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American Watercolorist; California Landscape and Abstract Painter

By Sara Sheppard

As an influential watercolorist, John Charles Haley worked in many different styles throughout his life, refusing to be defined to a particular style. Known as the master of the Berkeley style of painting, Haley helped define modernism in the Bay Area.

Table of Contents


John Charles Haley was born September 21, 1905 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a teenager, he was already adept at line drawing and was regularly publishing cartoons and comic strips in his high school's weekly newspaper. After graduating from high school, Haley decided to enroll at the Minneapolis School of Art for four years. In Minnesota during the 1920s a conservative manner of painting was the only available style for Haley. John Charles Haley received formal training in the nineteenth century Beaux-Arts tradition, and was commissioned to paint a portrait of a lumber tycoon from Minneapolis. The portrait of T.B. Walker, who founded the Walker Art Center, was hung in the Hall of Fame at City Hall after it was completed. Haley graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art in 1927 (Ghent 11).

John Charles Haley received the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip scholarship before graduating that allowed him to travel to Europe and study for a year. After receiving the scholarship and commission from T.B. Walker, John Charles Haley was beginning to gain recognition as an up and coming artist.

In 1927 Haley traveled to Europe with his mentor Cameron Booth to make his first trip to the art capitals of the world. Haley went to Paris first and met fellow Minneapolis School of Art teacher Vaclav Vytlacil (1892-1984) who encouraged him to study under German modernist master Hans Hoffman (1880-1966). He then went to Munich and studied under Hofmann, and quickly absorbed the master's cubist forms, soon establishing himself as one of Hofmann�s most outstanding students (�John Charles Haley�). This influential teacher molded Haley�s style of painting, which Haley took back to the United States in 1928 (Ghent 12).

Upon his return, John Charles Haley married his childhood sweetheart, Monica Phares, whom shared his passion for art throughout their lives together. He returned to the Minneapolis School of Art as a teacher, but did not stay in Minnesota for long. Haley and his wife moved to California after a recommendation from several artists opened the door to a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. They settled in the San Francisco Bay area, and John taught at U.C. Berkeley for forty-two years before retiring. Haley joined the Art Department to support the study and practice of modern art, and quickly impressed his colleagues (Ghent 14). George Krevsky wrote, �Haley is credited with building one of the strongest art departments in the country at the University of California at Berkeley and influencing generations of artists such as Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner and Stephen de Staebler� (�John Haley�). The addition of Haley to the Berkeley staff helped facilitate the introduction of modern art to the Bay Area.

The first exhibition of Haley�s work in California occurred at the Mills College Gallery in November of 1931. The title of the group exhibition was �The Complete Development of Modern Painting: from Manet to Hans Hofmann� and showcased the talent of Haley�s work. His first solo show was at The Art Center in San Francisco in which he showed nineteen watercolors and temperas. Along with the solo show came positive reviews from art critics. Haley was quickly becoming recognized for his work in the Bay area and soon exhibited his work throughout the country.

In 1943 John Charles Haley was drafted into the United States Naval Reserve. His talent at drawing landscapes did not go unnoticed, and he drew every detail of the surrounding areas for invasion strategies. Haley was sent to Normandy, Sicily and the Pacific Islands. After a year in Europe, he was promoted to Lieutenant and stationed in Guam, where he spent his remaining time in the military.

Haley returned to U.C. Berkeley in 1945 after an honorable discharge from the military. Upon his return he heard of a new abstract way of painting and spent five years experimenting in different styles. He began to spend his summers in the American southwest, frequenting Arizona and New Mexico. He found great stimulation and inspiration from the geography of these states, and expressed it in his art.

Throughout his life, Haley experimented with different styles of painting and excelled in all aspects. He occasionally worked in sculpture. He retired from teaching in 1972 after building an impressive reputation as a teacher, mentor and artist. He passed away in 1991 after inspiring students and artists alike.


Artists have the advantage. They can build their own worlds. John Charles Haley

John Charles Haley exceeded limitations and finished over four hundred works of art before his death in 1991. His earliest influences came from the Minneapolis School of Art where he was trained in a conventional style. Like many artists before him, Haley traveled to Europe to study art and eventually found himself studying under Hans Hofmann, whose work and teachings were pivotal to 20th century art. Hans Hofmanns school of Modern Art influenced Haley in Munich, where he did various drawings and works in color. He filled notebooks with small sketches and larger drawings, moving away from the training he received in Minneapolis.

Haley returned to the United States to support the Modernist movement through his teachings. He was an extremely talented painter, and participated in the American Scene movement that was happening throughout the United States. He worked in water colors, and was involved in federally sponsored art projects. There was a move away from foreign influences in the United States during this time, and Haley helped develop the Regionalist style in the United States. Haley enjoyed painting outdoors, and typically painted his subjects from life. He used softer colors and the landscapes of California and Nevada to support his artistic style. Additionally, the egg tempera of classical art was a medium that Haley appreciated, and he helped bring the medium to the curriculum at UC Berkeley.

