For painters like Frank Coburn, capturing beauty began with finding it in places where few others could see it. Much of Coburn’s oeuvre is represented by the bright and picturesque outdoor paintings on display in California Bounty: Image and Identity, 1850-1930. Indeed Coburn did partake in the Southern Californian zeitgeist of venturing out into nature to paint landscapes of Southern California beauty, but this was just one facet of his work. Coburn also painted stoic portraits of Native American and Hispanic peoples, solitary figures making their way through cityscapes beset by summer rainstorms, and scenes from his own life. Coburn’s biographical highlights have previously been examined in this post, but due to the nature of his collection at the Bowers Museum, we are afforded the opportunity to show Coburn in three more intimate vignettes.
Southern California artists rarely painted self-portraits. This makes the Bowers’ possession of what is perhaps Coburn’s most introspective painting all the more valuable as it is the only self-portrait of Frank Coburn that has been discovered. Elizabeth Waggoner, a critic for the Los Angeles Herald, noted in 1911 that Coburn's paintings were a “mingling of realism and poetic feeling.” Certainly this is what we find here. In Coburn's self-portrait we see artist holding a sad, knowing look in his eyes, poised as if to lift himself up by the seat of his pants and disappear altogether. As we will see later with his portrait of his mother, he as the subject is the only defined element of the scene. This work seems to hint at a future Coburn who would spend lonely days in “El Vagabundo” or “The Vagabond”, a mobile studio converted from a bus. Whereas many of the other artists of Laguna Beach’s tight knit community formed relationships with one another, these same bonds which Coburn must have had with his contemporaries and wife seem to be almost entirely undocumented.
What we can speak to is Coburn’s relationship with his sister and mother, evidenced not so much in letters and notes as in the very artworks Coburn created. Coburn was born to Theresa Southwick in 1862 in Illinois. He spent more than the first half of his life living in Chicago, but after his sister moved to El Toro in 1902, it was only six years later that he followed her out to California in 1908. This painting of Coburn’s mother was likely rendered shortly thereafter, and captures her in a moment of pensive contemplation. The scene is an interesting mixture of elements. The face of Coburn’s mother is rendered with an unusual attention to realism, but this quality dissolves as the one moves away from this focal point. His mother’s hands and the background all dissolve into abstraction, perhaps indicating some cognitive loss on the part of his mother, or perhaps as a second nod to the American Impressionist painter, James Whistler. Coburn’s painting is clearly a revisiting of Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, a popular painting in the public consciousness at the time. Critics have noted that many of Coburn’s works, especially during this period, are influenced by the Tonalism Whislter fathered. It is possible that his love for the tangible and abstract figures in his life were both impressed upon this canvas with a brush.
Coburn was clearly very sentimental regarding his work. Aspects of his own life—and quite possibly his anxieties—bleed into his paintings. Relics of the Past / Laguna’s First House supposedly depicts the first house in Laguna Beach. But this scene was revisited by Coburn again and again, and the title of another iteration scrawled in pencil on its reverse by Coburn himself betrays slightly more about the subject matter, The House I Lived In. Coburn lived in both Laguna Beach and later Santa Ana. Though again, almost nothing is known about Coburn’s wife, Luella Elliot, we do know that she moved with Coburn to California and was still living with him at the time of his passing. It could be that the rosy form standing in the doorway of Coburn’s home is the single existing depiction of the love of his life.
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