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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rinaldo Cuneo

Town and Hills, Utah, 1937, Rinaldo Cuneo.
Okay, Cezanne would probably have left out the power line.
Rinaldo Cuneo Self-portrait, ca. 1900
Writers of all stripes sometimes like to play what I call "the game of if." For example, "if" the Confederacy had survived the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson would likely have become one of its presidents. Related to this "game of if" is what I call the "deadline headline" in which various political pundits, employ the words "if," "could," "might," or "may" aimed usually at scaring trusting or ill-informed readers. I usually skip such items. Very well, having said that, let me now demonstrate an artistic example of the "game of if." If Paul Cezanne had lived in California all his life, his paintings would have looked like those of Rinaldo Cuneo. That's what's called a thesis, by the way. Cuneo's Town and Hills, Utah (above), from 1937 looks very much like any number of Cezanne's many renderings of Mont Saint Victoire (below).
La Montagne Saint Victoire, 1885-95, Paul Cezanne. See the resemblance?

Belle View, France, 1913,
Rinaldo Cuneo 
Of course, any such proposition is tainted by the fact that Cezanne was probably an important influence, a pretty safe assumption in that Cezanne has likely influenced literally thousands of artists. And, inasmuch as the San Francisco native, Cuneo, studied for a time in Paris, the assumption is pretty safe in his case as well. Thus the comparison says as much, or more, about Cezanne as it does Cuneo. Yet, indications based upon Rinaldo Cuneo's student work such as his Belle View, France (left) from 1913, suggest that the artist was much more influenced by Impressionism or Pointillism than Cezanne's more fundamental search for visual structure. In fact, biographers seem to think his time studying under the American expatriate, James McNeill Whistler, had a much more dominant impact on Cuneo's mature painting style and palette.

Near San Anselmo, 1916,
Rinaldo Cuneo
Rinaldo Cuneo was Californian through and through, born in San Francisco in 1877, into an Italian-American family steeped in the fine arts. Two of his brothers also became artists, two sisters were involved in opera. The family was firmly middle-class, operating what we'd call today a travel agency, selling passages on steam ships. Even after studying at the local Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, then in London followed by Paris where he was a student of Whistler, Cuneo continued too work in the family business, taking time off to be a naval gunner during the Spanish American War. After the war, the last vestiges of Impressionism in Cuneo's work gradually faded away. His Near Anselmo (right) from 1916 looks nothing like his Untitled painting of Baker Beach (below) from the 1920s. His forms had become heavier, more solid, while his palette had darkened appreciably.

Untitled (Baker Beach near San Francisco), 1928, Rinaldo Cuneo

Still Life with Dahlias, Rinaldo Cuneo
Cuneo returned from Paris an Impressionist turned Tonalist before embracing Modernism. That's a good trajectory to get your work into major art shows and competitions, even into museums. It's not the best road toward living comfortably by selling your work. He established a studio about a block from his childhood home on Telegraph Hill with a great view of the city, which he frequently painted (below). He painted what we'd call today "local color" virtually all his life. Yet he was forced to make a living working on a tugboat for two full years (1916-17). During the 1920s Cuneo's work was critically well received and he was able to eke out a modest living as an artist as his reputation grew.

Cityscape, Rinaldo Cuneo. The degree to which the artist was influenced
by Cezanne is problematical, but Cezanne's type of Cubism is plainly
evident as seen from Cuneo's studio window.

Bay Area Hills, 1934,
Rinaldo Cuneo
Then came the 1930s, a time when Cuneo should have been in his prime as an artist, moving from local to national prominence. Instead, what moved to national prominence was the Great Depression. The stock market wasn't the only market that collapsed. People can't eat paintings. The WPA gave the struggling artist a break as he was invited to paint two lunette murals in the city's brand new Coit Tower landmark. However, even at that, he was just one several and his landscape paintings, such as Bay Area Hills (right), were not exactly outstanding as measured against the social realism of artists such as Ralph Stackpole, Bernard Zakheim, Clifford Wight, Edith Hamlin, George Harris, Otis Oldfield, Suzanne Scheuer, and Diego Rivera. During this period, Cuneo also taught classes part time on an irregular basis at the California School of Fine Arts.

Northern California, 1930, Rinaldo Cuneo. Expressionism had replace Impressionism.
Rinaldo Cuneo died in 1939 at the age of sixty-two, considering himself a failure as an artist.  He was not quite penniless but close, his studio packed with hundreds of unsold paintings. It wasn't until well after WW II, more than ten years after his death, that his work began bringing respectable prices. Sound familiar, Monsieur Cezanne?

Embarcadero at Night, 1928, Rinaldo Cuneo.



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