April 17, 2019

A Phoenix Rises: Art Goes On


A Phoenix Rises: Art Goes On

We are once again upon the anniversary of the Great Earthquake that erupted underneath San Francisco in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, with an estimated 7.7 to 7.9 magnitude. Along with the earthquake, multiple fires ignited that destroyed much of the city over the next three days taking with them over 3,000 lives. The loss of cultural heritage was staggering: artists, photographers, and other craftsmen lost decades of work held within their studios, shops, and homes. Photographer Carleton Watkins, elderly and largely blind, was pictured being led away from a darkened, burning street, mere days before much of the contents of his studio would have shipped to Palo Alto for permanent transfer to the museum at Stanford University. Inestimable numbers of fine artworks, antiquities, and other objects of cultural, historic, and scientific value were also lost when the homes of patrons and residents, and other cultural institutions and libraries were reduced to ruins and ash.

And still, San Francisco was being creatively documented. Photographers, who largely captured the ongoing devastation, were joined by fellow artists who drew and painted the structural wreckage left behind and the subsequent reconstruction of a port town that had burgeoned to some 400,000 population by early 1906. In History’s Anteroom – Photography in San Francisco 1906-1909, by Rodger Birt and Marvin Nathan (2011), the intense transformation is surveyed.

Within their book is a photograph of a man quietly seated at his easel and painting the remains of City Hall. The artist, Charles Albert Rogers (American, 1848-1918), trained in New York and later in Europe. He arrived in San Francisco in the late 1870s where he began producing regional landscapes, portraits, and city scenes. Some 150 works were lost when his studio was destroyed in the fire, yet within a very short time he was already back at work. The canvas, shown here, is in the collection of the California Historical Society. While small in size it clearly delineates the distinctive entablature supported by two surviving columns and towering above the bulky ruins behind it. Though initially unknown, Rogers was ultimately identified within the photograph when CHS displayed this painting in the exhibition, A Century of Landscapes: Selections from the California Art Club (July-September, 2011).

Charles Albert Rogers (American, 1848-1918)
S.F. [San Francisco] – City Hall, May 1906
Oil on canvas, 20 x 11 -1/2 inches

The photographer who captured Rogers at work remains unidentified. A copy of History’s Anteroom is available for viewing in CHS’s Reference Library.

1. https://seismo.berkeley.edu/outreach/1906_quake.html
2. Photograph of Carleton E. Watkins [with cane, during aftermath of earthquake, April 18, 1906] is in the collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Please see: http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/13030/bh/hb6h4nb5bh/files/hb6h4nb5bh-FID4.jpg
3. Nickel, Douglas R. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. NY: Harry N. Abrams / SFMOMA, 1999. “The Art of Perception.” p. 33 (Note 1).
4. http://www.sfgenealogy.org/sf/history/hgpop.htm
5. Birt, Rodger C., and Nathan, Marvin. History’s Anteroom – Photography in San Francisco 1906-1909. San Francisco: William Stout Publishers, 2011 (p.36). Image of [Charles Albert Rogers] painting the ruins of San Francisco City Hall is featured online by https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/artist-san-francisko-earthquake-1906/
Written by Cheryl Maslin, Registrar at California Historical Society

California Historical Society; accession 68-75-1-2