Alson Skinner Clark

Arches, San Juan Capistrano


oil on board
15 x 18 inches
19.5 x 22.3 inches framed

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A landscape painter strongly influenced by the French Impressionists, Alson Skinner Clark spent much of his career traveling and living in foreign countries and then settled in Southern California where he became a plein-aire painter, art educator and muralist.  From there, he also traveled extensively in Mexico and the Southwest.

Alson Clark was born in Chicago to a prosperous family comfortably supported by the father’s commodities business.  He showed early art talent, which his family encouraged by enrolling him in evening classes at the Art Institute.  They also took him on a two-year trip around the world where he gained much exposure to European art.

Graduating from high school, he again enrolled at the Art Institute but unhappy with his teacher, he left after six months, and in 1896, went to New York to study with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League.  He also followed Chase to his own school, which opened shortly after, and enrolled in the Chase summer school of plein-aire painting at Shinnecock.

In 1898, Alson Clark went to Paris where he was a student for several months at the Academie Carmen, whose director was James McNeill Whistler.  Although Whistler was a difficult, demanding personality, Clark respected his teaching, stayed at the school until it closed, and ever acknowledged Whistler’s influence on his Impressionist style.

In 1901, Clark returned to America and married Atta Medora McMullin, whom he met when she modeled for him at Comfort Island, near Watertown, New York, his family’s vacation spot.  From 1902 to 1914, they lived in Paris until the war broke out, and during that time, he took up plein-air painting.  The couple also spent time at Giverny in 1910, and Clark painted with his friends Lawton Parker, Guy Rose, and Frederick Frieseke.

Traveling extensively throughout Europe, the Clarks were supported by successful sales from galleries representing his work in New York and Chicago.  Exhibition venues included the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy, Paris Salon and Art Institute of Chicago.  His work included many landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, and figure studies especially of his wife, who continued to serve as his model.

Although his work ever showed the influence of Whistler, on a summer trip to France in 1907 and two years later to Spain, Clark adopted a much stronger Impressionist style with lighter palette.

In the spring of 1913 the building of the Panama Canal inspired the Clarks to go to the Canal Zone, where construction was nearly complete.  Clark decided he wanted to be a part of the history-making venture, and made connections so that he had nearly open access to the construction site, labor trains and workers.  He painted furiously in horrendous heat to capture on canvas the final construction phase of the Canal and its railroad.  By June, he had many works completed and contacted John Trask, Director of the Fine Arts section of the forthcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  Trask was impressed enough that he gave Clark a room for solo exhibition of eighteen paintings, which put him in the rank of only a few other American artists afforded such status: Frank Duveneck, James Whistler, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent. The display of his Panama Canal paintings earned Alson Clark a Bronze Medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.  Some of the paintings, which were huge, he and his wife had hand-carried out of Europe because of being stranded at the outbreak of World War I.

The Clarks lived with friends in New England and visited Charleston, South Carolina in the winter of 1917, just before the declaration of war by America, and, much impressed by the charm, culture and history of that area did atmospheric paintings including Saint Michael’s Cathedral.  Shortly after, at age forty one, Alson Clark enlisted in the Navy and, with language ability, was sent to France as a military photographer.  Doing aerial photography, he dangled from airplanes, an experience that caused him deafness in one ear.

Told that condition could be solved by living in a warm climate, he and his wife, in 1919, went to California for the first time. Settling in Pasadena and renewing his friendship with Guy Rose, who had returned there in 1914, Alson Clark regained his hearing and was re-invigorated for painting.  Favorite subjects were the Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Juan Capistrano, and he traveled the desert and mountain landscapes in California, the Southwest and Mexico in a rebuilt Dodge truck.  In Mexico, he was especially taken with Cuernavaca and Taxco, doing scenes of the big Taxco Cathedral.

Clark joined Rose as a teacher at Rose’s newly formed Stickney Memorial School of Art, and in 1921, when Rose had a stroke, Clark became Director of the School. That same year, in addition to having a son, Alson Jr., Alson Sr. had his first California solo exhibition, which was hosted by Earl Stendahl, then regarded as the most influential dealer in southern California.

In 1925, Alson Clark took up mural painting, which began with a commission from the Pasadena Playhouse to paint the stage curtain, 20 feet by 32 feet.  This job was followed by a series of murals on the history of California for the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, murals at the Pasadena First Trust and Savings Bank and eight mural-size paintings for a men’s club in Los Angeles.  In addition, he accepted decorative commissions for private homes, designing wall paper and painting screens and wall murals.  He also pursued his own painting interests, much of it plein air that combined tight drawing with impressionist strokes.  He was untouched by the debate between modernism and impressionism and stayed with his own approach.

The Clarks continued with their travels, taking a one-year trip across America in 1933 and a final trip to Europe in 1935.  In 1940, the Los Angeles County Museum hosted a self-curated retrospective of his twenty of his paintings.  During World War II, he organized craftsmen to produce military instruments.  Following the War, his health deteriorated, and in March 1949, he had a paralyzing stroke and died a week later.


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