George Booth Post (1906-1997) was one of the foremost exponents of the California Watercolor Movement of the first half of the twentieth century. His expressively rendered en plein air compositions captured the essence of Northern California’s diverse landscapes in a manner that resonated with both critics and art patrons alike, and his numerous painting excursions abroad widely expanded the geographical scope of his creative vision. Additionally, Post forged a reputation as one of the most influential watercolor instructors of his era, conveying his deeply held principles of artistic craftsmanship to successive generations of students from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Post was born George Booth Root III on September 29,1906, in Oakland, California, the son of Ruth Godfrey Root (whose father had been the youngest Union colonel in the Civil War) and George Booth Root Jr. Shortly after the birth of he and his twin brother John, Post’s mother and father were divorced, causing a serious breach in familial relations and the ensuing departure from the region of both parents; filling this void were the twins’ grandfather, George Booth Root Sr., and their Great-Aunt Soph, who assumed guardianship of the two boys, caring for them in the large, old Victorian home in Oakland in which they were born. Following the death of their devoted great-aunt in 1914, John was sent to live with their paternal Aunt Nan and her husband in Sonora, California, with George remaining in Oakland for an additional year, until his Aunt Kate arrived from Alaska with a fateful choice, based on her concern that her father (George’s grandfather) was no longer capable of raising a child alone: Either George could return with her to Juneau, Alaska, or join his mother and two sisters, Ann and Ramola, in Gold Hill, Nevada, a small, nearly abandoned mining town about thirty miles south of Reno where they were living with his mother’s second husband, Walter Post, a superintendent at the only mine there still operational. Electing to be reunited with his family, George boarded a train, alone, to Reno, where he was greeted by what was effectively a group of strangers, his mother and sisters gone from his life before memories had begun to take root. But, as was his nature, he chose to accentuate the positive, reflecting later that his mother and stepfather were “marvelous” to him upon his arrival, and that he shared a “wonderful childhood” with his sister Ann, playing amongst the railroad tracks which traversed the desolate setting. From an early age a proclivity for art was in evidence: “I was always drawing some funny thing on wrapping paper or butcher paper or something,” he would recall. “I liked to draw many things: machinery, houses. Architecture especially fascinated me.” He was also intrigued by trains and railway travel, leading him while in grammar school to draw “a great big locomotive tearing down the tracks head on right into the foreground where a little girl had been tied to the tracks and the hero was just about to turn the switch to save her from instant death, which delighted the class when the teacher pinned it on the wall and invited other classes to come in to see. Until she finally saw the little drama that was being enacted and told me to march up to the wall, take it down, and tear it up in front of the class! I was completely devastated and my instant ego was thoroughly crushed.” It was during these years that he made the decision to adopt his stepfather’s surname, explaining that “my sisters’ name was Post, and I thought, well, I’ll be a Post too, because I didn’t want to be different than them.” Though legal papers were never filed, he found out later that the fact that Walter Post supported him while he was a minor meant that, for all practical purposes, he was legally entitled to refer to himself as George Booth Post.
In 1919, after four years in Nevada, Post returned to the Bay Area with his family (minus his sister Ramola, who was now married), the collapse of the mining business having claimed another economic casualty in his stepfather. Taking a job in a hardware store, Walter Post moved the family into a home in San Francisco, close to Golden Gate Park, giving George’s burgeoning inquisitiveness and adventurous spirit — later to be fully realized in his travels and his artwork — an opportunity to grow, as he “got to know every inch of the park.” Also nearby was Polytechnic High School, which Post began attending after completing his final year of grammar school, and which afforded him the opportunity to receive his first formal instruction in art, including drawing and sculpture. Midway through Post’s high school years, however, his family moved to Oakland, necessitating his making a multi-hour daily commute so as to retain the benefits of Polytechnic’s fine arts-inclusive curriculum, a rarely-emdorsed form of cultural immersion by the standards of American public high schools. The art program there was supervised by a teacher named Frances Wolfenbarger, who took a deep personal interest in Post upon recognizing his innate talent, taking it upon herself to send several examples of his work (including a drawing of the Parthenon in Athens) to the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the hopes of his receiving a scholarship offer, which was forthcoming; at around the same time Post received an offer to become an apprentice at an architectural firm, a career track in which he was very much interested, but which he chose to forego in favor of art school following intense internal debate.
