An American modernist artist whose six-decade career took him to France before he settled in San Francisco, Otis Oldfield is particularly remembered for his figure paintings and his many depictions of scenes of San Francisco in his oils, watercolors, lithographs and drawings, such as his mural in San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Late in his career his style turned to dreamy abstractions. He taught art at leading Bay Area art schools from 1925 until 1952; his students included Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010). Born in 1890 in Sacramento, Oldfield left school in the 10th grade and after working at various jobs in Sacramento, Nevada and Montana went to San Francisco to pursue art, where he attended Best’s Art School while supporting himself by working as a bellhop and a hat checker. In 1911 he went to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julian at the suggestion of Charles Sabolet, a fellow student at Best’s from France, who joined him. The two friends shared rooms in Montmartre with Marcel Roche (?-1956), another Académie Julian student. During a visit to the Roche family’s summer home, Oldfield met Marcel’s mother, Jeanne Roche, a Parisian milliner. They became lovers and established a residence together in 1916. At the onset of World War I Oldfield stopped painting and went to work for a bookbinder, continuing until 1918, and then resumed painting. He traveled to Normandy, Brittany and the Basque region to paint and draw. Exhibited at the Salon d’Automne from 1919 and in 1923 and 1924 at the Société des Artistes Indépendants, Oldfield’s works received favorable critical notices. After Madame Roche died in 1924, Oldfield returned to Sacramento for several months and then moved to San Francisco, encouraged by his friend Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), whom he had met in Paris. A one-man show at San Francisco’s Galerie Beaux Arts in 1925 of works he had brought home from France was very successful. Oldfield also received a gold medal from the San Francisco Art Association for his drawing The Knife Grinder (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), shown in the Association’s exhibition that year. He was hired to teach painting and drawing at the California School of Fine Art (CSFA, now the San Francisco Art Institute). The next year he married one of his students, Helen Clark (1902-1981), in a ceremony at Stackpole’s studio. Oldfield exhibited widely over the next decades, with shows at various locations in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Thanks to an introduction by the New York City artist Walt Kuhn (1880-1949), Oldfield exhibited watercolors depicting Telegraph Hill and waterfront scenes in two shows at New York’s Montross Gallery in 1929 to critical success. Oldfield was hired by architect Timothy Pflueger (1892-1946) in 1930 to provide painted glass windows decorating the bar of the Stock Exchange Club in the office tower Pflueger designed. A trip on the cod fishing boat Louise to Alaska gave Oldfield sketches that led to a series of 50 watercolors and drawings depicting life aboard a sailing ship. Oldfield was among the artists hired to 1934 by the federal government’s Public Works of Art Project to decorate Coit Tower with murals; Oldfield’s oil painting shows maritime life on the San Francisco waterfront. His painting Figure won the First Prize at the California State Fair that year. Oldfield began creating lithographic prints under the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1936, ultimately making sixteen prints in his series on the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and four more for a North Beach series. Oldfield made eight additional lithographs under two commissions in 1937 and 1939. Deemed out of step with the artistic trend towards Abstract Expressionism, his career at the CSFA ended in 1942 and the WPA program ended in 1943. To support himself Oldfield worked as a marine draftsman, first in Oakland and then at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. In 1946 he began teaching at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), a position that continued until 1952, after which he taught privately. Although he continued to paint, most of his submissions to juried exhibitions were rejected. He received a one-man show and a San Francisco Art Association prize in 1947. He and his wife spent summers at their cottages in the California Gold Country, first in Gold Run and later near Alta. In 1963 one of his paintings was accepted for a San Francisco Art Institute juried exhibition. Oldfield died in 1969 in San Francisco. (TNB 1/2014). Selected bibliography: Moran, Christine and Jayne Blatchly. Otis Oldfield: Complete Lithographs. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2013. Wilson, Raymond L and Ruth Westphal, “Otis Oldfield,” in Ruth Lilly Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, eds. American Scene Painting: California, 1930s and 1940s, pp. 206-209 and passim. Irvine, CA: Westphal Publishing, 1991.
© 2020 Estate of Otis Oldfield / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York