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The Streight Scoop

With the Rapidity of Lightning: Viewers marveled at the speed with which "Professor" Streight painted.

Santa Clara Valley artist Howard A. Streight--'the world's greatest landscape painter'--turned painting into performance art

By Geoffrey Dunn

NOW LARGELY forgotten, but once internationally renowned, landscape painter Howard A. Streight--who lived in the Santa Clara Valley from the early 1890s until his death in San Jose in 1912--was something of an artistic anomaly. He painted, both literally and figuratively, to the rhythm of his own drum.

Take the account of a Denver journalist who wandered into one of Streight's studios in the late 1870s: "In the production of his many rare works of art," the writer observed, "this eminent artist claims to be controlled by the disembodied spirits of the great masters, who simply use his organism to produce their effects upon canvas."

Streight's painting hand, according to the journalist, was "controlled to move with the rapidity of lightning." His eyes "were closed, or very nearly so," and "when under full control, he became entirely unconscious." Streight placed a large music box in the center of the room and commenced to painting under "spirit control."

Streight was described as "moving in perfect accord with the music," while "his left foot beat a lively tattoo upon the floor." His arm made "all manner of gyrations, dashing from one end of the canvas to the other with lightning strokes."

    Though Mr. Streight was oblivious to everything, the several persons present seemed spell-bound. ... The inspiration of the moment seemed to sway every sensitive person in the room, and we would hold our breath in astonishment.

    In the brief space of thirty-six minutes, in three sittings, he produced clouds, a beautiful sky, mountains, valleys, a lake, trees, rocks ... all blended into a harmonious and beautiful picture, worthy a place beside the finest specimens of art.

Streight's eccentricities did not affect his standing in 19th-century American art circles. He counted among his admirers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and J.G. Holland, the editor of Harper's Magazine. His work was exhibited in New York City and at the National Gallery in London and his illustrations appeared in many magazines and newspapers. He was commissioned to paint murals for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and while he was in California, Jane Stanford, the wife of railroad magnate Leland Stanford, was one of his prominent patrons.

At the time of his death, Streight was heralded in obituaries across the country, including The New York Times, as "America's foremost landscape painter." Today, however, his work is virtually unknown, his reputation obscure. In the 80 years since his death, he is more often than not remembered for his offbeat behavior rather than for his artistic oeuvre.

It's too bad. Streight was a marvelous painter.

BORN IN Brown County, Ohio, on May 24, 1836, Streight spent his childhood in Virginia, showing early signs of artistic promise. During his teens, he returned to his native Ohio, then moved to Iowa, where he struggled to earn a living as an artist. After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, he taught painting and drawing at the Chicago Female College, where he was dubbed "Professor Streight," a moniker that would follow him the rest of his life.

In 1869, Streight was married to the former Marienne Ethridge of England, and is believed to have exhibited at Chicago's inaugural Interstate Industrial Exhibition in 1873. By 1874, as a result of ill health, he had moved to what his doctors felt to be the more therapeutic "thin air" of Denver. He soon became the darling of the Colorado art scene.

Although he was primarily a portrait painter in his early years, the visual majesty of the Rocky Mountains combined with the growing popularity of the Hudson River School inspired Streight toward landscape painting. His works, which often included glowing sunsets and picturesque cloud formations, reflected not only American influences, but those of the Barbizon and Dusseldorf schools as well.

For the better part of two decades, Streight's ascendant career was chronicled regularly in the Colorado's major newspaper of the day, The Rocky Mountain News. Soon after he arrived in the fall of 1875, the News proclaimed: "Mr. H.E. [sic] Streight, a Denver artist, is making considerable reputation for himself here, by displaying his productions. A portrait, in oil, of C.P. Hoyt, our 'crack' deputy U.S. marshal, is among this artist's excellent portraitures."

A Jan. 14, 1877, front-page notice in the News highlighted Streight's upcoming exhibition of "Phenomenal Painting," indicating that "quite a large collection" of paintings by the "eminent artist" would be on exhibit for an evening. The admission price to the event was 50 cents.

The pronouncement reminds us of the role that art once played in American culture. Painting assumed the status of contemporary film or theater and often, particularly in the West, demanded an active component to an exhibitions. Streight often "performed" during such exhibits, calling upon the "spirits" of the masters, and, in a matter of moments, spectacularly produced a completed work of art.

Over the following decade, landscapes by Streight of Colorado, Utah and Arkansas, along with an occasional portrait, would be declared "gems," "brilliant," "remarkable," "gorgeous," "beautiful," "harmonious" and "exquisite" by the News. An 1880 review of Streight's painting Sunset in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains characterized Streight as "an artist of genius" and having "the hand of a master."

It was during his Rocky Mountain years that Streight completed what many considered to be his masterpiece, a massive 6-by-10-foot canvas titled Cross on the Mountain, which depicted the famed Colorado landmark, Mt. Holy Cross, located northwest of Denver. Sold for a reported $15,000 after being exhibited around the country, the location of the painting today remains unknown.

Streight also completed a massive "cyclorama" in 1883 titled The Battle of Gettysburg, which was unveiled that year in New Orleans and then traveled throughout the country to such wide acclaim that the famed French naturalist painter Larpentier urged Streight to join him permanently in Paris.

Courtesy Bingham Gallery/Photo by Joseph Schuett

Sunset Over Stanford: Streight's most accomplished known work captures a vista from the south end of the bay to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

STREIGHT WENT in the other direction. The promise of dryer, warmer weather in California lured the artist, seemingly always in poor health, into yet another move, this time to a farm just outside of Mountain View in 1891.