At the time of Post’s matriculation in 1924, the California School of Fine Arts was regarded as one of the Bay Area’s most progressive centers of artistic education; its leading faculty member was Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945), a Swiss-born American landscape painter and muralist best known for the murals he created for the San Francisco Public Library. In his capacity as an instructor in oil painting, Piazzoni occasionally took his students on field trips, a rare event in those days, and is thus credited with introducing Post to what would become his lifelong passion and trademark: painting en plein air. Other faculty members who facilitated Post’s development included Spencer Macky (1880-1958), a New Zealander who studied in Paris with Jean Paul Laurens, and whose paintings were widely exhibited throughout Europe and America, including the 1910 Paris Salon and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco; Constance Macky (1883-1961), Spencer Macky’s wife and one of the first female instructors at an important American art school, whose award-winning paintings were exhibited at many of the same venues as her husband’s, including the Inaugural Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1935; Otis Oldfield (1890-1969), a California-born painter and printmaker who, like the Mackys, lived and exhibited in Paris and who, according to Post, “had a lot of new, radical ideas about art,” which he applied to his class in Modern Painting; and Ray Boynton (1863-1951), an acolyte of Diego Rivera whose association with the 1934 Coit Tower mural project in San Francisco and his Depression-era paintings detailing the California “Mother Lode” mining country (the nexus of the 1849 Gold Rush and a crucial setting for Post as well) serve as the cornerstones of his artistic legacy. Post’s curriculum at the school consisted of Drawing from Life, Etching, Oil Painting, Principles of Still-Life, and Design. (Though he expressed an affinity for Etching, most examples of his work in this medium have either been lost or remain unrecovered.) The curriculum did not include watercolor, it being essentially relegated in academic circles of this period (except at the Chouinard School in Los Angeles) to a preliminary stage in the oil painting process, “sort of sketching,” as Post put it, useful for “doing quick sketches out in the field, and then you’d come back and translate them into big oil paintings, that sort of thing.” He had very limited direct experience with the medium while at art school, and its initial appeal to him — at least in the traditional forms to which he was exposed — was minimal.
In 1927, with the money from his two and one-half year scholarship depleted, Post left art school in search of employment, finding work as a commercial artist at the Metcalf and Little advertising agency in San Francisco, where he designed brochures and pamphlets for clients, including the prestigious St. Francis Hotel. He also illustrated pen and ink “room suites” for a furniture company. But these jobs were essentially freelance assignments executed on his own time at home, basically providing just enough money to assist his family with expenses. Desiring more freedom and independence, in 1929 Post took a position working with his brother John (who helped him acquire the job) as a laborer at the C & H Sugar Factory in Crockett, California, north of the Bay Area, which, despite the hard work, was an experience he said that he enjoyed, because “it was the first time I was really independent and completely on my own.” But after about a year there, he asked himself, “What did I go to art school for? I got a scholarship to art school, and here I am perfectly happy ending up in a sugar factory.” The very next day he quit, thinking, “If I don’t do this now, I never will.” Returning to San Francisco with the little money he had saved, he began a quest for any kind of work that had “something to do with art.” One afternoon, while walking the streets of San Francisco with his portfolio, he happened across an exhibition of watercolors by a Carmel-based artist named Stanley Wood. Stylistically bold and freely-brushed, the paintings touched a chord in Post that crystallized a creative direction. Having previously been exposed only to the “precise, illustrative English watercolor style,” Post was given “a real spurt” by the exhibition, a feeling of, “Gee, I would like to do this sort of thing.” In Post’s estimation, Wood “had a way of doing something just the way I felt it should be done for myself. . . . It was an incentive; that was the main, big incentive for me to want to do this.” Another critical element in Post’s decision to adopt watercolor as his primary working medium was the the characteristically outdoor nature of its format, which coincided with the fact that he “always liked being outside rather than inside. Inside I could never get inspired.” He also found the medium easily adaptable to setting up and painting on location, minus the necessity of trudging along “an easel or a lot of equipment,” the process unfolding with his just “squatting down on the ground, or on a brick or a little stool, and just painting.” Most of Post’s work produced during this early juncture in his career employed a technique known as the ‘wet on wet’ process, in which the paper is initially soaked in water, with the paint then applied while the paper is still damp, enhancing the effect of sunsets, clouds, and reflections on water. Progressing quickly despite being entirely self-taught, Post was soon able to create a watercolor in an hour or two, giving him time to paint even if it meant fitting in sessions around his regular work schedule at the Knight and Counihan Printing and Lithograph Firm, where, during the early 1930s, he produced commercial illustrations and advertising designs employing the then new Jean Berte watercolor-style printing process from France. In 1931, Post reached his first major career milestone: A one-man show at the Galerie Beaux Arts in San Francisco, the earliest gallery in the Bay Area to feature modern art, dedicated to presenting works by upcoming, progressive painters. The show consisted of landscapes executed primarily in California and Nevada, along with a few composed during a trip Post had taken to Vancouver, Canada. One of the paintings from the exhibition was reproduced in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, which reviewed the show favorably. During this period Post was married to a young art student named Lou Rusk MacLean, a brief union that witnessed the birth of a daughter, Shelley, in 1932. Later that same year, following his being laid off due to the effects of the Depression, and motivated by his love of water and fascination with the bustling activity of seaports, Post took a job on an oil tanker journeying to New York City and back via the Panama Canal. While at sea he maintained a steady painting schedule, generating at least one watercolor per day. Upon the ship laying anchor in Bayonne, New Jersey, Post used the opportunity to craft harbor scenes in nearby Newark as well as in New York City, adding these to the seascapes and depictions of nautical activities produced aboard ship. Returning from his voyage in 1933, he utilized his rapidly growing portfolio in two solo exhibitions in San Francisco galleries, one of them the San Francisco Arts Center (a venue soon to play an even larger role in his career’s evolution). The following year, Post agreed to a request from his Aunt Nan to join his cousin Charlie and two veteran miners in a search for gold on her property in Shaw’s Flat, California, at one time an area recognized as the heart of the state’s Mother Lode region. While there Post employed his natural gifts at architecture and construction to combine with the other men and build several redwood cabins on the land (an assemblage he would later purchase outright for use as an artistic retreat).Though very little gold was unearthed, Post conceived a series of regional watercolors that in 1934 became the centerpiece of a one-man exhibition entitled Watercolors of the Mother Lode at the aforementioned Arts Center, with several paintings from the series constituting an integral portion of a group show that same year at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor (a museum built as a full-scale replica of the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition); of the group show, an unlabeled period review retrieved from Post’s personal scrapbook by his biographer, Ruth Teiser, stated that: “Dr. Walter Heil (the museum’s director) has inaugurated a series of monthly group showings of contemporary California artists . . . The watercolor section is the better of the two (sections), and the star performer therein, so to speak, is George Post.” One composition in particular, a semi-abstract piece called The Stream that was painted in a gulch near the mining camp, was singled out in the review as being “probably the best watercolor Post has yet done.” For his part, Post believed that these two early shows were instrumental in giving rise to his status as “someone of importance in the art world of San Francisco,” with his cause further aided by the “send-off” engendered by the positive reactions to The Stream.
