Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 294 – The Native Sons of the Golden West’s Drop Curtain

 

Part 294: The Native Sons of the Golden West’s Drop Curtain

Reed & Gross Panorama Company created large scale paintings for the California State Building with compositions that included: the harbor of San Francisco and the city, as viewed from Goat Island; Christmas in Pasadena; the Stanford Ranch in northern California; Leland Stanford’s Vineyard; Leland Stanford Jr. University in Palo Alto; New Years at Hotel del Monte in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Fresno.

The California State Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Floor plan of the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition, 1893.

James D. Phelan was one of the California World’s Fair Commissioners in 1893. Later, he would become the mayor of San Francisco (1897-1902) and elected to the US Senate (1915-1921).

James Duval Phelan (1861-1930). Photograph from 1910.

He purchased a 20’ x 30’ painting from the California State Building after the fair. He intended to use it as the new drop curtain at the Native Sons of the Golden West’s Hall. They were constructing a new building in San Francisco and Phelan was the association’s president.

Unfortunately, the “handsome new building on Mason street, between Post and Geary” would never receive his donation.

NSGW Hall before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
NSGW Hall in San Francisco, California, constructed in 1911.

The new NSGW Hall was a four-story structure. The main meeting room was on the main floor and meeting rooms were situated on the other stories; fifteen rooms were used by the Native Sons and five rooms used by the Native Daughters. The Marine Engineers, Knights of the Golden Eagle and letter carriers also met in the building. The hall was intended for large meetings, as well as balls and entertainments. The stage in the main assembly room included “a handsome new drop-curtain and scenery for the entertainments,” according to the San Francisco Call (Volume 79, No. 71, 9 February 1896). But the drop curtain was not the one that Phelan originally intended for the opening of the building.

Interior of the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. The mural that James D. Phelan purchased is likely the one immediately behind the statue.
Detail of the murals in the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. The mural that James D. Phelan purchased is likely the one immediately behind the statue.
Detail of the murals in the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. The mural that James D. Phelan purchased is likely the one immediately behind the statue.
Detail of the murals in the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. The mural that James D. Phelan purchased is likely the one immediately behind the statue.Notice the ships in the harbor near the statue’s elbow.

The San Francisco Call from January 10, 1896, included the article “A Fine Painting Spoiled” (page 8). The original mural measured 20’ high by 30’ wide and was produced by Thaddeau Welch, a California artist, for the California State Building at the Columbian Exposition. The article reported that the subject was “Golden Gate as Viewed from Goat Island” and had “attracted much attention at the World’s Fair,” costing Phelan $3,000 to procure.

The article continued, “On Tuesday it was found that the painting had been ruined by the careless persons who packed and shipped it two years ago. Instead of winding the canvas around a roller these bunglers wrapped it around a 4 by 4 inch scantling and every four inches the canvas is cracked so that it is doubtful if it can be used.” A scantling is a piece of timber of relatively slight width and thickness, such as a stud or rafter in a house frame.

I chuckled as I read this. The end results from the actions of ignorant people who don’t understand the proper handling techniques for a large painting. I suspect that, like many wall murals, it was constructed of oil paint and heavy canvas. This would have also been the common medium for panorama studio artists anyway. I doubt that they would have used the lighter weight distemper paint that was commonly used for theatre drops, especially as the painting wasn’t intended as a theatre backdrop.

That would also explain the excessive cost of the mural – $3,000! A drop curtain created with dry pigment and diluted hide glue in 1893 would have cost a fraction of that amount. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a backdrop typically ranged between $150 to $300. This makes me think that Phelan was paying for the artistic provenance of the piece.

I also believe that Phelan simply not understand the physical demands of a drop curtain, or how they were constructed. He probably thought – “Hey! That painting is about the same size as a theatre drop! We will need a new drop in the NSGW Hall and it even depicts San Francisco!” This is where I need to stop and explain something, a common assumption that continues until this day. Many people believe that historical drops are created with oil paints. It is a common misperception that I encounter quite often. It is understandable as these individuals simply don’t have the knowledge to understand that oil paint is often too thick and shiny for stage applications.

Oil paint for panoramas was different as they were lit with a diffused lighting source and not stage lights. Therefore panoramas were not subject to the same rules as theatre drops. The same principle works for the use of oils in fine art and murals; they are not subject to the harsh glare of stage lights. For this reason alone, the painting form the California State building that was purchased by Phelan would have been a disappointment.

Piles of dry pigment surrounding granulated hide glue.

It is also possible that the painting as a drop curtain would have also failed due to the thickness of oil paint if used as a roll drop. There is nothing to suggest that the four-story NSGW Hall had a fly system to raise and lower drops. Like most halls, the stage would have used roll drops. Roll drops really necessitate the use of dry pigment and diluted hide glue as the binder. This distemper paint, unlike oil paint, allows the fabric to remain flexible. The oil painting would crack. This also brings us to the article reporting that the painting cracked. This would not have been a disaster if the composition were produced with water-based paints, as they are easily reconstituted. With historical backdrops, cracked paint can easily be repaired with artful blending. That is not the case with cracks in oil paintings.

Then the article further reveals, “The package has been at Mr. Phelan’s home since its arrival two years ago. It was intended to open the building on the 26th inst. And the loss of the drop curtain is a sad blow to those interested. Efforts will be made to see if it can artistically be retouched and pressed out smooth again.” It is unlikely that the oil painting was successfully “pressed” or “retouched.” The years in storage in possibly less-than-ideal conditions took its toll. Oil paintings don’t easily recover from creases and stretching. When wrinkles and cracks appear in distemper painting, such as theatre scenery, they are easily repaired and touched up.

The public perception is often that “anyone” can handle and move a big painting, such as a theatre backdrop.  In reality, “anyone” can’t. You really have to know what you’re doing.

To be continued…

 

3 thoughts on “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 294 – The Native Sons of the Golden West’s Drop Curtain”

  1. F.W. HEINE DIARIES 1892,p.208 (12/24-12/28)
    William Wehner (1847-1928) is writing […]says that panorama manager [Howard H.]Gross (1853-1920) plans to paint the Harbor of San Francisco and asks whether any of the Milwaukee painters are still willing to do this job. F.W.Heine (1845-1921) thinks of [Bernhard]Schneider (1843-1907) and [George]Peter (1859-1950)

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