The Arts
February 21-27, 2007

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'Seventeen Mile Ride, Monterey, California'

Down to the sea: Manuel Valencia's 'Seventeen Mile Ride, Monterey, California' captures a quieter time on the Central Coast.

Californio Strokes

History San Jose rediscovers Manuel Valencia, an early California artist with deep roots

By Michael S. Gant

IN a card from 1912 announcing a sale of his works in San Francisco, painter Manuel Valencia informed his potential clients, "After six years of exile in San Jose, I have returned to San Francisco." Even when San Jose rediscovers a significant artist with local ties, it turns out that he couldn't wait to get away.

The great earthquake of 1906 drove Valencia, the subject of a new exhibit at History Park, to his exile on Vine Street in San Jose. While he lived here, Valencia was well regarded enough to be put in charge of the art gallery at the 1912 Santa Clara County Fair, where he also won a first prize for his watercolors, although oils were his preferred medium. Unfortunately, the show contains only one painting of this area, Adobe, San Jose, First Capital, a small, moody oil on board.

Although he has flown under the radar of most histories of California painting, Valencia deserves a fresh look. His work can be uneven, but the ordinary genre paintings are balanced by some very evocative landscapes that fit easily into the mainstream of California impressionism.

A descendant of one of the pioneer families that settled California in the Anza-Moraga expedition of the 1770s, Valencia was born, in 1856, near what is now San Rafael. His lineage makes him, as Julie Armistead, the exhibit's curator writes in the catalog, "certainly one of California's first native-born artists." Valencia attended Santa Clara College, although most accounts indicate that he was largely self-taught as an artist.

One contemporary account states that Valencia "ignores academic rules and paints his pictures face to face with his subjects." Unlike many California artists who achieved prominence in the late 19th century, Valencia never studied salon painting in Paris, the usual standard for recognition. He supposedly worked with Jules Tavernier, the French artist who inspired the San Francisco Bohemians, circa 1874-1884. Valencia's Alameda at Eventide uses one of Tavernier's favorite motifs: buildings and trees silhouetted against a very deep golden sunset, when the last light of day is almost entirely extinguished.

With a large family to feed, Valencia worked tirelessly, doing illustrations for San Francisco newspapers and selling paintings through Gump's department store. As a landscape artist, Valencia worked some familiar territory, from the high Sierra to Mt. Tamalpais to the 17-Mile Drive in Monterey. A tall vertical View of Yosemite Valley shows a shimmering Half Dome in the distance and a trio of tiny Native Americans treading a very pastoral trail into the valley. It closely resembles a Yosemite canvas (now at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford) by William Keith, the elder statesman of California artists.

Some of Valencia's rural visions of meandering rivers and contented cows run together without a strong sense of place. But he was capable of startling effects. Alameda Marshes and Oakland Estuary, circa 1888, leads the eye across an expanse of wetlands to a distant horizon line dotted with dark-blue spires that look to modern eyes like parts of an industrial plant but are actually ship's masts.

The Customs House, a 1910 view of the Monterey landmark, shows the adobe walls shadowed in blue underneath a gorgeous night sky dotted with stars. The painting equals the best work of Charles Rollo Peters, the most famous purveyor of California nocturnes. Valencia was a particularly sensitive recorder of the faded glory of California's missions. The Cemetery, Mission San Luis Rey and Ruins of Carmel Mission both evince a palpable longing for a lost era. Valencia stands between the architectural views of early mission artists like Edwin Deakin and Henry Chapman Ford and the hyperromanticizing of more-renowned mission artists like Guy Rose, Franz A. Bischoff and Alson Clark, who were born a decade or more after Valencia and had European schooling. Although he lived until 1935, Valencia may have been born too soon.

Manuel Valencia: California's Native Son shows through May 27 in the Pasetta House, History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose.

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