Despite these favorable early reviews, Post still faced the same uphill financial battle shared by nearly all artists during these Depression-era years; in this time of severe economic hardship, contemporary art was a difficult sell, forcing artists to find other means to sustain their careers, which many Southern Californian watercolorists did by taking animation and illustration jobs with Hollywood studios, particularly Walt Disney’s. The federal government also provided much-needed relief with government-funded work programs, including one specifically designed for artists called the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), which earmarked a considerable sum toward the embellishment of the public areas of San Francisco’s recently-built Coit Towers with work executed by some of the city’s most notable muralists, an enterprise that was not without its share of controversy, with several of the artists making a well-publicized but largely unsuccessful effort to integrate pro-Socialist motifs into their designs, following in the footsteps of Diego Rivera’s ill-fated attempt to feature Vladimir Lenin on a mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center. In 1934 Post approached the Bay Area Director of the PWAP for assistance, receiving a commission to compose his first and only work done in oil: a mural for the library at Sonora (California) High School. Engineering the project entirely by himself (with help from his Aunt Nan, who provided him with the finest art supplies available), Post constructed the 35 x 8 foot canvas over the course of six weeks, working under the watchful “little eyes” of the students, many of whom chose to remain indoors and monitor Post’s progress rather than spend their rest hours out in the yard. The endeavor — titled Lumbering, Agriculture, and Mining to reflect the three main industries historically dominant in the region — served to reinforce Post’s self-appraisal of his creative disposition, augmenting his belief that oil painting did not suit his temperament, particularly his need to do things “quick and fast and with much spontaneity.” Nevertheless, influential Bay Area journalist and art critic H.L. Dungan, writing in theOakland Tribune shortly after the mural’s unveiling in 1935, reported that informed sources were of the opinion “young Post has painted one of the best PWA works in the state.” Before the year ended, the newly-opened San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) would designate two of Post’s works to be part of a select group of watercolors chosen to represent the increasingly important medium at the museum’s inaugural exhibition.
What Post would later describe as “one of the happiest times” of his life transpired in 1936, when he went to work for the PWAP’s successor program, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In its aftermath, he evinced his belief in the transformative nature of this experience, maintaining “that’s really where I learned to paint in watercolor, because I got $90 a month (a “fortune” in those days) to go anywhere I wanted up and down the state of California and paint anything I saw. . . . I learned an awful lot by having so much time and freedom just to paint.” Required to turn in two paintings per week (but producing many more), Post traveled about via bus or hitchhiking, as far north as the “wild and rugged and isolated” Mendocino coastline and south to the mist-enshrouded cliffs of Monterey Bay, his movements largely unconstrained, since “there weren’t nearly as many fences around things in those days, and you could wander in and out of people’s farmyards without arousing suspicion. . . . Quite often, I’d bundle up on a haystack or in somebody’s barn and I’m sure they never knew I was there." Many of the works completed during this time were placed at schools and hospitals and other public facilities throughout the state, with several adorning the walls of the architecturally-renowned, WPA-built Timberline Lodge at the top of Mt. Hood in Oregon; a representative sample appeared in a 1939 exhibition of WPA artwork entitled Frontiers in American Art, held at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco. Notwithstanding the breadth of the subject matter and innovative artistry marking Post’s output during his eight month tenure with the WPA, the canonical record reflects that his paintings executed for the program in and around the Bay Area — in particular his waterfront scenes and compositions recording the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges — are of heightened historical import. Amidst Post’s WPA assignment came the first of his career’s many awards and honors: the bestowal of the Artists’ Fund Prize at the San Francisco Art Association’s Watercolor Exhibition held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1936. Shortly thereafter came the Award for Watercolor Painting at the 1936 Oakland Art Gallery’s Annual Exhibition, for which he received the then princely sum of $50. At this time, Post’s neighbor in San Francisco was the noted watercolorist Maynard Dixon, who had conceived a plan for getting a small, progressive art school off the ground; borrowing the name of the famous institution in New York City, Dixon called it “The Art Students’ League of San Francisco,” and asked Post to consider joining the spartan faculty, which also consisted of Frank Van Sloun and Ray Strong, two other respected local artists. Deciding to give teaching a try, Post became the school’s instructor in watercolor painting. Though the enterprise proved less than successful and Post “wasn’t crazy about” his first venture into teaching, in retrospect he was “glad (he) did it.”
