As a newly arrived Swiss immigrant in America, Conrad Buff worked extensively to pursue his dream as an artist. After almost 20 years of hard work, he not only accomplished his dream, but he also surpassed his expectations by becoming a significant American Southwest landscape artist.
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Conrad Buff was born on January 15, 1886 in Speicher, Switzerland. From the time he was in grade school, Buff demonstrated an interest in art as he began to spend his spare time sketching. Noticing his determination, one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue art and music. As a result, early on in his life, Buff was confident that he wanted to become an artist. However, unable to convince his parents to send him to an art school, he was given a job as an apprentice baker and confectioner at the age of 14.
After finally reaching a compromise with his parents, he enrolled at the School for Arts & Crafts, a state-run trade school of lace design in St. Gallen, Switzerland in 1900. Finding the work too arduous and limiting, Buff decided to leave the school in 1903. Although he was only 17 at the time, Buff moved to Munich in order to pursue his dream as an artist. In Munich, he was finally able to start painting.
Nevertheless, he soon found himself without any money and dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities in Germany. He considered leaving Germany but was not sure whether it was the right move. After learning that a former classmate whom had left to America had settled in Wyoming, Buff felt reassured that America would offer him the opportunities he was longing for. In 1905, Conrad Buff made the journey to America with a group of immigrants who, similar to him, had no money or friends waiting for them.
Without speaking a word of English, Buff found comfort settling in Wisconsin where there was a large Swiss population. In addition, he quickly recovered financially due to his hard work and determination. Still at the age of 18, Buff immediately found as a sheep herder as well as in a pastry shop. For a time, he also took on various odd jobs painting houses. Even with a full schedule, Buff managed to make time to take trips with his good friend Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) to Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, where he found inspiration for his landscape paintings.
In 1906, he made his way to California, first arriving in San Francisco. However, after finding the city in ruins as a result of the great earthquake, he decided to head south to Los Angeles. There, he worked for a time as a yard man at the Lankersheim Hotel and then as a pot washer and cook at the Westmore Hotel. Similarly, as in Wisconsin, Buff also found work as a house painter and subsequently became a contractor in Eagle Rock.
Still focused on becoming an artist, Buff attended the Art Students League of Los Angeles from 1910 to 1913, but was dissatisfied with the instruction. He then attended evening drawing classes taught by William M. Praxton (1869-1941) at Los Angeles High School. From this point forward, his dream of becoming an artist started to be realized. In 1920, Buff had his first solo-exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Moreover, he had a close relationship with Edgar Alwyn Payne (1882-1947) with whom he made camping expeditions with Franz Bischoff (1864-1929). During this time, Payne was commissioned by a Chicago Hotel to decorate its outdoor walls and invited Buff to join in on the project. The project proved to be a major turning point in Buff’s career.
Then in 1922, he married Mary Jordan Marsh who was the assistant curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; together, they had two sons. His wife’s income allowed him to dedicate himself to painting fulltime. After twenty years of trying to achieve his dream, Buff was finally listed as a professional artist in 1923. As a member of the California Art Club, he had yearly exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and came to be associated with its members such as William Wendt (1865-1946), Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949) and Donna Schuster (1883-1953).
The 1930s proved to be a hard period for Conrad Buff, yet, with the help of a government work program, he was able to earn a living as an artist. The program lasted only 9 months, but Buff was a fast worker and was able to finish 10 works. In addition, from 1937 to 1968, Buff and his wife published children’s books that he illustrated and she wrote. Together they traveled extensively to the Southwest, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Guatemala and Mexico, looking for inspiration for their books. Furthermore, Buff lived with his wife in Pasadena, California until he died on March 11, 1975, in Laguna Hills, California.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“Landscape painting has been my favorite thing practically all my life.”- Conrad Buff
Conrad Buff was one of the earliest Los Angeles Western landscape painters. Fascinated by landscape, Buff traveled extensively throughout the Southwest and painted the landscapes he encountered. Some of his favorite subjects to paint included Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion Park, the High Sierras, and the Colorado River. His work is most identified by his pointillist technique, which is believed to be a derivation from his lace designing background. He is also known for his abstract representations of American landscapes that consist of simple geometric and architectural forms painted in bold colors. In addition to painting in oils, Buff also used tempera and made lithographs.
Buff’s earliest work can be traced back to about 1905, a period in which he produced many small oil paintings of Southwestern landscapes, which he sold for fifty cents each. Believing that the true essence of pictorial painting was in geometric forms, Buff’s work was abstract in nature from the very beginning. During the 1910s, he began to explore abstract representations in his work; Buff was ahead of his time, as he describes, “That was before abstractionism was at all thought of or heard of, but I always felt that the foundation for all painting, of all pictorial painting, lay in the arrangements of areas…” (South 106).
During this period, he employed a cross-hatching technique that was similar to the broken brush stroke of impressionism, but he “retained clear outlines and solid forms” (South 107). For instance, his work Untitled [Near Convict Lake], depicts a vast canyon with little sky. The edges of the cliffs are clearly demarcated, while the details of the vegetation are not. Instead, Buff renders the vegetation very roughly with his cross-hatching technique.
Although Buff had very close relationships with other early California landscape painters, such as William Wendt, and Jack Wilkenson, his style was very unique. For instance, Buff did not conform to the realistic depiction of landscapes, his style was less representational. While most landscape artists liked to render their skies with soft blues that created a somewhat foggy effect, Buff applied darker tones to suggest the clarity of the atmosphere. In addition to using the cross-hatching technique, he also used a pointillist style which was different from other landscape artists at that time.
In the 1920s through the 1930s, Buff was commissioned to execute numerous murals. Similarly to his paintings, Buff applied architectural aspects in his murals since he felt that murals should conform to the architecture of the buildings (Conrad Buff II). In fact, murals were his favorite work to do since he was able to make his paintings adapt to large architectural spaces. Some of the murals he executed during this period include the Southern California Edison Company building in Los Angeles, the First National Bank of Phoenix, the William Penn Hotel in Whittier, and the Guarantee Building and Loan Association in Los Angeles.
In the early 1930s, Buff executed several colored lithographs which his wife Mary. Beginning in 1936 and lasting through 1968, Buff illustrated children’s books with his wife. The books consisted of stories about Native American life such as their first children’s book, titled, Dancing Cloud (1922), which was about a young Navajo girl.
His work became more abstract in the 1940s as he continued to explore the geometric and architectural shapes. The subject matter in his work remained the same, yet, he shifted towards the use of bolder colors as well as broader brushstrokes. Interested in forms and not the sunsets or vegetation, he depicted mountains, cliffs, and buttes in a stark manner. He aimed to capture the immense scale and space of landscapes rather than their beauty.
Although avant-garde art began to emerge in Los Angeles during the 1950s, Buff did not find himself interested in the “high technology materials and abstract expressionist imagery” of this movement (Conrad Buff II). Buff always stayed true to what he enjoyed, which was being a landscape artist.
1886 Born on January 15 in Speicher, Switzerland
1900-03 Attends the School for Arts & Crafts in Switzerland
1905 Immigrates to America and settles in Wisconsin
1906 Moves to Los Angeles
1910-13 Attends the Art Students League of Los Angeles
1920 First one man exhibit at LACMA
1922 Marries Mary Jordan Marsh
1924 Receives first award at the California State Fair
1937-1968 Illustrates lithographs with his wife
1975 Dies on March 11th in Laguna Hills, CA
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
British Museum, London
Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, IL
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI
Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Encyclopedia Britannica Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, KS
The Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
1929, 1931, 1933, 1940 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
1933 M.D. de Young Memorial Museum
1938 Carmelita Gardens, Los Angeles, CA
1950 Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
1961 Desert Art Gallery, Palm Desert, CA
1975 Laguna Beach Museum of Art, Laguna Beach, CA
1920-30 California Art Club
1920-37 Painters and Sculptors of Los Angeles
1923, 1929, 1937, 1940 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
1925 San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
1926 Modern Art Workers
1927, 1934 Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles, CA
1927< Carmelita House, Los Angeles, CA
1932 Oakland Art Gallery, Oakland, CA
1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, CA
1948 Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, CA
1950 Commonwealth Club, Los Angeles, CA
American Artists Group
California Art Club
1924 California State Fair
1925, 1937 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1926 San Diego Museum
1931 International Print Exhibition
1934 Los Angeles Print Group
1939 Los Angeles County Fair
1944 Santa Paula Art Exhibition
1948 Los Angeles Municipal Exhibition
- 1.Hughes, E.M. (1989). Artists in California 1786-1940. San Francisco, CA: Hughes Publishing Company.
- 2. Ballinger, J.K., & Rubinstein, A.D. (1980). Visitors to Arizona 1846 to 1980. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum.
- 3. Hough, K. P., & Zakian, M. (1992). Transforming the Western Image in 20th Century American Art. Palm Springs, CA: Palm Springs Desert Museum.
- 4. South, W. (2000). Abstract Impressions. Southwest Art, 29(12), 104-7, 155.
- 5. Conrad Buff II- Western Landscapes 1920-1975. (1983). Los Angeles, CA: Security Pacific Bank.
IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST