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FRANK TOLLES CHAMBERLIN

(1873-1961)

PAINTER, MURALIST, SCULPTOR AND ART EDUCATOR

By Akemi A. May

Frank Tolles Chamberlin was a printer, muralist, print-maker, and art professor. After years as a commercial artist and educator in New York he moved to California to teach at the Otis Institute before becoming a founding faculty member of Chouinard Art Institute. As an instructor he would influence many important California artists, such as Millard Sheets and Phil Dike.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Frank Tolles Chamberlin was born in San Francisco on March 10, 1873. In 1879, his family returned to the Chamberlin homestead near Ascutneyville, Vermont. Six years after their arrival in Vermont they sold the family farm and moved to Hartford, Connecticut. In Hartford, Tolles was enrolled in public school and the Hannan Business College. The move proved both academically and artistically beneficial, for it was here that he began to take drawing lessons with Dwight W. Tryon at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

In 1900, his father and brothers left for the booming real estate market in Texas, while Chamberlin and his mother joined his sister in New Rochelle, New York. In 1901, Chamberlin began to work for the landscape architect, Nathan Barrett, producing technical drawings and watercolor renderings. Beginning in 1906, he worked as an architectural draftsman in the offices of William Wheeler Smith. During his years in New York, Chamberlin also attended night classes at the Art Students League under the tutelage of George de Forest Brush and George Bridgman.

In 1908, his artistic ambition drove him to resign from his position with Smith in order to pursue the prestigious Lazarus Scholarship, which offered an all-expenses paid education at the American Academy in Rome. The competition required that each contestant create a mural design within one working day and then execute the design within three weeks. Chamberlin’s time and efforts were not in vain. In November of that year, he left New York to study in Rome for the next three years. While in Italy, Chamberlin traveled to other Italian cities including Naples, Pompeii, Capri, and Sicily. In 1911, he was asked by the Director of the Academy, Frank Millet, to aid in mural commissions.

In 1912, Chamberlin returned to New York. Three years later he began a life long career as an arts educator. Originally hired to teach a six-week course in life and nature forms at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, his popularity with both students and faculty would cause them to plead for him to stay for four more years. As his male students enlisted in to fight in World War I in 1917, his watercolor rendering class at the School of Architecture of Columbia University was cancelled. Chamberlin himself volunteered; however, his age prevented him from going to battle. In the end, he served his country by teaching marksmanship to the army’s 7th Regiment.

In 1918, Chamberlin married Katherine Beecher Stetson, a daughter of the artist Charles Walter Stetson and the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A year later Chamberlain and his new bride, along with their infant daughter, moved to Southern California. In Los Angeles, Chamberlin accepted a position at the Otis Art Institute. He later went on to co-found the Chouinard Art Institute with Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard. In 1923, he began to instruct watercolor rendering classes for the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California (USC). He continued as an instructor at both institutes until 1928, when he resigned from USC in order to focus on his teaching at Chouinard and his own career as an artist.

In 1955, Chamberlin was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum. He was given free reign to select and arrange the works on display. On July 24, 1961, he died after years of suffering from heart attacks, facial shingles, and a number of operations. Although his health problems often prevented him from executing his artistic vision, Chamberlin was an ambitious artist right up to the time of his death.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

According to Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier, Frank Tolles Chamberlin was a “classical yet forward looking artist.” He is best known for his paintings of California landscapes. However, his accomplishments as a muralist, print-maker, and sculptor should not go unnoted.

An extraordinary example of Chamberlin’s talent as an artist is a mural in the library at McKinley Junior High School in Pasadena, California. The vision for the mural began in 1934 as a commission for the Treasury Department of the United States in collaboration with the Pasadena Board of Education. Completed in 1942, the mural incorporates a number of academic subjects including: science, physics, water conservation, agriculture, art, music, and literature. With a typical Southern California landscape as their backdrop, forty-nine children participate in a number of activities such as, chemistry, sculpture, radio transmission, horseback riding, and even blacksmithing. The realism of the mural is enhanced by its inclusion of the many different racial backgrounds of the children at the school, including African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. The complexity of the composition enhances rather than distracts from its central theme of the youth and spirit of the school. In the end, Chamberlin created an integrated composition that included these subjects as well as conveyed his own passion and faith in the power of education.

Though Chamberlin was not a particularly revolutionary artist, the same is not true for his role as an educator. During a time when artistic innovation was widening the gap between classical and modernist artists and educators, Chamberlin had a more encompassing view. Though his own works lacked a modernist influence, his teaching did not exclude it as a possibility. He stressed that a comprehensive understanding of classical techniques and accomplishments was crucial for successfully formulating modernism in art. According to a statement released by his family on the occasion of his death, “Tolles taught his students to see, to understand what lay beneath the surface form, to express what they saw intelligibly, but never forced his own style upon them.”