In 1937, accompanied by two friends, Post embarked on a painting excursion deep into the tropical countryside of Mexico with $700 he had saved from his time at the WPA. Living frugally out of a “battered old car,” Post still had $600 dollars remaining after several months on the road (he estimated his expenses to be about one dollar per day), and decided to use the residual amount on a trip to Europe. In Veracruz he found a freighter that took take him to Hamburg, Germany, for sixty dollars, utilizing his time on board to produce several seascapes. Disturbed by the machinations of the Third Reich that he witnessed in Berlin, Post soon departed Germany for Vienna and then Sarajevo and Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia, finding the ancient beauty of the Balkins and Adriatic coastline to be “enchanting.” After time spent painting in Salerno, Venice, and Rome in Italy, he studied and worked for several weeks on the Left Bank in Paris, taking painting excursions into Brittany and Normandy. After nearly a year spent traveling, he returned to North America via a freighter from Antwerp, Belgium, deciding to visit his father during a stopover in Montreal, where his father had been living since departing California when Post was still an infant; despite the two never having met, the first encounter ever between father and son was a deeply moving experience for Post, who would later provide his aging parent with a cabin at his retreat in Shaw’s Flat.
During the late 1930s Post’s career began to accelerate, moving steadily toward national prominence. In 1937, following a one-man exhibition of Post’s work at the Oakland Art Gallery, H.L Dungan wrote: “George Post was born in Oakland 31 years ago; it was a good idea,” going on to describe the watercolors as “clean, flowing masses of color, rich and vibrant.” These comments were reproduced in the September 1937 issue of the nationally distributed Art Digest magazine, along with the statement: “Time has given us many painters but few great artists. Post is on the road to great art.” Subsequent to Post’s return from Europe, a well-received showcase featuring more than thirty of his “Odyssey Paintings” was presented at the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco, the artist later recollecting that he sold “most everything” associated with that trip. Along with Post averaging about three or four one-man shows per year during this period (including his first significant solo exhibition at a major museum, held at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1939), and his inclusion in traveling exhibitions sponsored by the vanguard California Water Color Society (CWCS), Post was selected by art historian Lawson B. Cooper and artist/teacher Rex Brandt (whose summer-school faculty would in later years feature Post) to be one of the twelve members of the California Group, whose work toured major American art venues in the form of a highly publicized group exhibition throughout 1937; Post’s contributions to this highly influential endeavor were often singled out for special mention in newspaper articles, and on occasion were reproduced as prime examples of the California Style of watercolor painting. Simultaneously, Post’s work was made part of a series of shows mounted at the prestigious Bohemian Club in San Francisco under the banner 13 Watercolorists, a Bay Area collective dedicated to featuring the finest works of transparent watercolor art being produced at that time on the West Coast. One such effort by Post, San Francisco Bay, was chosen for display at the American Art Today Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Another significant career benchmark was realized in 1940 when, following its display at the CWCS-sponsored Pacific Coast States Watercolor Exhibition at the Riverside Museum in New York City, Post’s composition, Mojave Desert, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its permanent collection. Around this time Post began making regular trips to the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington state, sailing and painting on Puget Sound and establishing himself as part of the region’s thriving art community, which embraced him with a succession of solo exhibitions. In 1941, one of his Pacific Northwest watercolors, Winter Day, Tacoma, was procured by the San Francisco Museum of Art, whose showcase exhibit of Post’s work in December of that year received a glowing review from the San Francisco Chronicle’s highly-regarded art critic, Alfred Frankenstein, an article overshadowed by front-page news in that very morning’s edition detailing a catastrophic attack by Japanese forces upon the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In the spring of 1942, Post became involved in the war effort as a cargo-storage planner at Fort Mason in San Francisco, employing his skills to design charts which positioned supplies in appropriate storage areas on outgoing naval vessels, the cargo destined to provide ammunition, food, sundries, and other essentials to the sailors doing battle in the Pacific Theater. In his spare time he bicycled up and down the waterfront, sketching the wartime goings-on, and in 1942 held his first Southern California one-man show, at the Laguna Beach Art Museum. Building upon previous traveling exhibitions, additional national exposure of his work was achieved with the publication of a series of his watercolors in the July 1942 issue of Fortune magazine, which also featured one of his watercolors on the cover of their February 1945 issue, a rendering of the harbor in Portland, Oregon, with a battleship in the foreground and Mt. Hood in the distance. The war years also brought with them a change in direction for Post’s artistic stylings; he began to use a wide flat brush which laid down thick, transparent, bold lines, forming what many critics favorably looked upon as his own personal style of geometric abstraction. Additionally, he experimented with an off-brand type of paper whose restrictive size (15 by 17 inches) and nearly square dimensions proved too confining for most artists, and whose fragile nature did not allow for changes or alterations after the initial paint had been laid down; any touch-up work would cause the paper to break down or form muddy clumps. But Post overcame these handicaps with firm, carefully planned and executed brush strokes, substituting the white paper itself for white paint wherever required. When a group of these “new” watercolors went on exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the July 1944 issue of Arts and Architecture printed the following review: “A sure sign of mastery in any art is the apparent ease with which the performer dispatches his work. In this particular respect there is no contemporary watercolorist who can surpass George Post, one of San Francisco’s outstanding artists. . . . His seemingly effortless brush strokes which start and stop with the precise control of a master draughtsman, the restrained and perfectly integrated use of white paper in his compositions, the simple, direct, fresh and lovely color relations which mark his work must be the envy of all craftsmen who seek to master this art of pure watercolor. Yet Post goes beyond the mere perfection of a craftsman. He is an artist who has something to say: His paintings, based on realism, use realism simply as a base from which to compound color harmonies of quiet beauty and from which to relate shapes and masses in simple, effective patterns. There is nothing that he does that is not pleasing, nothing that leaves a feeling of inadequacy or failure. . . . It is not too much to say of George Post that he is a watercolorist’s watercolorist — a sincere artist as well as a master craftsman.”
In the summer of 1946, Post and his close friend Elvin Fowler took a two-month tour of America in a 1936 Ford coupe, generally camping along the roadside as they made their way cross-country. In an episode redolent with images from a vanished America, Post recalled that “one night we had stopped and put our army cots out against a big hedge. It was very high, you couldn’t see whatever was on the other side. We heard a train whistle way, way off in the distance; you know, out in Arizona and New Mexico you hear these whistle sounds way, way off, it’s so silent. But pretty soon we heard it again, and it seemed much closer. Soon after the ground started shaking, our cots started shaking, and it got worse and worse. Then this great freight train came zooming by, and it was right on the other side of the hedge! We didn’t know we were so close to the Santa Fe tracks.” Many years later, Fowler shared a reminiscence about Post’s methodology during the period of time in which the trip was undertaken: “In his younger days George painted kneeling on the ground. His board, with paper attached with thumb tacks, was on the ground before him. Usually he would find a rock to prop up the board to a comfortable angle. He carried an old tin can to hold water; brushes, paints, and pallet made up the rest of his kit. He painted with a strong power of concentration and became completely immersed in his efforts. He did not mind if people were around (and they usually were) as he was scarcely aware that they were even there.” Shortly after the pair returned to the Bay Area, Post assembled a group of watercolor paintings for a series of one-man exhibitions. Most of the works were from the trip, depicting landscape, seascape, and East Coast fishing village scenes; others featured views of the San Francisco region, produced during the war era. (One of the watercolors composed on the trip, a small street scene in Vermont, was purchased for the San Diego Museum of Art for their permanent collection.) For the following two years, the show traveled throughout California, Texas, and Louisiana. In 1947, Post once again earned a First Prize Award for Watercolor Painting at the Oakland Art Gallery’s Annual Exhibition (for a work entitled China Camp), and that same year, his painting Quebec From the Ramp garnered the First Prize Award at the nationally-contested California Water Color Society’s Annual Exhibition. Post’s stature among his peers as one of the most respected watercolorists of his generation was confirmed in 1954 with his election to Full Membership in the prestigious American Watercolor Society in New York City. But beginning in the late 1940s, Post, along with his contemporaries, faced a profound change in the national art scene, whose attention had now shifted to non-objective works of art, exemplified by Abstract Expressionism. Though for years Post had been considered a progressive, expressionistic watercolorist, his work now become associated with more conservative schools of art. In response to this changing dynamic, the critic Alexander Fried, writing in the San Francisco Examiner in 1948, offered his opinion that “more credit for courage belongs to Irma Engel and George Post, for each of them sticks to their own sincere, talented, maturely-developed style and produces a fine, alive landscape, even though both of them sees the tides of modern-art fashion surging daily against them.” Post himself weighed in on the transformation, remarking “I could have painted large, colorful watercolors with no particular subject in mind, but I didn’t feel this would be honest. I would have just been going along with it like some fad or something and it would have meant nothing to me. Each painting I have done, I have done because the subject excited me and the excitement of painting it brought pleasure and satisfaction.” In September 1960, Post again entered the art world’s spotlight with a major retrospective exhibition held in his honor at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, which had given him his first significant one-man show at a major venue nearly twenty years earlier. In reviewing the show, Alfred Frankenstein (who had previously compared Post’s work to that of Charles Burchfield) wrote: “Post’s watercolor style is in the great American tradition that comes down from Homer and Marin; it genuflects a little toward Grosz here and there, but is really all George Post from the beginning. He has never found it necessary to reach for exceptional subject matter . . . But whatever the subject, he is a past master of all the moods of light — the moods that kill all the colors in the box except gray and blue and the moods that bring them all out, dancing and dappling over the surface of the paper at high intensity. He is also a past master at pictorial architecture, and perhaps his most remarkable virtuoso achievement lies in his ability to walk the tightrope between stylization, abstraction, and geometry on the one hand and realistic delineation on the other. He brings off this performance with unfailing skill . . . San Francisco is a beautiful city and George Post is one of the people who has helped us most to realize that fact. It is also a famous art center, and Post is one of the people who has made it so. A salute to him on an anniversary, like the one the Legion has arranged, is very much in order."
