Painter John Marshall Gamble contributed significantly to the early California art scene. His paintings of lush hillsides decorated with vibrant lupines, poppies, mustard, lilacs, sage, and buckwheat have come to symbolize a bucolic picture of the California landscape at the turn of the century.
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On November 25, 1863, John Marshall Gamble was born in Morristown, New Jersey. When he was a teenager, he moved with his family to Auckland, New Zealand. At age 20, he traveled to San Francisco, where he began his art training at the San Francisco School of Design under the painters Virgil William (1830-1886) and Emil Carlsen (1853-1932). In order to support himself, he took odd jobs, even working as a court typist and cafeteria chef.
In 1890, he left San Francisco to pursue portrait and figure studies at the Academies Julian and Colarossi in Paris. There, he was trained by French artists Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921) and Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902). For many American artists, the Academies Julian and Colarossi were favorable alternatives to the government funded Ecole des Beaux Arts. They had a higher rate of admittance and were far less conservative than the art schools in America. While a student in Paris, Gamble was able to paint and draw the nude model for the first time.
In 1893, Gamble returned to San Francisco. Well versed in both American and European traditions, he opened a studio and embarked on a career as a professional artist. For over thirteen years, he maintained national popularity and a modest income as a painter of wildflowers. He regularly had works on display at the San Francisco Art Association as well as the Philadelphia Art Club and the American Watercolor Society in New York City.
On April 16, 1906, Gamble’s career hit a turning point. That morning at 5:12 am a massive earthquake shook San Francisco for over 60 seconds, leaving many buildings in shambles. As destructive as the earthquake was, the resulting fires were far more devastating. In the end, over 500 city blocks were destroyed and thousands of people either seriously injured or dead. Though Gamble was unharmed, his studio completely burned to the ground, including all of its contents. According to his inventory, only three paintings that were out on loan to an art dealer survived.
For several years, Gamble had already been making annual sketching trips to Southern California. With no studio or inventory left in San Francisco, he ultimately decided to move to Los Angeles, where his artist friend Elmer Watchel was already established. During his trip south, Gamble made a fateful stop in Santa Barbara on Christmas Eve. Astonished by the beauty of the region and its Mediterranean climate, he altered his arrangements and settled permanently in the “American Riviera.”
In 1908, he traveled to Paris for a second time and also toured the Middle East. Upon his return to Santa Barbara, he stopped in the Grand Canyon and local desert areas to paint. By the 1920s, he was enjoying national success and even became known as the “Dean of Santa Barbara Artists.”
When a devastating earthquake struck Santa Barbara in 1925, Gamble was thankful to find his studio in tact. As many buildings were destroyed, the City established an Architectural Board of Review with Gamble as their color consultant. Like many residents of Santa Barbara, he felt that it was his duty to rebuild the city that he fell in love with and that provided him with so much artistic inspiration. For nearly twenty-five years, he continued to serve on the Architectural Board of Review and even participated in the decoration of the faux Spanish villa for the interior of the historic (Fox) Arlington Theater.
In 1929, he joined the faculty of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts as teacher of advanced landscape and sketching, along with his artist friend Belmore Browne (1880-1954). In his later years, his eyesight began to fail, forcing him to paint less often and postpone his annual sketching trips. On April 7, 1957, he died from a brief illness at the age of 93.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“The situation of Santa Barbara is one of extraordinary beauty. With such a canvas to paint upon Nature has here presented a wonderful picture.”
–Leila Weeks Wilson, “Santa Barbara, The Artists’ Paradise,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 15, 1922.
It was a chance of fate that John Gamble ended up in the “Artists’ Paradise” on that auspicious Christmas Eve of 1906. Untouched by industrial development, Santa Barbara and its environs presented Gamble with all the resources he needed to become one of the greatest painters of the early California landscape. Hillsides, canyons and coasts provided the background to his canvases, while native California lupines, poppies, mustard, lilacs, sage, and buckwheat illuminated the foreground of his pictures. Painted in golds, purples, and oranges, his wildflowers express the truthful beauty of California in the springtime.
