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Ralph Chessé
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
New Orleans, LA
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Biography from Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts: A self-taught artist, Ralph Chessé was born in New Orleans and moved to Southern California in 1923. He headed north to the Bay Area in the early 1930s, where he painted and worked as a professional puppeteer in children's theater, an activity he mastered and continued throughout his life. As one of the artists selected in 1933 by the Public Works Art Project, Chessé contributed to the Coit Tower murals. His fresco reflects his work in children's theater by depicting children at play, and seems to present its characters in an almost puppet-like manner. Each child is separated in space and frozen in movement, almost as if they are posing for a picture or pretending to play. Its design was inspired by the work of early American primitive limners, who traveled the land in the years before the spread of photography. They brought along with them canvases pre-painted with bodies--headless bodies waiting for individual face portraits to be added. Chessé linked his physically isolated children by way of a gravel path that guides the eye downward from left to right through the mural and past each child at play. Chessé was primarily a painter on canvas, and his contribution to the Coit Tower murals was his sole work in fresco. He explored many styles of Modernist painting on his canvases, and was strongly motivated by color. Primarily in the 1940's, Chessé painted African-American figures, many of them dock workers, in social-realist scenes recalling his boyhood in New Orleans. He also did religious themed motifs derived from the "Bible". During World War II, he created paintings of the shipyards in the Bay Area. Later in life Chessé moved to Oregon where he painted in a more abstract, but still figurative style, until his death at the age of 90. Biography from AskArt: Born in New Orleans, LA on Jan. 6, 1900. Chessé began painting at age 17 and remained a self-taught artist except for a few months spent at the AIC in 1918. He came to California in 1923 and, after a brief time in Hollywood, settled in San Francisco. In 1934 he was one of 26 artists chosen by the federal government under the Public Works of Art Project to paint the frescoes in Coit Tower. His work there is entitled, Playground. Motivated by color, he explored many styles of modern painting. In 1984 Chessé retired to Ashland, OR where he remained until his demise on March 17, 1991. As well as a painter, he was a well-known puppeteer. Exh: Modern Gallery (SF), 1927; SFAA, 1928 (prize), 1929; Oakland Art Gallery, 1928; SFMA, 1941 (solo); Meet the Artist Show, De Young Museum, 1943 (self-portrait); Labaudt Gallery (SF), 1962.Source: Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940" Interview with the artist or his/her family; American Art Annual 1929-33; Who's Who in American Art 1938; SF Chronicle and SF Examiner, 3-20-1991 (obits.) You may also find additional information at