Though Post’s enduring legacy is first and foremost a product of his artistry, he had a profound, wide-reaching impact as an art instructor. Initially, the idea of taking on an academic commitment did not appeal to him, even though the negative fallout from his tenure at the Art Students’ League of San Francisco had been mitigated by positive experiences teaching summer school at Stanford University in 1940 and leading watercolor workshops in the Puget Sound area before the war. The freedom to paint when and where he wanted was of vital import to Post, and, though not materially well-off, he “made enough to make it all worthwhile without being tied down to a nine-to-five job.” So, in 1947, when Spencer Macky, his former professor at the California School of Fine Arts and a man Post greatly admired, came knocking at the door of Post’s Edith Street apartment in San Francisco with an offer of a teaching position tendered by the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Post turned him down, twice. The third time Macky came around, Post relented, agreeing to accept the offer under the condition of his schedule being limited to two days per week: Tuesdays and Thursdays, one class in the morning and one in the afternoon. What was originally slated to be a one-year trial became a twenty-five year career, with Post retiring in 1972 as the school’s fully-tenured Professor of Watercolor Painting. Post also established a long-term association (1949-1977) with the Rex Brandt Summer School of Painting in Corona del Mar, California; Brandt (1914-2000), a close friend of Post’s and arguably the foremost purveyor in the country of instructional manuals and films on watercolor technique (many of which included tips by Post), originally organized the school with the award-winning watercolorist Phil Dike (1906-1990), but from 1955 onward supervised the curriculum with his wife Joan, also an artist. In his capacity as a committed practitioner of en plein air painting, Post would often take his Bay Area students on field trips to the Oakland Estuary, whose boats, fishermen, and interesting dock structures provided a favored mix for artists. Nearby, the trees, bridges, and streams of the Berkeley Hills also became subjects for the paintings produced by Post and his students; Post’s own watercolors served a dual purpose: not only were they teaching aids, but he utilized the best of them in exhibitions. Over the course of time, his innate conceptual understanding and experiential development combined to forge a set of artistic principles which he forthrightly articulated to his students. On the topic of determining the nature of the content which will comprise a particular watercolor, Post believed that “you have to judge which area of the thing you’re looking at which will make for the most interesting and exciting sort of composition. Then there are other areas that are unnecessary and superfluous that you don’t need, so you have to be aware of what to leave out and what to put in, as well as what to emphasize or exaggerate more than it actually appears, and what to diminish. . . . I try to scale what I’m going to compose so that it fits nicely into whatever size the paper happens to be, without crowding it in, or cluttering it up with a lot of uninteresting things.” Contrary to the popularly held and disseminated belief that Post’s creative process did not involve preliminary drawing or sketching, the reality is more complicated than that, with Post acknowledging his tendency to often sketch out the primary areas of his paintings first, the caveat being that occasionally he preferred to “just start with a brush sort of indiscriminately and not be too decisive or sure . . . because you can get awfully tight and stiff by using too many pencil lines and trying to lock everything together in too definite a pattern or design.” He was a believer in the importance of drawing (or sketching) for its own sake, explaining that “drawing is one of the basic, fundamental foundations of painting . . . just starting to paint without any feeling for drawing or composition seems to me a bit presumptuous.” Once an artist’s skill at drawing was mastered, however, repetition with a brush became the key to success with watercolors: “It was the act of doing them constantly that taught you how to paint. . . . Art school is a springboard to start out, a wonderful place to learn how to draw, but you have to do a lot of experimenting on your own to learn how to paint.” One particular technique that Post favored as a way to enhance compositional interactivity between viewer and artist was the so-called “look-through” format (a device employed by artists such as Marsden Hartley, whom Post admired) in which objects are placed in such a pattern so as to create the illusion of a “window,” through which the viewer’s attention can be focused to “look through into something beyond . . . people like to look at something that they can look into to the beyond.” Another method Post adopted to help draw the viewer into the scene and to heighten perspective was the inclusion of figures into his work; though many watercolorists find this to be a difficult thing to do in a manner that is consistent with the overall design of the painting, Post overcame his own early struggles with this problem and developed the ability to render his simplified, compositionally symmetrical figures in a way that breathed life into silent and solitary landscapes, with his positing that “street scenes especially can look so desolate and lonely if there aren’t one or two figures in them.” Post’s amorphously-drawn individuals were described by artist/writer Edgar Whitney as “spots in the pattern, placed precisely where they belong, reporting gesture and scale.” These so-called “spots,” along with Post’s seemingly haphazard dots and dashes, replaced many objects that would clutter up and confuse an otherwise well-constructed watercolor, and variations of this artistic shorthand would emerge decades later as major pictorial components in the work of 1980s’ Pop-Art stylists such as Keith Haring. Moreover, Post’s expressively-rendered symbolism underscores the nature of his artistic intent: His goals were to capture the essence of design and feeling offered by the subject, rather than executing a hyper-realistic reproduction. In what is arguably the visual equivalent of author Jack Kerouac’s literary adage, first thought, best thought, Post believed that “the first split-second reaction, that first wonderful visual image, is the thing one must try to project on paper, not the very literal painstaking eyeful.” He would look at a subject for two or three minutes, then turn his back on it and start painting, because “if you stare too much, then you’re just copying what you’re looking at rather than translating, like you’d copy a photograph or a painting out of a magazine.” Through Post’s eyes, the key to making any painting interesting and worth looking at was “the simplicity in which you do it, without cluttering it all up with too much stuff.” Conceptually, Post treated each painting like a journey whose outcome was never predetermined, acknowledging that “it’s hard to know how a watercolor is going to end because there are a few technical areas that change as you go along. It doesn’t always follow what you had in mind to do. So when it’s finished, it usually explains itself much better than making an explanation and then trying to follow it in a composition. The painting, when it’s finished, usually titles itself.” Post’s history as a well-traveled artist would seemingly be congruent with a belief that variations in light would be the most consequential element in the artistic differentiation of various locales; but, perhaps counter-intuitively, Post believed that it was architecture that supplied a place with its most individuated quality, maintaining that “it’s the way a building is put together. The balconies in the Vieux Carre in New Orleans are not found in the Mother Lode country, even though there are many balconies in the little mining towns of California. But they’re not New Orleans balconies.” His expressed desire was to “identify a place with where it was and what it was, and to try and get the feeling that it wasn’t in Wisconsin, for instance, or even a hundred miles away for that matter.” This idea of capturing in his paintings what has been called “a sense of place” is the foundational tenet of the California School of Watercolor Painting, and of the American Regionalist movement which birthed it.