The term Berkeley School came from the notion of different schools of watercolorists represented at the second annual watercolor exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art (Ghent 16). This term defined the linear, graphic paintings that were expressed in gouache, or opaque watercolors. This was the medium that Haley excelled in, and won many prizes and awards. The landscape of California, both rural and urban, was the focus of his work from 1935 to 1941. After two years in the military Haley returned and moved from figuration to pure abstraction (Ghent 18). He began working in oil paint in a figurative manner, and this work was different from all of his previous art.

During the late 50s and 60s, Haley began to create large abstract paintings. These paintings still contained recognizable subjects, marking him different from the majority of other abstract painters. He favored tropical-influenced colors in oil paint, and typically painted in broad brush strokes. He used colors to express moods in his work, and found inspiration in nature. This style of painting stayed with Haley for the rest of his life, and he created numerous abstract pieces that embodied color and form. Haley stated, These color effects seem best when they are not exactly what they appear to be, as when a nondescript palette mixture can become a vibrant color sensation because of its relation to other colors (Ghent 21).

Throughout Haleys career as an artist he found time to work in sculpture, etchings and photography. Haley sometimes would not paint for up to a year in order to pursue these mediums. In the 1960s, he even studied with Ansel Adams (1902-1984). Sculpture was not his primary focus until 1950 when he began to carve large and small pieces, and progressed from figurative cubism to abstraction and a minimalism that was highly reminiscent of his paintings (Ghent 24). Haley collected African sculpture, and although their influence was not found in his paintings he was aware of them in his sculptures.

Haley had worked his entire life by following the new art movements of the times, and excelled in each genre that he worked in. However, after his retirement Haley stopped following art trends. His last creations reflected his basic principles of art and nature, and the harmony that he found in them. His abstract renderings became fewer and far between as he focused more on naturalistic renderings of landscapes and other subject matter. While spending his entire life alternating between different styles and techniques, Haley ultimately refused to be grouped into a specific school.


  • 1905 Born on September 21 in Minneapolis, MN
  • 1920s Studies at the Minneapolis School of Art
  • 1927 Graduates from Minneapolis School of Art and makes first trip to Europes art capitals
  • 1928 Studies in Munich under Hans Hofmann
  • 1928 Returns to the United States in the early summer and becomes faculty at the Minneapolis School of Art
  • 1929 Marries schooldays sweetheart Monica Phares
  • 1929-1930 Learns stained glass techniques
  • 1930 Moves to California where he settled in the San Francisco Bay area and begins teaching at UC Berkeley
  • 1932 Builds a studio in Point Richmond
  • 1933 Rents a house in Virginia City, Nevada and paints in egg tempera
  • 1937 Paints large fresco mural in the Administration Building on Government Island, Alameda, CA
  • 1937 Berkeley School of American watercolor painting labels him as the old master
  • 1942 Begins exhibiting with the California Water Color Society
  • 1943 Drafted into the United States Navy Reserve
  • 1944 Commissioned as a Lieutenant and ordered to Guam
  • 1945 Honorably discharged and returns to teaching position
  • 1950 Puts more emphasis on oil paintings in the abstract expressionist style as well as in sculpture
  • 1953 Spends several months in New York City
  • 1972 Retires from teaching
  • 1991 Dies in Richmond, CA

  • Government Island Administration Building, Oakland, CA
  • IBM Corporation
  • Mills College, Oakland, CA
  • Minneapolis City Hall, MN
  • Oakland Museum of Art, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Art, CA
  • University of California, Berkeley

  • 1926 Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, MN
  • 1931 Mills College Art Gallery
  • 1935 San Francisco Museum of Fine Art, CA
  • 1937 San Francisco Museum of Fine Art, CA
  • 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition
  • 1940 Riverside Museum, NY
  • 1950 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY
  • 1955 Sao Paulo Bienniale, Brazil
  • 1960 Richmond Art Center
  • 1962 M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA
  • 1962 Worth Ryder Art Gallery, U.C. Berkely
  • 1963 California State University, Chico, CA
  • 1963 Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY
  • 1964 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
  • 1965 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
  • 1967 University Art Museum, Berkeley, CA
  • 1974 Four Winds Gallery, Kalamazoo, MI
  • 1975 Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport, CA
  • 1980 M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA
  • 1988 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • 1989 Jan Holloway Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1990 Richmond Museum, Richmond, VA
  • 1995-1996 George Krevsky Fine Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 2002 Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA
  • 2004 California Heritage Museum

  • California Water Color Society
  • San Francisco Art Association
  • WPA/Federal Arts Project

  • 1927 Ethel Morison Van Derlip Scholarship
  • 1936 San Francisco Art Association Purchase Prize
  • 1938 Anne Bremmer Memorial Prize for Roman Forum
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Falk, Peter Hastings. Haley, John Charles. Who Was Who In American Art. p. 1423.
    2. 2. Ghent, Gregory. John Haley, A Retrospective: Richmond Art Center, September 22-November 21, 1993, University Art Gallery, Chico State University, April-May, 1994. Richmond, CA: Richmond Art Center, 1993.
    3. 3. Hughes, Edan Milton. "Haley, John Charles." Artists in California 1786-1940. p. 230.
    4. 4. "John Charles Haley." Ask Art. 10 Mar. 2008.

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