Though he also excelled at painting the figure, Nature consumed his career. As Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote in 1927, “After all, why should a man living in a divine climate by a dreamy sea bother his head about the titanic forces that mold the age when he might dine in a Spanish patio and rest under peaceful oaks and paint poppy fields like John Gamble?” The artist never struggled to receive critical acclaim for his paintings and even had difficulty in meeting public demand.
To Gamble, the California wildflower was more than a botanical object; it was a unique design of Nature. He once stated, “ I never painted them as flowers at all. I didn’t even think of them as flowers while I was painting. They were just color patches to me. I simply liked the way they designed themselves across the field.” For Gamble, color is as much the subject of his paintings as is nature. His pastel green and purple backgrounds are delicately balanced with complimentary blue, orange and yellow wildflowers. His talent for color placement was widely known and even earned him the post as the color consultant for the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review.
Gamble was not only an acclaimed painter, but also a critical figure of the Santa Barbara art community. When Gamble arrived in Santa Barbara, he came at a moment when the art community was just beginning to flourish. Artists such as Thomas Moran, N.A., Colin Campbell Cooper, N.A., and Edward Borein, among others all were either living in or frequently visiting the region. Gamble himself was an original member of the Santa Barbara Art Club as well as an influential teacher at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Together, these artists helped to establish Santa Barbara as a notable arts community. At the time of his death, the Los Angeles Times honored Gamble as the “best-known painter of California wild flowers in landscape.”
1863 Born on November 25 in Morristown, NJ
1883 Moved to San Francisco to study art
1886 Entered the San Francisco School of Design
1890 Traveled to Paris and enrolled at the Academies Julian and Colarossi
1893 Returned to San Francisco and opened a studio
1906 Studio is destroyed by earthquake and ensuing fire on April 18. Stays permanently in Santa Barbara en route to Los Angeles.
1908 Traveled to Paris
1909 Toured the Middle East
1910 Returned to the States and painted at the Grand Canyon
1925 Earthquake on June 29 destroys much of Santa Barbara’s architecture. Gamble is elected to the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review.
1929 Began teaching at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts
1957 Died on April 7, 1957 in Santa Barbara, CA
Auckland Museum, New Zealand
California Historical Society, CA
Crocker Museum, Sacramento, CA
Fleischer Museum, Scottsdale, AZ
Irvine Museum, CA
Museum of Art, Auckland, New Zealand
Oakland Museum, CA
Santa Barbara Historical Society, CA
The Boggs Collection, Shasta State Historic Park, CA
1889-1902 California State Fair
1891-1906 San Francisco Art Association, CA
1894 California Midwinter International Exposition
1896-7 Mechanics’ Institute, San Francisco, CA
1898, 1906 Mark Hopkins Institute, CA
1904 Bohemian Club, NY
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, LA
1907-1912 Del Monte Art Gallery, Monterey, CA
1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, WA
1910-12, 1916 Kanst Gallery, CA
1916 San Francisco Art Association, CA
1924 Leonards Gallery, Hollywood, CA
1925 Ebell Club, Los Angeles, CA
1925 Cannell-Chafflin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1927 Santa Barbara Art League, CA
1927 Biltmore Salon, Los Angeles, CA
1935 Public Library, Palos Verdes Estates
1938 Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles, CA
1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition, CA
American Federation of Arts
Foundation of Western Artists
San Francisco Art Association
Santa Barbara Art Association
1909 Gold Medal, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, WA
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- 2. Falk, Peter Hastings ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. II. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
- 3. Millier, Arthur. “Of Art and Artists.” Los Angeles Times. June 5, 1927. pg. 35.
- 4. Millier, Arthur. “Of Art and Artists.” Los Angeles Times. June 29, 1924. pg. B26.
- 5. “News and Views of Art.” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 1957. pg. E12.
- 6. “Rebuilding of Mission to be Urged.” Los Angeles Times. April 4, 1926. pg. B2.
- 7. Southern California Artists 1890-1940. Laguna Beach Museum of Art, 1979.
- 8. Stern, Jean. “John Marshall Gamble.” In Plein Air Painters of California: The North. Ed. Ruth Lilly Westphal. Irvine, CA: Westphal Publishing, 1998.
- 9. Wilson, Leila Weeks. “Santa Barbara, The Artists’ Paradise.” Los Angles Times. pg. VIII23.