Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Richard Diebenkorn's San Francisco Childhood

Richard Diebenkorn was born April 22, 1922 in Portland, Oregon. He is considered a California painter having lived and painting in Sausalito, Berkeley, and Santa Monica. While he never painted here, all of his biographies note that he grew up in San Francisco living here throughout his grade school years.

In fact, San Francisco was only a very limited source of direct inspiration to Diebenkorn. The neighborhoods that he did live in were more suburban than most of the City, and more in tune with the rustic or suburban atmosphere of most of his landscapes. What role did San Francisco play in his creative life?

We will review Diebenkorn’s life in San Francisco drawing upon books, and articles from our Richard Diebenkorn Artists Clipping File, the Newspaper morgue of the San Francisco History Center and our subscription databases. We will also draw upon a very fine oral history of Diebenkorn recalling his childhood days conducted by Susan Larsen and available through the Smithsonian Institute. This information will be supplemented by information from Google Books and the genealogy database Ancestry.com.

Diebenkorn stated that he came to San Francisco when he was very young -- he estimated in 1924 or 1925. Diebenkorn’s parents first appear in a San Francisco City Directory in 1928, meaning that his family’s actual year of arrival was either 1927 or 1928.

His father, Richard C. Diebenkorn, worked for more than 50 years for the Dohrman Hotel Supply Company as Vice-President and General Sales Manager. He gave his full name, Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, to his son. He also sometimes went by R. C. Diebenkorn, and early on his son went by R. C. Diebenkorn, Jr. That’s actually how he was identified in the betrothal announcement to his future wife, Phyllis Gilman Diebenkorn, printed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Richard Diebenkorn was the only child in what he described as a “super bourgeois” household. The family probably lived very comfortably. His father worked hard to instill in him a sense of success that would involve taking up a profession. Diebenkorn once recalled: "I remember my father's deathless words. 'Painting is just a fine thing . . . as a hobby. Why don't you do something serious like business?'"

Their first residence in San Francisco listed in the Polk’s Directories of 1928-1930 was on San Rafael Way in the Balboa Terrace neighborhood. They later moved to the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood - in the Directories of 1931-1933 their address is on Cedro Way; in 1934-1936 they resided on Moncado Way. The Diebenkorns moved back to Balboa Terrace for their final San Francisco address, on San Aleso Street between 1937-1940, before moving down to the Peninsula. All of these addresses were within a half mile of each other, and within easy walking distances of Commodore Sloat Elementary School and Aptos Junior High School where he began his education.
The Diebenkorn's 1928-1930 home on San Rafael Way

The 1930 Census gives us a glimpse of the Diebenkorn household. Living with 7 year old Richard Diebenkorn were his parents, Richard and Dorothy, his 62 year old maternal grandmother Florence L. Stevens (actually Stephens - Florence Louise Stephens, née McCarthy), and a 30 year old servant, Effie H. E. Anderson.

It was the latter two who did the most to sustain young Richard’s artistic proclivities in the midst of what seems to have been parental indifference. In an interview for the New Yorker, Diebenkorn recalled that “It was our cook who gave me art materials--and my parents liked that, in the early years, because it kept me out of their hair.” He drew on the white surfaces of shirt cardboards that came with his father’s suits back from the laundry, at first engrossed with sketching hundreds of panels of trains and locomotives. With the supplies from the family cook he moved on to illustrate his own adventure stories, with, as he recalled, “lots of arrows flying, and mayhem.”

His grandmother, Florence Stevens, encouraged his creative side, giving him well-illustrated romance and adventure novels that stoked his imagination. He later spent summers with her at her house in rural Woodside, California where he was let loose in the forest. He reminisced: “I guess I had a pretty good fantasy life during those summers, because I remember I carved--a couple of summers; I must have been eleven and twelve--and carved swords and made shields, and emblazoned them with insignia.”

Florence Stevens was a very educated and accomplished woman. She worked for women’s rights and was a pacifist. As a lawyer she defended German nationals from deportation during World War I and the right of Japanese immigrants to own land. Diebenkorn also recalled that she was a poet, short-story author, watercolorist, and had a radio program where she reviewed books. She devoted herself to nurturing her grandson’s talent and intellect.