By 1895, Streight had secured a reputation for himself in California. His exhibition in San Diego of that year received a glowing, front-page reception in The San Diego Evening Tribune. "Among the many striking subjects Mr. Streight brought with him to San Diego," the paper reported, "may be mentioned a large canvas of Mount Shasta, 7-1/2-by-5-1/2-feet in dimensions. Mr. Streight has caught the early morning lights; the sun just breaking through the dense clouds that have gathered around the lofty peaks, after the first snow of the season, is dispelling the mists that have gathered over the foothills."

The Tribune also referenced a painting of "Mt. Hamilton from Santa Clara Valley--the warm summer glow suffusing the middle distance with the mountain seen through a dreamy haze, is a very suggestive and thoroughly characteristic California study."

Streight's more than two decades in Mountain View and San Jose are not well-chronicled. Whether he actively participated in the cultural life of the valley or nearby San Francisco is doubtful, as there are few traces of him in the local historical archives, and he is rarely, if ever, mentioned in local or regional histories. He was apparently something of a social recluse.

Although there are aspects of his work that are similar to those of the legendary painter A.D.M. Cooper--they both lived in Colorado at approximately the same time and both were patronized by Lady Jane Stanford--there is no record that they ever knew each other.

The few known paintings that Streight completed in Northern California provide us with our best glimpse of his years here. His style changed gradually from the primitivism of his early Rocky Mountain works to a more mature tonalism that was fashionable in California in the late 19th century.

Streight was apparently enamored with Mt. Shasta. In addition to the large canvas he exhibited in San Diego, Streight also completed a smaller work of Mt. Shasta (12-by-18-inches) with a swath of the Sacramento River in the foreground. His subtle use of light, color and perspective gives the volcanic mountain a haunting, Oz-like quality.

Streight also traveled up the peninsula to San Francisco at the time of the Great Fire and Earthquake in April of 1906. He apparently sketched the fire at night from Yerba Buena Island, rendering an impressive nocturnal of the carnage strikingly reminiscent of William Coulter's famous painting of the inferno.

Perhaps Streight's most accomplished known work, however, is his painting Sunset Over Stanford (18-by-30-inches), which was once in the provenance of Jane Stanford and the Stanford Museum and which is currently on exhibit at the Bingham Gallery in downtown San Jose (see sidebar).

Rendered in the 1890s from the purview of the East Bay foothills, the painting captures the vista from the south end of San Francisco Bay across the horizon to the Santa Cruz Mountains. A hay schooner is depicted leaving either Alviso, or Jarvis Landing, with one of Streight's patented sunsets glowing over the Palo Alto campus. Although there are hints of primitivism in his depiction of the sailing ships, the colors of the sunset--a range from pure yellow to a fiery crimson--resonate with a vibrancy that belie the era in which it was painted.

IN 1911, near the end of his life, Streight made a final, triumphant return to Denver. In a lengthy front-page profile replete with a portrait of the bearded, aging artist, the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed: "Colorado's Peaks Thrill Anew Famous Artist, Prof. H.A. Streight."

By then, Streight's poor health had caught up with him. Heart troubles forced him to move from his Mountain View farm into San Jose in early 1912. He died in October of that year, never completing one final painting of The Eternal Home, his personal "vision of heaven."

Lengthy obituaries of Streight appeared in the San Jose Daily Mercury, the San Jose Times and the Mountain View Register-Leader. "Love for the beautiful in all things seemed to be inherent in his nature," the Daily Mercury declared. "His home was the center of culture and men considered it an honor to have his acquaintance."

An obituary in the New York Herald by the prominent art critic Frank Comstock assessed Streight's artistic reputation:

    Foremost among the famous in the grand triumphs of art is Prof. Howard A. Streight, the American painter, who has produced some of the finest landscape paintings that the world has ever witnessed. Especially does he love to perpetuate on canvas the glowing scenes which represent the grandeur of our own wonderful country. ...

    Connoisseurs and art critics from Europe and America have passed judgment on Prof. Streight's work, and he has whole volumes commendatory of his wonderful paintings, which have from time to time been published in the leading papers and magazines of this country.

In the eyes of his contemporaries, Streight was a giant. Posterity would not be so kind. One art historian has speculated that Streight surreptitiously switched canvases when the lights were dimmed during his exhibitions of "phenomenal painting," a speculation repeated by other historians, although no documentation to support such a contention has ever surfaced.

More substantively, Streight's work is often viewed as primitive and naive when compared to the tonalist and plein air movements that shaped California art in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Unfortunately, the one painting of his that has been reproduced widely, Pike's Peak or Bust, is almost cartoonish in its composition and does not reflect the subtleties of his more mature work.

Whether or not his best paintings rank among "the finest the world has ever witnessed," or even among the better of California's, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But reputation aside, there is something unique, moving and, yes, mystical, in the way that Streight's paintings captured the "spirit of nature," as he called it, that continues to resonate to this day.

Four major paintings by Howard A. Streight are currently on display in the Bay Area.

Both Sunset Over Stanford and Mount Shasta From the Sacramento River can be viewed at the Bingham Gallery in the Fairmont Hotel, 170 S. Market St., San Jose.

Gray's Peak, Colorado, is on permanent display at the Rengstorff House, Shoreline Park, 3070 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. Call 415/903-6392 for details.

Mountain Scene can be viewed at Collective Antiques, 212 Utah St., San Francisco (415/621-3800).

Keith Walker Bradley, Joel Domhoff and Edan Milton Hughes provided research for this article.

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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