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by Charlotte Berney


In the last part of his life, John A. Dominique became a living treasure of California art. When one visited him at his Ojai, California studio, he would talk about his years at the California School of Design when Armin Hansen and Maynard Dixon were on the faculty, he would describe his reaction to the paintings at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, and he would reminisce about the early southern California art scene, when landscape was considered the ultimate art form.

Always modest and soft-spoken, Dominique did not express any awareness of the enormity of his 80 years spent in art during a tumultuous, formative period. After all, he was still living it, painting every day, and totally immersed in the contemplation and expression of his art. When he died on February 20, 1994, at the age of 100, he was one of the last painters of his exciting era. He left a body of art work that is distinguished for its excellence and individuality, a fine legacy of his chosen pathway.

John August Dominique was born in Viserum, Sweden on October 1, 1893, of a family line with a French ancestor, hence the French name. At age 7, his family immigrated to the United States, settling in a farming area near Portland, Oregon. A plant nursery man in Sweden, John's father worked as a florist in Portland and later became a landscape architect.

Though John was to use the skills learned from his father in caring for plants and the land, his early inclination was toward art. An interest in drawing as a youngster led him to study cartooning and he began supplying cartoons to local newspapers. In 1913, with a growing interest, John enrolled in the School of the Portland Art Association, where, according to the art training of the day, he drew from casts of classical sculptures.

John decided to make art his life's work and in December of 1914, left Oregon for San Francisco. Living in Berkeley where his sister was attending school, he took classes at the California Art School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with early California painter Perham Wilhelm Nahl and went to lectures by artist/art historian Eugen Neuhaus.

Following his stay in Berkeley, Dominique crossed the Bay and enrolled at the California School of Design of the San Francisco Institute of Art (since 1961 called the San Francisco Art Institute), where he would study for two years.

Dominique had arrived in San Francisco at a propitious time. Having recovered from the disastrous 1906 earthquake, the city was ready, in 1915, to proclaim its resurgence with a world's fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In an age when printed information was not omnipresent, fairs were a dramatic means of exposure to other ways of thinking and seeing. The Fine Arts Exposition, with works by Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka and the Italian Futurists, greatly impressed Dominique and his fellow art students who attended the show every weekend.

Dominique was fascinated by the Modernists and shocked by the negative comments he heard about them. "People used to walk through there and laugh and make fun of them," he said. "I could never understand why people couldn't see the beauty in those pictures." he added that he thought they were seeing with their minds and not their eyes.

The result of Dominique's revelation about modern art was that he would begin painting abstract works, but not until 1925. An unfortunate result of his experience at the show, he was always reluctant to exhibit his abstract works because he thought they might be ridiculed.

At the time, Dominique and many of his artist associates were painting in a style influenced by the French Impressionists. The students learned from and were reinforced by the many Impressionists at the Exposition. Dominique says that his teachers for the most part taught Impressionist techniques and focused on landscape.

The faculty at the Institute of Art included many who were or were to become major painters of California art, such as John A. Stanton, Frank Van Sloun, Henry Varnum Poor, Armin Hansen, Xavier Martinez and Maynard Dixon. Dominique took classes from them all and went out sketching with Armin Hansen. Frank Van Sloun, one of California's most respected artists, became Dominique's main teacher and mentor.

When Van Sloun opened his own school, The Van Sloun School of Painting, in San Francisco, Dominique followed his teacher and enrolled. Though the school closed in 1919, Dominique found his four years of work with Van Sloun to be richly productive.

The war years intervened, and Dominique enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, serving in Camp Meade, Maryland. During his leaves, the young artist was able to visit the museums and galleries in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. He was honorably discharged in 1920, and traveled to Santa Barbara, California, where his father was working as a nursery owner and landscape designer.

Thus began an era during which Dominique would live a landscape artist's dream. His father had helped lay out the garden for a large Montecito estate, which was in need of a caretaker. Through his father's connection, Dominique secured the job of looking after the vacant estate. He had a small house and studio on the premises, which included beautiful views of the Santa Inez Mountains, a lily pond, trees and flowers. He would live on the Ward estate for fourteen years, and its scenery is reflected in many of his early paintings.

During this time, Dominique took courses at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara School of the Arts. These were seminal institutions in California painting, attracting plein air artists who loved the fine weather and unspoiled scenery of the region.

Two artists prominent during this era were Colin Campbell Cooper and Carl Oscar Borg, both of whom lived and worked in Santa Barbara. Dominique studied with them and said he learned a lot from Cooper and went out sketching with Borg. During this time also, he received informal instruction from Thomas Moran, who had settled in Santa Barbara in 1922. He recalls attending Moran's funeral in 1926.

This was a fertile period in Dominique's artistic life. With the time to paint and study, his innate talent, coupled with training, came to prominence. His work began to be exhibited widely in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, in galleries, art association shows, libraries and state fairs.

Expanding his repertoire in 1925, Dominique began to do the abstract work that had so intrigued him at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. He said he was also influenced by the work of Wassily Kandinsky, whose book, The Spiritual in Art, and whose work, he much admired. When asked about whether or not the abstracts and landscapes influenced one another, he said, "I've often wondered about that. I've done so many landscapes, and I wonder if I don't add that to my abstracts."

A true plein air artist, Dominique would go out sketching often with fellow artists. One of his companions, Anders Aldrin, was also born in Sweden. Aldrin's daughter Betty Aldrin Bentley, describes with fondness the family's visits to the Ward estate. Though Aldrin's Modernist work differed from Dominique's, the two friends and other painters would go out for a day or even a week at a time, sketching in Morro Bay, Pacific Palisades, San Juan Capistrano, or even the Mojave Desert and Mammoth Lake.

Of plein air painting, Dominique said, "I never use photographs and I never created a landscape in the studio. If I wanted to do a large landscape painting, I would do the sketch on the spot and as soon as I got home, would start working on the large canvas."

In his early work on the Ward estate (1920's), Dominique captured its manicured gardens with smooth lines and tidy brushwork. In the 1930's his brushwork became bolder and more expressive. An experimenter who said he didn't want to paint the same way all the time, Dominique moved in varying degrees between representation and abstraction in his landscapes. His mature work of the 1950's and 1960's are in the full style called California Impressionism, with occasional works that are loose and Expressionist. He once said, "I approach my canvas as though I never painted before, as a new thing. I'm perfectly free to do as my feelings tell me each time."

Dominique's distinguishing characteristic is his power and the sense of integrity that imbues his work. Though he chose not to follow his father's line of work, obviously a great deal of his father's love and caring for the land was passed down. Dominique's landscapes capture both his devotion to the land and his conviction that nature is a living, breathing entity with a dynamism all its own. Standing before a Dominique landscape, one feels both the harmony and vital life forces that underlie existence.

As such, his works diverge from the occasional blandness for which California Impressionism has been criticized. His works are never placid, and recall the dynamic harmonies of the Post-Impressionists such as Van Gough and Cezanne.

Arthur Millier, artist and critic, referred to Dominique as "a poet of landscape." In a Los Angeles Times review on October 8, 1933, Millier said of Dominique's work then being exhibited at the Egan Gallery: "Dominique stands inside the landscape which he paints, conscious of other things than the facts of sight. While painting it, he seems to be the landscape. He paints the earth, or that fertile crust of it on which we live, as a living being with flesh of soil, skin of grasses, hair of trees, and that quality of livingness we call a soul."

In the late 1920's, Alexander Harmer, the famous California painter of Spanish scenes and founder of the Santa Barbara art colony built studios for artists on De La Guerra Plaza in that city. Offered one by Harmer's son, Alfred Douglas Harmer, Dominique moved his studio downtown about 1927, while continuing to live at the Ward estate. Dominique had arrived as a painter, achieving recognition in shows, reviews and sales of his paintings.

With the sale of the Ward estate in 1935, Dominique decided to spend some time in Oregon, and went to live near Canby, managing the ranch where he had grown up. In Oregon, he went out often on plein air excursions with the Oregon Society of Artists and exhibited his work in group shows. With less congenial weather for plein air painting, the artists would take a large tarp with them which they would set up in case of rain.

Dominique painted Oregon's mountains, sketched along the Columbia River, and searched out covered bridges along country roads. In 1940, he won a first prize at the Oregon State Fair for his painting, Covered Bridge Over Butte Creek at Scotts Mills, now owned by the Scott Mills Historical Society.

After a sojourn of eight years, Dominique returned to California in 1942. Dominique lived in Santa Barbara, then in Los Angeles, where he exhibited with the California Art Club and had work shown at the Los Angeles County Museum and Santa Barbara Museum of Art. During this time, he supplemented his income working at framing shops.

Asked to manage a frame shop in Modesto, California, Dominique moved there in 1952, spending his weekends painting along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers.

Expressing the "wanderlust" that he said came down to him from his ancestors, Dominique returned to San Francisco, then moved to Monterey, California, where he again was instructed by Armin Hansen. While there, Dominique worked in artist Myron Oliver's famous frame shop that was a center of artistic life on the peninsula.

Following this, Dominique lived for a time in Laguna Beach, then in San Diego, painting and exhibiting all the while. Back in Santa Barbara, he opened his own frame shop, but soon found it "took to much time away from painting."

In 1959 he moved to the Ojai Valley just north of Santa Barbara, one of California's most scenic areas. A plein air painter's dream, the area offered delightful weather, mountains, canyons, streams, orange groves and ancient oak trees. Dominique bought a house in Meiners Oaks, where he maintained a studio and lived until his death.

Dominique's membership in the California Watercolor Society and participation in its touring shows during this era, gave his work wide exposure around the nation.

In Ojai, Dominique's style seemed to bond with the land. His expressive works portraying the Topa Topa Mountains, Los Padres National Forest, Wheeler's Gorge and Matilija Creek, are perfectly rendered to capture the vigor of the landscape along with its poetry. His creek paintings are among the finest in his repertoire.

Dominique's landscape painting was almost at an end. In 1975, he developed a hemorrhage in one eye that proved untreatable, and soon thereafter, the same problem affected his other eye. This left him with severely damaged eyesight and legally blind. Characteristic of the man, this did not deter him from painting.

The abstract paintings he had begun doing in 1925 now stood him in good stead. He continued to paint his abstracts daily, having friends assist him in purchasing paint and arranging them in a certain order on his work bench. Never did one hear him express a feeling of self-pity; he continued painting, loved discussing art and enjoyed hearing about art exhibitions.

The loss of his eyesight, something that might have embittered others, gave him a special strength and determination to pursue his art. He created thousands of abstract works that have not been widely exhibited or evaluated.

Until the abstracts are better known, Dominique will be known for his powerful landscapes of California and Oregon, which embody 80 years of insight, experience and talent in art. His historical place in art is a plein air painter who, while partaking of the best of California's 20th century, still forged his own individualistic vision.

Charlotte Berney is a writer who specializes in American art. Her articles have appeared in Antiques & Fine Art, Art of California and Cowboys and Indians. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico