In 1980, while visiting a western painting gallery in Tucson, Arizona the gallery representative pulled from under the counter a handful of color prints depicting French Riviera villages that deftly combined the techniques of etching and color aquatint. We had no knowledge of the artist, Augusta Rathbone, but we were enchanted by her imagery, her bold use of line, and her color sense and purchased the group. In our research for an exhibition and catalog, Fifty Years of California Prints, we met with Elizabeth Ginno, widow of the etcher John Winkler. Ginno had served as President of the California Society of Etchers and we were anxious to hear her stories. She mentioned that she had had a two-person exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1954 and the other artist was Augusta Rathbone. We were amazed to hear that name and discovered that Augusta was living across the bay in San Francisco and Ginno kindly made the introduction for us.
We first had the pleasure of meeting Augusta Rathbone in the fall of 1982 in her San Francisco studio apartment in an area of the City known as the Tenderloin. She had an air about her of someone who had known wealth and was well traveled and well educated but she was completely taken aback by our interest in her work.
Augusta was born in Berkeley, California on November 30, 1897, and she returned to live in Berkeley for a time after San Francisco was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. Records show that she did attend Miss Hamlin’s School for Girl and Young Ladies in San Francisco. Because she been raised by French speaking aunts and was fluent in French, it was suggested by officials at the University of California Berkeley that she minor in French so Augusta elected to major in studio arts. Shortly after graduating with a B.A. in 1920, an unexpected inheritance allowed her to travel to France and in Paris she enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. She also studied with Lucien Simon and for a period of seven years with the Spanish artist Claudio Casteluctio. She returned to France for extended periods of time over the next eighteen years and at one point had her studio at the University Women’s Club.
The exchange rate made living in France inexpensive for Americans and Augusta was able to take advantage of her situation. An occasional death in her family and further inheritances added to her good fortune. She traveled about Brittany and the French Riviera rendering the towns and villages in charcoal and gouache drawings. A comment from a Chicago artist about how Augusta’s lines would translate into etching, led to the series of etching and color aquatints of those villages. Having no printing experience, she hired the Parisian printer M. Alfred Porcabeuf to professionally print these works paying a rate of $2.00 for a finished print. Twelve of these works were reproduced as pochoirs for the book, French Riviera Villages, which featured stories on the villages by Virginia Thompson and photography by Juliet Thompson. Mitchell Kennerley published the book in 1938.
Gourdon, French Riviera. Etching and color aquatint, about 1935.
Augusta left France for San Francisco at the outbreak of World War II. She returned to painting as she had no facilities for printing but she eventually taught herself how to print her plates.
Travels about the Sierra resulted in a number of etching and color aquatints of the mountains and trees. A train ride along the California coast route inspired a number of prints depicting the coast range. Her large plates of the Canadian Rockies and views of Toronto and Vancouver record her visits to Canada. Augusta also worked in New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, and her beloved San Francisco.
Vancouver, Canada. Etching and color aquatint, 1960.
Washington Square, New York. Etching and color aquatint, 1943.
Old St. Mary’s Church Garden. Etching and color aquatint, about 1950.
In 1941, the City of Paris, one of San Francisco’s leading department stores promoted an “Artists’ Workshop” where customers could see artists creating hand-made objects. Augusta worked in the program making sketches of customers, which she then translated into color etchings.
Patron of the City of Paris Department Store. Etching and color aquatint, 1941.
Augusta exhibited at the Salon de Nationale, Paris, in the spring of 1930 and 1931 and in the autumn salon of 1937. Her work was included in the exhibition American Color Prints at the Brooklyn Museum in 1933, and a solo exhibition of her work was mounted at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1940. Shows of her work were hung in galleries in Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Augusta and Elizabeth Ginno exhibited together in 1952 at the California State Library in Sacramento and again in 1954 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Alfred Frankenstein, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewed Augusta’s 1954 show at the de Young:
The exhibition of color aquatints by Augusta Rathbone, also at the de Young, is one of the most delightful print shows of the year. This artist really knows how to use color in graphic media. She employs it for modeling more than for local description, and this frees her line to crackle, dance, caricature or describe arabesques as the pictorial situation demands. The pictorial situation ranges from San Francisco through the Sierra to New York, Paris and old towns on the French Riviera, all set forth with the utmost deftness, point, character and integrity.
Click here to view all works by Augusta Rathbone.