In an interview he recounted being taken by his grandmother to an exhibit of work by Vincent Van Gogh. He remembered the year as 1934, but the Van Gogh Exhibition was displayed at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in April and May 1936. Diebenkorn remembered:
What occurs to me in regard to that … as a child going to that show with my grandmother, it was fun. Paintings--I don't know if I really got with it, but it was a memorable day. And the thing that interested me, that is very fresh in my recollection, were the groups of people being taken through that exhibition. Groups of--with a guide, who would be speaking--twenty to thirty people, as we see today, and. . . . the people were laughing--in most of the groups--laughing at the pictures! And I remember one--and I remember this rather clearly too--I listened to one of the men, one of the guides talking to the group, and he was contributing to the fun and games about this crazy painting that was on the wall!
In contrast, he emphasized that his grandmother wasn’t laughing. Her reason for being there was to view that something “to stimulate the both of us.”

Another art-related memory of Diebenkorn’s school age years involved a trip to a “large library” - very possibly the old Main Library. He had read W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence which had a main character based in part upon Paul Gauguin, but whose works were compared in the text to Cezanne, then unknown to young Diebenkorn. He described feeling shock and fascination when viewing the black and white illustrations of Cezanne’s paintings in the library book.
The crazy sort of ... spareness, and the distortions just hit me very hard. There were tabletops where I felt apples should roll . . . . And buildings with skewed verticals and horizontals and backgrounds … A horizon-line or floor-line which came in from one side at this level and popped out at a different level … Very disquieting.
Richard Diebenkorn's senior photo, The Red and White, January 1940 (courtesy of the San Francisco History Center)

While he had an active, inner creative and artistic life, Diebenkorn never pursued art in grade school or made anyone outside of his family aware of his passion. He attended Lowell High School, the City’s college preparatory school, then at the corner of Hayes and Masonic. He was aware of art classes that were given, but wanted no part of them. In an interview in Art Journal he noted although he "didn't want to be different”--he was different. "I drew at home, not at school--and I was not about to become an artiste." As documented in his senior high school yearbook, he “went out for two sports, track and football.” In the 1940 Census, Richard, Jr. was also recorded to have worked as a part-time mail clerk while finishing school.

from The Red and White, January 1940 (courtesy of the San Francisco History Center)

This background prepared him to fulfill his family’s wishes and attend Stanford University. There he intended to follow his father’s plans to become a “doctor, lawyer or something.” And he actually did so for two years, which he recalled having been the longest time he had gone without creating any art. However, the events of World War II compelled him to enlist in the Marines, which he would enter after graduating from University. During his remaining years at Stanford he described his father as becoming “permissive” and he started his formal art education, to the neglect of more "serious" subjects.

As a 1977 San Francisco Chronicle article noted, Diebenkorn was a “solitary and introspective” child. Throughout his youth he had a strong drive to draw and create. As a teenager, he remembered trying to tell his father, "I have this gift of drawing, shouldn't it be taken seriously?"  Out of concern for his only child’s future, his strongly father discouraged him. But world events and his own perseverance permitted Diebenkorn to follow his own inclinations and turn his love into his vocation. As he is quoted in Art News in 1977:
I've never considered painting work. I consider being a painter a luxury in that I'm lucky to be able to make a living by doing what I love the most.
San Francisco was the time of chrysalis before the artist Richard Diebenborn emerged to fly.

 Related blog entry:

Richard Diebenkorn and Ingleside [September 19, 2013]


Oral history interview with Richard Diebenkorn, 1985 May 1-1987 Dec. 15,” interview with Susan Larsen at the Smithsonian Archives for American Art.

Jane Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (University of California Press, 1997).

The Red and White (Lowell High School Students Association, Spring 1940).

Maurice Tuchman, "The Early Years," Art Journal 36/3 (March 1, 1977), 206-220. [available through JStor]

“Phyllis Gilman Will Pledge Troth With R. C. Diebenkorn, Jr.” San Francisco Chronicle June 12, 1943.

The following articles may be found in the "Diebenkorn, Richard" file of our Artists File:

Dan Levy, "Abstract Artist Richard Diebenkorn Dies," San Francisco Chronicle March 31, 1993, A1; A13.

Liz Lufkin, "Portrait of an Artist's Return," San Francisco Chronicle June 20, 1989, B3; B5.

Gordon J. Hazlitt, "Problem Solving in Solitude," Art News (January 1977), 76-79.

Dan Hofstadter, "Almost Free of the Mirror," New Yorker September 7, 1987, 54-73.

"Diebenkorn Magic Returns to the Oakland Museum," San Francisco (October 1977), 108-110.

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