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Curator’s Log: Arthur Beaumont: Art of the Sea │ A Curator’s View

Credit: Rita Serotkin

Back in 2019, The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum was offered an exciting opportunity—the chance to host Arthur Beaumont: Art of the Sea–an exhibit of paintings that capture the majesty of the oceans and the vessels that have sailed them from the Revolution through the 1970s. The 53 watercolor paintings chronicle and document the accomplishments of the US Navy, from the USS Constitution to World War II, atomic bomb tests, the Korean War, Vietnam, and expeditions to the North and South Poles. The last show on the West Coast before it leaves for the East Coast, the exhibit, was made possible by the sponsorship of George H. & Olive J. Griffiths Charitable Foundation, Mimi Michaelis, Alice Tweed Tuohy Foundation, and Wood-Claeyssens Foundation. This breathtaking collection of paintings, many in an Impressionist style, will be at SBMM from December 3, 2020 to May 30, 2021. As an added feature of this exhibit, Arthur Beaumont’s son, Geoffrey Beaumont, will do a public presentation on April 15 about his father and his personal insights and stories behind many of the paintings. As beautiful as the paintings in the exhibit are, the artist himself and his story are equally colorful. Arthur Edwin Crabbe (1890-1978) was born in Norfolk County, England and emigrated first to Canada and then to Oakland, California in 1908 to join his brother and attend college. Without the social status and finances to go to University in England, he began to study art at Berkeley, which was free at the time. Having been a member of England’s Army Reserve  Cavalry, Crabbe was an accomplished horseman and earned money to support himself as a cowboy…until he got in trouble with a powerful family. Advised to change his name and “get out of town,” he moved to Los Angeles, changed his name to Beaumont in 1915, and returned to his studies, this time at the Chouinard Art Institute and opened his first commercial art studio in 1917.

(Arthur Beaumont: Searching for a Lead, Arctic, 1957, Watercolor, Courtesy of Laurie McLennan Collection)

After marrying in 1919 and studying further with other artists in London and Paris, he returned to the US and began teaching art and watercolor painting at Chouinard in 1926. In his one incident of terrible timing, Beaumont opened his own Beaumont Art Studio in 1929, just as the Depression hit. Fortunately, his wife Dorothy was a dean at UCLA and arranged for him to become the Art & Design Director for the university where he also taught some plein air classes in the harbor, painted California seascapes, and designed posters for the 1932 Olympics. He gained the notice of a naval captain who commissioned him to do a portrait and a painting of his ship…and introduced him to Admiral Leahy, for whom he did several paintings, including one as a gift for the Secretary of the Navy.  In 1932, Leahy commissioned him as a lieutenant in the Navy to serve as the “Artist of the Fleet,” in time to paint the USS Constitution on its national tour and find inspiration for his art. He painted various naval ships during he 1930s and after a couple of years, decided to resign his naval commission to contract separately with the navy and others, and thereby retain ownership and fees for his paintings. During the later 1930s, Beaumont’s career took him in a number of different directions, including doing artwork for the film Mutiny on the Bounty, painting the yachts of various movie stars, illustrating stories and battles to accompany stories in Hearst publications, completing a series of paintings of naval and army equipment for National Geographic Magazine in 1941, and designing camouflage for the War Department.

Although his earliest paintings showed naval vessels in various settings and states of preparedness, following Pearl Harbor, his work supported the US war effort and reflected dramatic life or death struggles in the Pacific…and, amazingly, he did many of his paintings right on the decks of the ships he depicted. Given the risk of water damage on naval vessels, one might well ask, why were more than 95% of his paintings done in watercolor rather than oils? There is a simple answer: The flammability of the chemicals needed for oil painting was more of a risk than water damage!

(Arthur Beaumont: Pacific Patrol, USS Pennsylvania, 1938, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Geoffrey Campbell Beaumont)

Following the end of World War II, Beaumont became the official artist for  Operation Crossroads, documenting the Navy’s first tests of the nuclear bomb at Bikini Island, and continued to travel with and paint for the US Navy on missions to China and Japan. In addition to his work during the Korean War, in the production of movies, in private commissions and personal painting, Beaumont accepted three assignments from the Navy in the 1950s and 60s to paint frozen landscapes in Alaska and Antarctica. Interestingly, in order to paint in the subzero weather, often sitting on the ice, he experimented with adding alcohol to the water he worked with to keep the paint flowing freely. Over the remaining years of his life, he painted the RMS Queen Mary as it arrived in Los Angeles, a series of Revolutionary War-era sailing vessels, portraits of prominent naval officers, and operations along the Mekong River during the Vietnam War, the last when he was 79.

Needless to say, Arthur Beaumont continued to paint for the rest of his life, bringing his unique vision to show the beauty of the sea and the wide variety of vessels that have ranged from sail to nuclear power.

Learn more about the exhibit from Geoffrey Campbell Beaumont, Arthur Beaumont’s son

Watch the Geoffrey Beaumont’s April 15th Webinar Recording

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Maybe there's a happy little waterfall happening over here. A little happy sunlight shining through there. Take your time. Speed will come later. God gave you this gift of imagination. Use it. Once you learn the technique, ohhh! Turn you loose on the world; you become a tiger. Work on one thing at a time.