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Frank Tolles Chamberlin (1873 – 1961)

Mack, c. 1939, oil on canvas, 42 x 28 inches, initialed signature lower right, dated “1942” lower right; exhibited: 1) Art Exhibition by California Artists Golden Gate International Exhibition, California Building, Treasure Island, San Francisco, California, May 25 – September 29, 1940, #13 (two labels verso and listed in catalog); and 2) Frank Tolles Chamberlin [Solo Retrospective], Pasadena Art Museum, February 27 – March 27, 1955 (label verso); remnants of another label verso; presented in its original frame


About the Painting

Mack is an important exhibition painting by “the dean” of Southern California artists, Frank Tolles Chamberlin. Los Angeles Times art critic, Arthur Millier, wrote in a glowingly positive review of Chamberlin’s solo retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1955 where Mack was exhibited, “Composure and restraint are evident throughout this lifework . . . His portraits of men, women or children show them poised and calm, pictured with sympathetic insight.” Mack exemplifies Millier’s comments. The sitter impassively stares out from the picture plane with one hand casually resting on his hip. There is nothing fussy or superfluous. Chamberlin portrays his sitter with an economy of brush strokes which mediate between the traditional technique he learned in the early 20th century while a fellow at the American Academy of Rome and a sparer modernism which took hold during the 1930s. As Millier noted, Chamberlin was a “classical yet forward-looking artist.” The Pasadena Art Museum retrospective occurred when Chamberlin was eighty-three years old, so the painter had hundreds (perhaps thousands) of works to choose from when the museum’s director gave Chamberlin the honor of selecting which paintings to include in the exhibition. Chamberlin’s selection of Mack, which was first exhibited in Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1940, demonstrates its importance to the artist as being a work that represented the best he had to offer.

About the Artist

Frank Tolles Chamberlin was an important painter, sculptor, and art instructor. Although born in San Francisco, as a child Chamberlin moved with his family to the eastern United States where he lived in Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. He initially studied with Dwight Tryon at the Wadsworth Atheneum and later at the Art Students league with George de Forest Brush and George Bridgeman. After working as a technical draftsman for an architecture firm, Chamberlin won the Lazarus Scholarship to study at the American Academy of Rome. After three years of study, Chamberlin returned to New York where he painted, sculpted, and started his long career as an art instructor, first at the Beaux Art Institute of Design and then at Columbia University. In 1919, Chamberlin moved to southern California where he taught at the Otis Art Institute and the University of Southern California. With Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard, he co-founded the Chouinard Art Institute. Chamberlin became one of the most important teachers in Southern California, where his students included an impressive list of artists who would go on to define the California aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s, including Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Paul Sample, Milford Zornes, and Tom Craig. Throughout his extensive career, Chamberlin exhibited widely, in the East and Midwest at the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago and in the West at the Los Angele County Museum of Art, the Pasadena Art Museum, and California Watercolor Society, among many others. He worked for the Public Works of Art Project during the Great Depression and completed what Arthur Millier described as California’s finest mural for McKinley Junior High School in Pasadena. Chamberlin is listed in Who Was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


The date “1942” inscribed lower right next to Chamberlin’s initialed signature appears to have been added by the artist after the work’s completion by 1940 when it was shown at the Golden Gate International Exhibition. Given the exhibition labels verso, the title, the exhibition catalog, etc., there is no doubt that this is the painting exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exhibition, as well as the Pasadena retrospective in 1955. It appears that in 1942, the artist repainted the floor tiles in the lower portion of the painting to a more reddish sienna color and added that date. The original brown umber color on the tiles is still visible around the edge of the canvas under the rabbit of the frame.


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