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Russell Chatham: Drawn by the Mystery Exhibit 3

About the Exhibit

The “Russell Chatham: Drawn by the Mystery” exhibit took place from November 27, 2020 through March 13, 2021 at the Bozeman Art Museum at 2612 W Main Street Suite B in Bozeman, Montana. The exhibit was made possible by the generous loans of artwork by so many collectors of the work of Russell Chatham. The story of Chatham’s career is told in the context of his familial inspiration and influence beginning with his grandfather, Gottardo Piazzoni and his maternal uncle, Maurice Del Mue. The rich history is told in the paintings, both gouache and oil, etchings and lithographs. His DVD “Deep Creek” was a familiar sound in the gallery as he told the story of creating his elegant lithograph. We hope you enjoyed learning more about the Montana treasure- Russell Chatham.


Gallery of Exhibited Works


Exhibit Walkthrough

Virtual visit to the exhibit

Gottardo Fidele Piazzoni (1872-1945)

Swiss-born American landscape painter, muralist and sculptor of Italian heritage, Piazzoni was a key member of the school of Northern California artists in the early 1900s.

Trained with Arthur Frank Mathews at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and 3 years in Paris at the Académie Julian and under Jean-Leon Gerome. Then he returned to California to begin his career and set up his own teaching studio. With his muted palette and specializing in landscapes, Piazzoni is considered a tonalist. He took a special interest in full moonrises, keeping exacting records of times of the moonrise. 

Piazzoni’s best known public work is his 14 murals done for the former headquarters of the San Francisco Public Library for architect George W Kilhern, 10 of them dating from 1932, the other 4 painted in 1945 but not installed until the 1970s. After public debate and lawsuits in the late 1990s, the 10 principal murals can now be seen at the M H DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Piazzoni was a good friend of impressionist painter Granville Redmond and introduced the deaf-mute artist to Charlie Chaplin. The relationship of the three is explored in a play by Steve Hauk, “The Floating Hat”. Amoung his students were George Post, Rinaldo Cuneo, Dorr Bothwell and Clayton Sumner Price.

American landscape painter Mireille Piazzoni Wood was Piazzoni’s daughter, painter-writer Phillip Wood was his son-in-law, and artists Thomas Wood and Russell Chatham were his grandsons.

Maurice Del Mue (1875-1955)

Born in Paris, Del Mue emigrated to the United States at age 7. He was trained at the San Francisco Art Association and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Del Mue began his career as an illustrator in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1920s.  As a commercial artist he invented the Arm and Hammer baking soda box, the eagle for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company and the familiar yellow-robed figure on the Hills Brothers coffee can. He designed posters for Foster and Kleiser until 1941, when he established his studio in Forest Knolls, Marin County and joined the Society of Marin Artists. He painted murals at Tamalpais High School, the College of Marin and the officers lounge of the Hamilton Army Airfield. 

Del Mue died on January 24, 1955 in Forest Knolls at the age of 79. He has one painting in the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was the maternal uncle of Russell Chatham. 

Russell Chatham: Drawn by the Mystery

As a 2 year old, Russell Chatham remembered being enthralled and mystified by a painting by his grandfather Gottardo Piazzoni called The Soil. By the time he was 16 or 17 he had painted several hundred versions of the painting himself. Deceptive simplicity, The Soil “is wholly without artifice, its only motive an absolute love of the earth. The painting is random, sublime and plain; tragically and mysteriously beautiful. It utterly defies explanation” Chatham said. His actual memories of “Papa” are few. Each summer the family went to the family ranch in the Carmel Valley, which Papa’s grandfather had settled when he came over from Switzerland by way of Australia around 1860.

His strongest memory of Papa- his death- occurred when Chatham was 5 years old. Complaining of an insect bite, Piazzoni finished his breakfast, looked at Russell with an expression of mild surprise, said “Goodbye and fell forward. The room filled with screaming voices and his sensing of the room filling with spirits, come to bear away his soul.”

Between the ages of 9 and 19 he painted but felt that nothing ever looked the way he thought it should. As to school- he simply didn’t want to be there. His mother’s uncle, Maurice Del Mue, lived near them and they visited him a couple times a week. He was poor and suffered from tuberculosis, so they brought him groceries. Chatham saw a control in Del Mue’s paintings that he lacked but realized that Del Mue’s paintings fell short of Piazzoni’s because he chose his subjects indiscriminately and injected a bit of false drama. He was not in love with his subjects and was not trying to reveal their inner life, their mystery. He lacked sensitivity, commitment and passion. Del Mue died when Chatham was 14. Chatham inherited his palette, palette knife, sketch box, easel and a few of his brushes.

Chatham was drawn to fishing and hunting and discovered museums and galleries. He saw a Van Gogh exhibition at 17 and was moved and inspired to try heavy impasto in his own work. Then he turned to studying his grandfather’s work more deeply. From it he realized the work was “tragically beautiful, filled with longing, hope and the presence of divinity.” He also noticed the work was “unconventional”, especially in 3 aspects- personality-revealed through brushstrokes and style, sound knowledge of his craft and third, the work was permeated with deep love of his subjects. 

He decided to go back to the College of Marin to try some art classes. Here he would meet and marry Doris Meyer, art history, drawing and printmaking professor. Daughter Gina was born but the marriage did not last. Years of struggle and comradery with other artists led to a deepening of his understanding of painting. 

He built a camper for the 1949 Chevrolet pickup truck his father and uncle gave him and lived in it for two years with his second wife, Mary Fanning. Each worked 3 days a week to pay for food and gas and have time to paint and fish. Fishing was a large part of Chatham’s life having caught a world record striped bass. This led him to write for outdoor magazines like “Field and Stream”. Northern California in 1970 was becoming unaffordable. While living in Bolinas in 1967 he had made friends with 2 fishermen and fledgling writers, Tom McGuane and Gatz Hjortsberg. McGuane had a small ranch in Livingston, Montana and Chatham went to see him there in the fall of 1971. McGuane mentioned a ranch house for rent at the head of Deep Creek which Chatham wanted instantly. In April of 1972 he arrived with Mary, 2-month-old Lea and $5 to their names.

The Montana landscape baffled him so he painted California from memory. He made his first sketch of Montana in the late summer of 1972. He didn’t try again for two years. He wrote and tried to sell a collection of essays “The Angler’s Coast” on his first trip to New York. He visited a number of museums and galleries. Returning home to Montana he began to paint. Success was hard fought and Mary left. Chatham began spending winters back in Marin county. 

In November of 1980 he went to France for a month. Third wife, Suzanne, provided a rational influence to his life and added two more children- Rebecca and Paul. He started Rebecca Fine Art to oversee the production and distribution of original prints and a second company, Clark City Press, to oversee the printing of his writing and others. Chatham lithographs may have 30 to 40 different layers of color, all of which have to be hand drawn on to the printing plate. 

In 2011 Chatham moved from Livingston back to California. He died November 10, 2019 at the age of 80.

Some Thoughts on the Work of Russell Chatham

“Chatham’s paintings of limitless horizons, dreamlike bays, and moonscapes are both glowing and austere, evanescent and refined.” 

-Moira Hodgson, critic, author & editor, Vanity Fair

“Chatham’s reputation deservedly rests with his exquisite landscapes, those mysterious and melancholy evocations of the world around us. Viewing these paintings is a blessing. Through them we learn that what seems ordinary is truly extraordinary, worthy of wonder and celebration.”

 -William Hjortsberg, novelist & screenwriter

“It is a very nervous affair, this coaxing of twilight over the hayfield, making it glimmer up from the river, this scattering of final light over the hills like the distant glow of burning cities. The painting becomes translucent, dimensional, a landscape seen behind the eyes: it is like looking at a memory, something sweet, and serene, and maybe a little sad. We cannot look at the land, these northern Rockies, without seeing a Chatham painting, without sharing his cool and luminescent vision.”

 -Tim Cahill, contributing editor, Rolling Stone

“As for myself, in the end I think that Chatham’s paintings are like truly fine tools. Just having them around gives you a kind of confidence, maybe even makes you feel a little bit brave, a little bit smarter than usual.”

 -Terry McDonell, assistant managing editor, Newsweek

“Painting to me is poetry…I couldn’t tell you what the poetic feeling is that I get with a landscape, but I just know it’s there. A painting should be a poem, a thing which cannot be translated out of its original state: it is what it is. The origin of a true painting is the spirit, the soul of the painter.”

-Russell Chatham, artist & writer

Russell Chatham Lithography: The Process

Each plate used in the printing of an original lithograph has been hand drawn by the artist. In viewing the product of this process under the magnifying glass, the colors will appear either as a continuous tone, or as very irregular, oddly shaped, colored dots. In all cases this reflects the artist’s various methods and tools. As many as fifty different colors may be used in one work, each one requiring a separate plate. Every one of the inks for an original print is specially mixed by the artist and the printing process is similar to paint being blended and layered on a painting. During the production of an original lithograph (on the RV sized press), the artist is directly involved in a hands-on manner, drawing each plate, choosing and mixing each ink and approving each color as it comes from the press. A single plate for an original lithograph may require 20 minutes or 20 hours of an artist’s time, depending upon its complexity. A lithograph with 41 colors, or 41 plates, could very well require 200 hours of the artist’s and printer’s time.

Chatham said: “Lithography makes painting feel like falling off a log. Doing this has improved my painting hugely. It made me pay much more attention. I used to paint far too casually.”