The stance of his career alone serves as evidence of Chamberlin’s enthusiasm and dedication as an educator. Chamberlin’s influence extended beyond the schools of Chouinard and USC and played an irreplaceable part in the development of Southern California’s art community in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Some of his more prominent students and admirers included artists Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, and Paul Sample of the California Watercolor School.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1873 Born March 10, San Francisco
  • 1879 Family returns to the Chamberlin farm near Ascutneyville, Vermont, on the death of Grandfather Cahuncey Milton Chamberlin.
  • 1885 Family sells homestead in Vermont. Moves with mother to Hartford, Connecticut, while his father moved to Texas
  • 1887 Attended Hannan Business College, Hartford
  • 1888 Began art lessons with Dwight W. Tryon at the Wadsworth Antheneum
  • 1900 Moves to New Rochelle, New York with mother
  • 1901 Starts work for the architect Nathan Barrett, making technical drawings and water color renderings
  • 1906 Taught as Miss Lowe’s Girls’ School in Rye, NY
  • 1906 Began work for William Wheeler Smith as an architectural draftsman.
  • 1907 Sold first water color to William Platt, president of Tiffany Studios
  • 1908 Won the Lazarus Scholarship to study three years at the American Academy in Rome
  • 1911 Awarded degree of Fellow of American Academy in Rome
  • 1915 Taught classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, NY
  • 1916 Taught classes at Columbia University in water color
  • 1917 Not allowed to join the armed forces in Europe for WWI, Chamberlin was hired to coach the 7th Regiment in marksmanship.
  • 1918 Marries Katherine Beecher Stetson
  • 1919 Made an Honorary Life Member of the Institute in recognition for his interest and work at the school. Moves to Pasadena
  • 1921 Designed the float for Pasadena Playhouse that was entered in the Tournament of Roses Parade. Taught at the Otis Art Institute until 1922
  • 1922 Taught at the new Chouinard school until 1930
  • 1923 Began teaching water color rendering classes at U.S.C.
  • 1930 Resigns from teaching in order to focus on his work
  • 1942 Completed the McKinley Junior High School mural
  • 1945 Taught at Jepson Art Institute
  • 1961 Dies July 24
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Detroit Institute of Art, MI
  • Good Samaritan Hospital of Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • McKinley Junior High, Pasadena, CA
  • New Rochelle Public Library, NY
  • Orange County Museum of Art, CA
  • Peabody Institute, Baltimore, OH
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

    Solo Exhibitions:

  • 1913 New York Architectural League
  • 1914 Boston Architectural Club, Massachusetts
  • 1916 MacDowell Club, New York
  • 1921 Painters & Sculptors of LA
  • 1922 Sculptors Guild of So. California
  • 1929, 1945 CPLH
  • 1934 Public Works of Art Project
  • 1935 Academy of Western Painters (LA)
  • 1939 GGIE
  • 1940 California Watercolor Society
  • 1942 University of Redlands, CA
  • 1947 Jepson Art Institute
  • 1955 Pasadena Art Museum
  • Group Exhibitions:

  • 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco
  • 1922 Milwaukee, WI
  • 1926 Los Angeles County Fair
  • 1930 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • 1930, 1934, 1936-7, 1939, 1941 Pasadena Society of Artist, CA
  • 1934 Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles
  • 1935 Academy of Western Painters, Los Angeles
  • 1936 Pasadena Junior Chamber of Commerce, CA
  • 1940 Los Angeles Branch of Sanity in Art
  • 1942 Ebell Club of Los Angeles
  • VI. AWARDS

  • 1926 First Prize for Sculpture, Los Angeles County Fair
  • 1930 Honorable Mention, International Mural Competition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • 1930 Prize, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1934 James Ackley McBride Award and First Prize for Sculpture, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1934 Award for Special Merit, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles
  • 1935 Second Prize, Academy of Western Painters, Los Angeles
  • 1936 James Ackley McBride Award, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1937 Second Prize, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1939 Honorable Mention, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1940 Awarded first prize and Logan Medal, Los Angeles Branch of Sanity in Art
  • 1941 Awarded Patron Prize for Color and Honorable Mention for Water Color, Pasadena Society of Artists
  • 1942 First Prize, Ebell Club of Los Angeles
  • VII. Bibliography

      1. 1. Pasadena Art Museum. F. Tolles Chamberlin : retrospective exhibition (catalogue). Introduction by Arthur Millier. Pasadena: 1955
      2. 2. Chamberlin, Frank Tolles. The Library Mural, McKinley Junior High School, Pasadena, CA, 1942. www.usc.edu/isd/archives/la/pubart/LA_murals/Pasadena/modern_ed1.html
      3. 3. Pasadena Star News, Thursday July 27, 1961, p.23.
      4. 4. www.usc.edu/isd/archives/la/pubart/LA_murals/Pasadena/chamberlin_bio.html
      5. 5. Creps, Howard, et. al. Biographical encyclopedia of American painters, sculptors & engravers of the U.S. : Colonial to 2002. Land O’Lakes, FL: Dealer’s Choice Books, 2002, p. 243.

    VIII. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST


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