s Annual Exhibition
1936 Dana Water Color Medal
1938 Strongest Water Color, $200, Penn. Academy of Fine Arts
1941 Pottinger Merchandise Prize, $150
1945 Asiatic Pacific Ribbon
1945 Philippine Liberation Ribbon
1945 Medal of the Legion of Merit
1946 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1. "Award Given to Capt. Miller, War Artist." Los Angeles Times (1945): p.B4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 2. "Barse Miller Dies; Artist and Teacher." New York Times (1973): p.42. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 3. "Barse Miller Shows." Art Digest. June 1, 1941, p. 9.
- 4. Millier, Arthur. "Barse Miller Stages Top-Rank Show." Los Angeles Times (1938): ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times.
- 5. "Our Artist In Person, No.21-Barse Miller." Los Angeles Times (1930): p.B6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 6. Shriley, David. "Barse Miller's Watercolors Have Nothing Sweet About Them." New York Times (1979): p.115. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
- 7. Valentine, Kathleen. "Families of the North Shore Arts Association." American Art Review. June, 2002, p.172.
- 8. "Wife Divorces Barse Miller." Los Angeles Times (1946): p.A3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times.
IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST