John Langley Howard was a revolutionary regionalist painter known for depicting labor and industry in California as well as his reverence for the natural world. Howard took a strong stance on social and environmental issues and used his art to communicate his strong emotional response toward each of his subjects.
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John Langley Howard was born in 1902 into a respected family of artists and architects. His father, John Galen Howard relocated the family to California in 1904 to become campus architect of the University of California, Berkeley. It was only after attending the very same campus his father helped to create, that Howard suddenly decided he wanted to pursue a career as an artist and not an engineer as previously planned. Following this decision, Howard enrolled in the California Guild of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and then transferred to the Arts Students’ League in New York City.
At the school, he met Kenneth Hayes Miller who supported Howard’s attitude because the “taught the bare rudiments of painting and composition, and stressed the cultivation of the ultra-sensitive, intuitive approach” (Hailey 56). After saving his money, Howard travelled to Paris for six months to seek out his own artistic philosophy. However, it quickly became apparent to Howard that he placed more value on pure talent than professional training. In 1924, Howard left art school to pursue his career and marry his first wife, Adelaide Day. He had his first one-person exhibition at the Modern Gallery in San Francisco in 1927. Shortly after, he attempted portraiture.
Following the start of the Depression, Howard found himself appalled by the social conditions and began to follow “his own brand of Marxism.” Howard and his wife began to attend meetings of the Monterey John Reed Club, discussing politics and social concerns. Soon, the artist became determined to communicate society’s needs for the betterment of the future. His landscapes began to include industry and its effects to the surrounding region. In 1934, Howard was hired through the New Deal Public Works Art Project to create a mural for the inside of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco depicting California industry. The project called for twenty-seven artists to be hired to paint frescos inside the newly erected monument funded by philanthropist Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Each artist was to depict a scene central to California living, including industry, agriculture, law, and street scenes of San Francisco.
Howard’s completed fresco drew notorious attention for showing an unemployed worker reading Marxist materials, a gathered group of unemployed workers, and a man panning for gold while watching a wealthy couple outside of their limousine. In a nearby mural by Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985), Howard himself was used as a model. He is shown crumpling a newspaper and grabbing a Marxist book from a library shelf. This soon led to the artists being linked to a local group of striking dock workers. They were accused of attempting to lead a Communist revolution. Howard’s murals as well as the work of Clifford Wight (1900-1960) and Zakheim became highly scrutinized, and the uproar over the works led to a delay in opening Coit Tower. In order to protect their work from being defaced or completely destroyed, the muralists chose to sleep outside the tower. The SF Art Commission ultimately cancelled the opening of Coit Tower as a result of the controversy and did not open it until months later.
During this time, Howard relocated his family to Santa Fe, New Mexico citing his son’s health concerns for almost two years before returning to Monterey in 1940. Following the onset of World War II, he had a renewed interest in landscape and soon ceased to include social commentary within his work, thus removing the human figure from his paintings. The artist divorced his first wife in 1949. In 1951, Howard’s art took another turn when the artist painted The Rape of the Earth which rallied against the destruction of nature by technology, making Howard one of the first “eco-artists.” During the same year he also married sculptor Blanche Phillips (1908-1976). He began illustrating for Scientific American Magazine and used this medium to refine his technique.
Howard’s landscapes began turning to “magic realism” or “poetic realism” as Howard preferred to call it. This method is described as the use of naturalistic images and forms “to suggest relationships that cannot always be directly described in words” (Aldrich 184). His aim was to communicate a poetic and spiritual connection with the landscape depicted. Overall, Howard lived in more than 20 different locations during his career.
In 1997, Howard attended the dedication of Pioneer Park at Coit Tower and was the only surviving member of the twenty-seven muralists included in the original project. The murals were restored by the City of San Francisco in 1990 after water damage and age dictated the need for restoration. Howard died at the age of 97 in his sleep at his Potrero Hill home in 1999.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“I think of painting as poetry and I think of myself as a representational poet. I want to describe my subject minutely, but I also way to describe my emotional response to it…what I’m doing is making a self-portrait in a peculiar kind of way.” – John Langley Howard
John Langley Howard was widely considered a wanderer and a free spirit. While Howard did receive academic training from the California Guild of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the Arts Students’ League in New York City, he chose to align himself with instructors whose opinions of art education matched his predetermined beliefs. These teachers included Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952) who valued an analytical, bare bones approach to art instruction and supported greater personal development of intuitive talent. Howard expressed this viewpoint stating that:
“I want everything to be meaningful in a descriptive way. I want expression and at the same time I want to control it down to a gnat’s eyebrow. I identify with my subject. I empathize with my subject” (Moss 62).
In the 1920s, Howard became known as a Cezanne-influenced landscape artist and portraitist. Tempera, oil, and etching became his primary media while his subject matter turned to poetic and often spiritually infused imagery which would resurface later in his career. Earth tones and very small brushstrokes were utilized, allowing Howard to refine his images.
