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California Art Club & Merrell Gage

Apr 3, 2017

The California Art Club, headquartered in Pasadena, has nine chapter locations up and down the state.

In 1909, the Painters’ Club of Los Angeles formally ended, yet some members believed that a need existed still for “artists living in Southern California to meet and share their ideas, and to exhibit together.” In this version of the club invitations to join spread beyond state lines, artists other than painters were welcome, and the club was no longer constricted by allowing only male members. The second meeting of the club was held at the home of Franz Bischoff at 320 Pasadena Avenue in South Pasadena, where a constitution was adopted “so that the club can send its exhibitions over a circuit of cities in California.”

It’s first exhibition was held during the first two months of 1911, finding initial gallery space at Hotel Ivins at Figueroa and 10th Streets.

 

Hotel Ivins.

 

Over the past 108 years, CAC exhibitions have been held at the Biltmore Hotel, Brand Library in Glendale (initially home to Leslie Brand and named El Miradero), the lovely Bullock’s Wilshire, the old Ambassador Hotel, and Pasadena’s Hotel Green.

 

 

Honorary members of California Art Club include Aline Barnsdall, Edgar Alwin Payne, Tom Wolfe, Daphne Huntington, and Winston Churchill.

 

Aline Barnsdall, circa 1916. Photo by Norman Karasick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


CAC member Robert Merrell Gage was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1892.

After studying sculpture with Borglum and Robert Henri in New York and France, Gage returned to Kansas and according to the Kansas Historical Society…

In 1916, the young sculptor set up shop in a barn behind his house on Fillmore Street and began his first public commission, the magnificent statue of Lincoln that rests on the Kansas State Capitol grounds. Deeply impressed by the writings of Walt Whitman and the example of Abraham Lincoln, Gage portrayed and interpreted the freedom and dignity of the American experience through the medium of his art. After a stint in the armed services during World War I, Gage began a teaching career at Washburn and at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Gutzom Borglum, the man who carved the famous figures on Mount Rushmore, called Robert Merrell Gage “that steady-eyed young sculptor,” and from those steady eyes came a vision of art that spoke of strong values, American values, Kansan values. An alumni of the most sophisticated art schools, Robert Merrell Gage turned for subject matter to the basics of American history, the stories of the western struggle, and the lives of heroes of the American soul.

 

 

 

Gage and his wife moved to California in 1924 with his wife so he could teach at USC as a Professor of Fine Arts until his retirement in 1958.

Around 1928, Merrell Gage created six decorative stone panels for the South Pasadena Public Library for its remodeling and enlargement in 1930. The panels portrayed classic scenes from literature such as David and his sling, Perseus with the head of Medusa, Don Quixote and a windmill, an American Native (perhaps Hiawatha), Rip Van Winkle, and Hamlet. He also created two shields for above the main entrance: the coat of arms the City of South Pasadena and the California bear. No one at the library with whom we spoke knew what had happened to the majority of the panels.

Gage’s “most magnificent creation,” The Children’s Hour depicts an image of a father reading to his daughters. Along the edge is an excerpt from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of the same name: “Comes a Pause in the Day’s Occupation That’s Known as the Children’s Hour.”

 

 

We’ve read that this panel was 1) broken during a library expansion in 1981, 2) encased and embedded into the ground, 3) harmed by the effects of a sago palm, and 4) survived a fire at the South Pasadena Public Works Yard where it had been stored for safe keeping. Thankfully, The Children’s Hour was restored thanks to the South Pasadena City Council and the estate of Martin Mullen, a local English teacher, and finally hung above the brick patio by the Library’s main entrance in 2014.

 

Merrell Gage, St. George and the Dragon.

 

 

Merrell Gage’s Spanish galleon.

 

Other famous works by Gage include his bust of Walt Whitman and John Brown at the Mulvane Art Institute and his Lincoln the Lawyer at 1st and Grand in downtown LA, which was made and originally dedicated in 1961. It was gifted to renowned Supervisor Kenneth Hahn…

 

 

Gage’s Electric Fountain in Beverly Hills “displayed 60 different combinations of water jets and color combinations every eight minutes.… When it debuted in 1931, the fountain backed up traffic for miles.”

 

 

Gage made a Hollywood splash too. In 1955, Edward Freed directed The Face of Lincoln, a short documentary film. Gage sculpts a bust of Abraham Lincoln while telling the story of his life. The Face of Lincoln won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) in 1956.

 

Gage with Lincoln life mask.

 

 

“We know what Lincoln looked like; we have his life mask… taken 30 days before his inauguration for the presidency. This gives us the exact proportion of Lincoln’s features. It is a difficult face for the artist because it is based on two curves. It not only curves from the crown of the head through the forehead and back into the chin, but it also curves off to the righthand side about 3/8ths of an inch. That makes the two sides very different.”

“On this left side, it’s stretched, giving it that shrewd, firm look we associate with Lincoln’s legal ability.”

 

 

“While this side the relaxed muscle produced a protruding lower lip; the droop in the corner of the mouth. This is the gentler side of Lincoln, the humanitarian and the philosopher.”

 

 

 

To hear Gage, listen to an oral history interview in 1964. This may be accessed in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

 

Watch the Academy Award-winning The Face of Lincoln (in 2 parts):

 


 

~~~

 

Source material:
Merrell Gage: Southern California’s Iconic 20th Century Sculptor” by Steve Fjeldsted, South Pasadena City librarian, The Friends of South Pasadena Library.
CaliforniaArtClub.org.
Smithsonian Institute, Archives of American Art.
Kansas State Historical Society/robert-merrell-gage.
PublicArtinLA.com.
PublicArtInLA/Electric-Fountain
FordTheatres.org.

 

 




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