In her essay, “Regionalism: The California View,” Susan M. Anderson describes American Regionalism (or American Scene painting) as “a movement of the late 1920s and 1930s which concentrated on local subject matter and themes treated in a representational manner and usually, though not exclusively, reflected a positive view of rural and urban life.” Its immediate roots lay in the early-twentieth century American Realist movement led by Robert Henri, also known as the “Ashcan School.” Though Regionalist artwork reflected personal responses to a given region, its full impact lay in its ability to transcend regional boundaries and “communicate to all Americans.” For the most part, the movement grew out of the disruptive upheavals and wave of national consciousness unleashed by the outbreak of the Great Depression: Following a meeting in December 1933 (which included America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) held to delineate the general outlines of the first federally-sponsored art program in U.S. history (the aforementioned P.W.A.P.), Forbes Watson, a former art critic and the newly-appointed technical director of the fledgling program, said in a public statement: “More than at any time during the past fifteen years the American artist is contemplating the American Scene. More than ever he is looking at and into the life of his own land. So that at this time in particular the government’s project should result in a valuable native record.” During the same period prominent writers such as the New Republic’s Edmund Wilson, essayist Thomas Craven, and the Los Angeles Times’ art critic Arthur Millier (perhaps the strongest champion of the California watercolorists) were calling for a radical reinterpretation of American art, exhorting artists in a new direction which would document America’s political, social, and industrial life of the moment. Leading the way were painters such as Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, and John Steuart Curry, and photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. This shift in climate was articulated in a 1929 piece by Edmund Wilson, who wrote that “we must, of course, take European ways of thinking along with our language, our alphabet; but we must try to stick close to the realities of our American way of life. . . . It is up to American writers to try to make some sense of their American world.” In a famous essay appearing that same year entitled “The Curse of the French Culture,” Thomas Craven, putting words in the mouth of the French artist/political commentator Honore Daumier, wrote: “Go back, my friends, to our own people, and develop the rich materials of your own land. . . . Art is the child of new understandings and fresh appreciations of common things, and it is beyond the reach of those who are slaves to the impulses of others.” In a strongly-worded 1932 essay called “American Men of Art,” Craven continued to advance his thesis: “We have in America a number of painters who are not fooled by European conventions, who understand that a painting habit, even though it has been acquired abroad, is nonetheless a habit, and that its apparent originality is simply the effect of a new setting. To this group life and experience are more important than art, which is as it should be, for any man who is absorbed in art, to the exclusion of living experience, is on the road either to the madhouse or the Academy.” Adopting a less strident tone, though nevertheless reflecting the then current “looking inward” American artistic ideal, Arthur Millier, writing in the American Magazine of Art in 1934, remarked: “With the shrinking of the market for painted tourist souvenirs, a generation of native artists is nearing maturity. Where the earlier landscape painters contented themselves with an approximation of light and air according to the gospel of Impressionism, these younger artists are discovering the characteristic forms, rhythms, and life of their own country.” In California, the core of this group of “younger artists” (aside from Post) included Millard Sheets, Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, Dong Kingman, Milford Zornes, Phil Paradise, Barse Miller, and Hardie Gramatky. Several of them matriculated at the progressive Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now the California Institute of the Arts) which promoted painting en plein air, and early on established a course in watercolor. Over the course of the 1920s this group gained control of the California Water Color Society, formed in 1921 by artists committed to traditional European watercolor techniques, which usually involved an elaborate, pencil-drawn outline, stylistically rendered in the Barbizon-Impressionist School of Landscape Painting that was popular in the early years of the twentieth century. The group that would eventually evolve into the California School watercolorists were to give the state its first native painting style; the earlier ones, from the age of scientific illustration through the Hudson River-derived landscape years, to a later Whistler-like and Impressionist-derived era, were, in spite of many individual triumphs, essentially foreign imports. The California School watercolorists gave new life to an old medium by spontaneously capturing the movement and activities of people in a variety of settings, be it urban, agricultural, industrial, or recreational in nature. The human figure took on increasing importance as a shift from pure landscape or cityscape to Regionalist genre painting gradually evolved. As critic Glenn Wessels observed: ‘If Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Benton have described the Middle West for middle westerners, this group of Californians are describing California in watercolor for Californians.” To do so, they employed a variety of innovative stylistic flourishes, such as little or no underdrawing, a large format, free, bold brush strokes, broad, transparent washes of rich coloration, and strategic use of the white of the paper as an integral part of the composition. During the 1920s and 1930s the California Style watercolorists not only exhibited individually, but used the vehicle of the California Water Color Society to display their work in traveling group shows, most prominently the Annual Exhibition, which grew to be national in scope. Perhaps owing to personal relationships and shared histories, the movement’s center of influence remained in Southern California for its duration, despite the achievements of many skilled Bay Area watercolorists. Accordingly, the 1937 California Group exhibition, purportedly organized to reflect the work of the finest watercolorists in the state, contained the efforts of only one artist from the north: George Booth Post.