Howard exhibited frequently with his brothers Charles Howard (1899-1978) and Robert Howard (1896-1983). Critic Jehanne Bietry wrote of their joint Galerie Beaux Arts show that: “of (the Howard brothers), John Langley is the poet, the mystic and the most complex…there predominates in his work a certain quality, an element of sentiment that escapes definition but is the unmistakable trait by which one recognizes deeper art” (Hailey 60). It is significant that a critic would accurately take note of Howard artistic aims at such an early stage because what Bietry describes ultimately became the primary focus of Howard’s career.
Howard experienced a dramatic change in medium when he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Coit Tower WPA project in 1934. The project was Howard’s first and only mural and provided the artist with an outlet for his newly discovered Marxist social beliefs. While Howard supported a political agenda rather explicitly in his image, his focus on deeper subject matter permeates throughout the work. Most important to Howard is “the idea of human conflict that [he] pictorializes and deplores – man’s tragic flaw manifest again in this particular situation” (Nash 79). Howard’s work had progressed steadily into the realm of social realism until the backlash against the Coit Tower murals led him in a new direction.
Howard abandoned explicit statements of social commentary and returned to his roots as a landscape painter. However, this did not prevent the artist from illustrating important issues because he then became one of the first “eco-artists.” Through his painting, Howard investigated the role of technology on the environment and used the San Francisco Bay Area as well as Monterey to demonstrate his point of view. He continued following his original artistic tendencies by delving into “magic realism” or “poetic realism” which utilized the spiritual connection that Howard sought to find within his work. Art critic Henrietta Shore recognized the balance that Howard achieved within his work, stating that he “is modern in that he is progressive, yet his work proves that he does not discard the traditions from which all fine art has grown” (Hailey 65). Overall, Howard’s career presents a unique portrait of individual expression and spiritual exploration.
1902 Born in Montclair, New Jersey
1920 Enrolls as an Engineering major at UC Berkeley
1922 Realizes he wants to be an artist
1923-24 Attends Art Students’ League in New York
1924 Leaves art school
1924 Marries first wife, Adelaide Day
1927 First one-person exhibition held at The Modern Gallery, San Francisco
1928 First child, Samuel born
1930 Daughter Anne born
1934 Commissioned to Paint Coit Tower mural, San Francisco
1940 Studies ship drafting and worked as a ship drafter during World War II
1942 Serves as air raid warden in Mill Valley, CA
1949 Divorces his first wife
1950 Teaches at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco
1951 Marries second wife, sculptor Blanche Phillips
1951 Moves to Mexico
1951 Paints The Rape of the Earth communicating his eco-friendly stance
1953-1965 Illustrates for Scientific American magazine
1958 Teaches at Pratt Institute Art School, Brooklyn, NY
1965 Moves to Hydra, Greece
1967 Moves to London
1970 Returns to California
1979 Blanche Phillips dies
1980 Marries Mary McMahon Williams
1999 Died in his sleep at home San Francisco, California
California Palace of the Legion of Honor, CA
City of San Francisco, CA
IBM Building, New York, NY
The Oakland Museum, CA
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
Security Pacific National Bank Headquarters, Los Angeles, CA
Springfield Museum of Fine Arts
University of Utah, UT
1927 Modern Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1928 Beaux Arts Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1928 East-West Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1928-51 San Franciso Art Association, CA
1935 Paul Elder Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1936 Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
1936 Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Treasure Island, CA
1939 Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
1941 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1943 Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
1943 M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA
1946-47 Whitney Museum, NY
1947 Rotunda Gallery, City of Paris, San Francisco, CA
1952 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1956 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
1973 Capricorn Asunder Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1974 Lawson Galleries, San Francisco, CA
1976 de Saisset Art Gallery and Museum, CA
1982 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Rental Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1983 California Academy of Sciences, CA
1983 Monterey Museum of Art, CA
1986 Charles Campbell Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1987 Martina Hamilton Gallery, NY
1988 Oakland Museum, CA
1989 Tobey C. Moss Gallery, CA
1991 M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA
1992 Tobey C. Moss Gallery, CA
1993 Tobey C. Moss Gallery, CA
California Society of Mural Painters’ and Writers’ and Artists’ Union
Carmel Art Association
Club Beaux Arts
San Francisco Art Association
Society of Mural Painters
Marin Society of Artists
Monterey John Reed Club
Anne Bremer Memorial Award for Painting, San Francisco Art Association
First Prize, Pepsi-Cola Annual “Portrait of America”
First Prize, San Francisco Art Association
Award, City of San Francisco Art Festival
Citation for Merit, Society of Illustrators, New York
- 1. Aldrich, Linda. “John Langley Howard.” American Scene Painting: California, 1930s and 1940s. Irvine, Westphal Publishing: 1991.
- 2. Hailey, Gene. “John Langley Howard…Biography and Works.” California Art Research Monographs, v. 17, p.54-92. San Francisco: Works Progress Administration: 1936-1937.
- 3. Moss, Stacey. The Howards, First Family of Bay Area Modernism. Oakland Museum: 1988.
- 4. Nash, Steven A. Facing Eden: 100 Years of Landscape Art in Bay Area. University of California Press: 1995.
IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST