The California dream: a lush, promised land dappled with golden sunlight. The serenity and grandeur of mountains, coastline, and desert. The seeds of this dream are planted in the early-20th century block prints of Frances Hammell Gearhart. Rooted in the California landscape, her colorful compositions are as notable for what they don’t show as for what they do. Though Gearhart’s work has been neglected in museum archives and known mostly among print connoisseurs for the past century, it encapsulates the mythmaking and evolution of California’s landscape and history.

Gearhart’s prints drew on Japanese printmaking traditions, filtered through the Anglo-American Arts and Crafts movement that emphasized traditional, anti-industrial art-making practices at the turn of the century. They are also inextricable from the era’s creation and marketing of the “California dream” through alluring imagery that tended to depict “unspoiled” nature, even as southern California’s population density swelled and the built environment took over. Though Gearhart’s subjects are simple — majestic mountains, trees, and bodies of water — the style of her prints evokes the historic currents and influences of the time.

Oranges and Snow in Southern California (1930–1945), postcard, linen texture, color, 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, Print Department, image via Boston Public Library on Flickr)

Born in Illinois in 1869, Gearhart moved with her family to Pasadena at age 19 and lived there until her death in 1958. Though at first specializing in watercolors, Gearhart took up printmaking in earnest around 1918, working with wood and linoleum blocks to create her works. In 1919, she joined the Print Makers Society of California and first showed her prints in their annual exhibition the following year. She worked as a high school English teacher until retiring around 1922-23 to focus on her art and found a print gallery and studio with her two sisters, May and Edna Gearhart, who were also talented artists and art teachers: May became Supervisor of Art for the Los Angeles City Schools, and the sisters lived together throughout their lives. Living in Pasadena, they were at the center of the Arts and Crafts movement in southern California, and the Print Makers Society expanded the Gearharts’ print knowledge and network. The sisters’ gallery later became its headquarters, and Frances Gearhart became its secretary and treasurer. However, little documentary evidence remains of the sisters’ lives and gallery apart from their prints, now scattered through private and museum collections. Only little glimpses — like the fact that May baked cookies for the society’s meetings — survive in artifacts like meeting minutes.

Frances Gearhart, “Joshua Tree” (c. 1930) (image courtesy Roger Genser)

“Gearhart obviously loved the California landscape,” writes Gearhart collector Harold Leitenberg. “No other artist working in color block prints has ever done a better job of portraying both its serene and stark beauty.” Her craggy mountains and still lakes convey uninterrupted calm, especially with the frequent use of blue for the key block (which creates the basic outlines of a print’s color fields). Her trees are detailed with distinct personality, from twisted coastal cypresses to a friendly Joshua tree.

Gearhart’s prints fed into — and were fed by — the California dream. Early settler-chroniclers like Josiah Royce rhapsodized about the state’s natural beauty: “One sought a romantic and far-off golden land of promise, and one was in the wilderness of this world, often guided only by signs from heaven.”  This idealized imagery drove desire for the fertile land, playing a role in the increased migration to the state in the late 1800s — a wave that included Gearhart’s own family. The nascent American state’s art capitalized on this fantasy, both to encourage continued migration and to perpetuate its image of prosperity through a burgeoning souvenir market as the age of leisure travel commenced. And of course, the oneiric images that associated California with romantic escapism in the public imagination also embodied the broader American dream. Gearhart’s prints demonstrate the impact this philosophy had on the creation of images of California, as well as the implicit erasure it entailed.

Frances Gearhart, “In The Tatoosh Country” (c. 1930) (image courtesy Harold Leitenberg/francesgearhart.com)

Gearhart’s landscapes must be understood in the context of their possession and control: who was able to view, explore, and own the beauty viewers beheld. While the California myth promised prosperity for all, it welcomed only certain immigrants into the narrative, and violently removed Indigenous peoples from it. The Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 excluded Asian immigrants from capitalizing on the California land rush by prohibiting land ownership for Asians as well as their American children. But while Chinese and Japanese immigrants were excluded from immigration and rights that would enable them to capitalize on the dream, Japanese art was being imported with fervor. After the US coerced Japan into trade in 1854, Japanese art began to influence foreign artists, dealers, and collectors, creating a craze for “Japonisme” that would last through the turn of the century. This fascination for Japanese art coexisted with rampant racism towards the Japanese immigrant population in the US.

Ukiyo-e prints, which were popular in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries, inspired European and American artists like Gearhart to experiment with Japanese printmaking techniques and aesthetics in their own work. They looked to master printmakers like Hokusai and Hiroshige for inspiration on composition and technique. These methods, which dovetailed neatly with the pared-down principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, were proselytized in the US by artists like Arthur Dow and Bertha Lum. Like the “floating world” imagery of ukiyo-e, most Californian landscape prints presented an imagined playground for a wealthy merchant class audience, rather than a realistic landscape that reflected the realities of development, expansion, and racial and class limitations.

Frances Gearhart, “East Fork” (c. 1930) (image courtesy Harold Leitenberg/francesgearhart.com)

Despite Gearhart’s remarkable and prolific portfolio, and the complex histories it reveals, her work has been shuffled aside over the years. Her prints were exhibited across the country during the 1920s and ’30s, including at the Smithsonian. But the popularity of block prints — and the Craftsman movement — declined with the rise of photography and other technical mediums; no record exists of Gearhart exhibiting after 1941. There is also no catalogue raisonné of Gearhart’s work, although Leitenberg has created a labor-of-love website containing images of a majority of her known prints. Over the past 30 years, there have been just three exhibitions of her work at regional museums — in 1990, 2009, and 2020 at the Wichita Art Museum, a show that was curated by print dealer and Gearhart expert Roger Genser. Until recently, “she was a lost artist,” Genser said in a phone interview, but now “I think she is being recognized.” An uptick of interest from private collectors has seen her gain recognition within print circles in the past few years. “[Among] her contemporaries, she really stands out as an exceptional artist,” he said.  

Running a print studio at the locus of the southern California Arts and Crafts movement, Gearhart established a successful career as an artist at a time when any career for women was limited. Her prints demand attention not just for their surface beauty, but for their deeper context. The California landscape holds myriad meanings for those who view, visit, and recreate it in art — and Gearhart’s prints show the nexus of influences that continue to shape how we look at and imagine it.

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic devoted to under-recognized art histories. This article was made possible by a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation.

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Anne Wallentine

Anne Wallentine is a writer and art historian based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.