Post’s popularity as an instructor eventually grew to the point that, in his annual appearances at the two-week sessions of the Rex Brandt Summer School of Painting, he would ambidextrously switch hands every so often so that the throng of students usually standing behind him could get a better view of his techniques. During the 1960s, Post expanded his summer-workshop teaching schedule to accommodate the increased demand for his services, accepting invitations to lead symposiums organized by regional art societies such as the Oakland Art Association, which in 1962 sponsored an instructional expedition to Europe supervised by Post, with demonstrations of the art form invoked in Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, Florence, Rome, and London. In 1968, Post decided to take a year off from what had become a rather vigorous teaching schedule in order to concentrate more fully on his painting (with a bit of relaxation), embarking on a worldwide cruise with his companion Elvin Fowler, the two men journeying to the Far East, the Middle East, and the Himalayas, in addition to Europe; over twenty stopovers in exotic locales were part of the itinerary, highlighted by painting forays into Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Singapore, Ceylon, Istanbul, Taiwan, Cairo (where Post was suspected of spying), Kathmandu (“a place everyone should visit”), and Yokahama. (‘With the exception of Tokyo, Japan is like a lovely garden.”) A large number of watercolors depicting views of these countries in Post’s unique style — with each locale distinctively drawn and colored— was part of the outcome of this odyssey, along with the evolution of a new stylistic phase resulting from a move back to rounded brushes and large, stark white paper, onto which he inscribed intricate calligraphic forms and figures. Following his return, Post became a roving instructor/ambassador for the T.H. Hewitt Watercolor Workshops, a California-based organization with an international reputation for offering all-inclusive workshop experiences at a variety of global venues, with instruction and personal critiques by some of California’s most renowned watercolorists. While working for Hewitt, Post made multiple trips to Mexico (“a beautiful country in which to paint”), visited Lake Como in Italy (one of his three favorite foreign settings, along with Normandy and Brittany in France) and traveled to numerous American states (fourteen in total by the time he retired from teaching in 1988). Though the pace of his artistic output declined in his later years, he still managed to make his way around his beloved Bay Area, producing his signature cityscape views of San Francisco and its environs; these late watercolors, some of which document the transformation of the city’s skyline in the 1970s and 1980s, provide an organic bookend to his earlier views, the final application of his talent to a heartfelt visual interpretation of the city he called home.
George Booth Post, the artist of whom Alfred Frankenstein once wrote “had much to say about the American Scene,” died in San Francisco, California, on March 26, 1997. In addition to its inclusion in many distinguished private collections, his work can be found in a number of significant public venues, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Smithsonian-American Art Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the California Palace of the Legion of Honor; the Oakland Museum; the San Diego Museum of Art; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Seattle Art Museum; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the Laguna Beach Museum of Art; the McMullen-Connally Collection at Baylor University (Houston, Texas) and the Mills College Collection (Oakland, California). In the Forward to Gordon T. McClelland’s monograph, George Post (Beverly Hills: Hillcrest Press,1991), Rex Brandt offered these words about his long-time close friend: “Working exclusively in watercolor since his 20s, with a minimum of histrionics, his works have a deceptive simplicity. The decorative charm of a Post watercolor is enhanced by the immediateness of his method — which requires that he paint directly from nature. I think that the secret to Post’s success both as a painter and as a teacher of painting is inherent in the cohesiveness of his personality. There is no dichotomy. What you see is what you get — a loving involvement with the world, focused sharply by the disciplines of paint and white paper. As with the poet Robinson Jeffers, the artist’s life and work are one. In the 42 years I have known him, I have never seen him paint a studio work. He is the one — in rain, mist, or sunshine — responding to a world which he invariably sees as a good one. Post’s influence on his fellow painters and a legion of students is second to none on the West Coast, and certainly justifies his position as the pre-eminent watercolorist of the region.” But perhaps it was Post himself who, in his inimitably succinct fashion, best summed up why so many find his work to be special: “When I see something that makes me happy, I try to paint it, so that others will feel the same way."