Ernest Bruce Nelson
California’s Shooting Star
by Jeffrey Morseburg
Bruce Nelson was one of the most talented California Impressionists to come of age early in the 20th Century. He was a colorist who painted vivid depictions of the California Coast with the dappled brushwork and chromatic palette of Impressionism. In contrast to most of his contemporaries in Northern California, Nelson preferred to paint in the middle of the day, infusing his works with intense California sunlight. Like several of the other outstanding California Plein-Air Painters, his work had a measure of stylization with his blocky brush strokes giving weight and mass to the coastal cliffs he loved to paint. Unfortunately, Nelson’s productive career was very short and consequently his California works are exceedingly rare and highly sought after.
The artist Ernest Bruce Nelson was born in Santa Clara, in the fertile Santa Clara Valley of California. His father, Jessie M. Nelson, was a carriage painter who came from a family of craftsmen. His parents, Jessie and Emelie B. Nelson, moved to California from Oskalosa, Iowa in the 1870s. The Nelsons had two sons, Ernest Bruce, who was born on June 13, 1888, and Marcus (1889-1972), who was just a year younger. Ernest Bruce Nelson, who was called by his middle name Bruce, was an artistically talented young man but he also excelled scholastically.
In 1905 he entered Stanford University, where he joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity. While he was at Stanford he studied art with Robert Bartholomew Harshe (1879-1938), the head of the art department, who became an important mentor and early influence. In his first years at Stanford he was engineering major, but he eventually transferred to the architecture program and subsequently joined a San Francisco architecture firm after graduation in 1909.
When Nelson decided that he wanted to pursue a career in fine art, he moved to New York to enroll at the Art Student’s League, where his teacher Robert Harshe had studied. He seems to have moved east early in 1910. During the school term in New York, the Californian studied anatomy, painted from the model and learned the art of pictorial composition. One of the artists he worked under was the legendary teacher Frank Vincent Dumond.
During the summers he studied at the Art Student League’s Summer School, which had just moved from Rockport to the Arts and Crafts colony of Woodstock, New York. In the forest setting near the Sawkill River, he studied with the Tonalist master Birge Harrison (1854-1929), who was teacher and mentor to dozens of respected American painters. He also studied in with John F. Carlson (1875-1947), Harrison’s assistant and successor at the Woodstock Summer School and another gifted and generous teacher. Carlson was known for his bold, masculine evocations of the eastern forests and his influence can be seen in Nelson’s work. Carlson and Harrison were responsible for helping Nelson reach artistic maturity and long after he became a professional painter he corresponded with Harrison and relied on the older artist for advice.
In 1912, when Nelson returned to California, he settled in San Francisco and began showing the works he had painted in the East and new paintings of Northern California and Monterey Peninsula subjects. That November he exhibited twenty paintings at the Helgesen & Marshall Gallery in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the 24 year-old artist for his “unusual constructive ability” and his values, which were “true and in good taste, with a blend of shades that is gradual and melting, especially in atmospheric effects.” Through the efforts of his mentor Harshe, Nelson also exhibited his work at Stanford University, his alma mater, in 1912.
Because Nelson’s bold, high-key works drew immediate attention, he quickly developed a reputation among other painters allowing him to become a sought-after teacher. In 1913 he moved to Pacific Grove, where he began offering private lessons and group classes in landscape painting. At 28, Nelson was young to begin instructing other painters, but because his own landscape teachers – Harrison and Carlson – had a highly evolved curriculum and teaching method, he was able to pass the visual language he had learned on to other painters.
Once he was settled in Pacific Grove, Nelson began to paint the Monterey Peninsula in earnest. In 1914 he sent a collection of paintings to Merrick-Reynolds, an early Los Angeles gallery. The spring exhibition received an enthusiastic response in the pages of the Los Angeles Times where critic Antony Anderson waxed poetically about his work. Alma May Cook of the Los Angeles Tribune was also enthusiastic, predicating that Nelson would “occupy a very high place in the annals of American Art.” Later that year some of the same works were on display in another exhibition at the Helgensen & Marshall Gallery in San Francisco. Nelson also began to exhibit his works in the gallery of Monterey’s Hotel Del Monte, where each artist in the gallery had a number of paintings on display throughout the year.
When the 1914 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco, four of Nelson’s paintings – “Along the Shore,” “On Golden Shore,” “Sea and Sky” and “The Summer Sea” – were exhibited and he was awarded a silver medal. This was a great coup for a painter who was not yet thirty. In the huge 1916 volume “Art in California” that summarized the Exposition in words and images, Nelson’s work was singled out: “The other walls are devoted to a number of younger men, notable among whose work is a canvas by Bruce Nelson, who is one of the youngest of western artists and a winner of a Silver Medal. There are pictures by Nelson in other rooms and all attract decided attention.” In 1916, when a new museum, “The Oakland Gallery” was inaugurated, an entire room was dedicated to thirty of Nelson’s works. With their more panoramic compositions, blocky forms and vivid colors, his paintings stood out, especially when compared to the work of the other Northern California painters who worked in muted colors and painted more intimate compositions.
After this tremendously successful start in life, Nelson’s artistic career began to cool and information on the artist becomes scarce. In 1917 he was living in Palo Alto. That year the United States entered World War I and Nelson answered the call, joining the United States Army, where his artistic skills were put to work designing camouflage. After his military service, the painter moved to New York. Now, through the Nelson family, it has become known that he was gay and that he probably moved to the metropolis in order to gain a measure of anonymity and freedom. In that era, it was not possible to live an openly gay lifestyle, once the artist moved, he seems to have gradually severed his ties with the art community in California and gradually faded into the shadows.
After moving to east, Nelson set up a studio on 86th street in New York City where other artists and musicians had studios. After he moved to New York, he continued painting, often autumn and winter landscapes that were even more stylized than his California works, but his artistic production was small. Nelson also seems to have painted some portraits, but few, if any of these seem to have surfaced. His exhibition record grows cold by the mid- 1920s.
In the east, Nelson began spending time in Cooperstown, New York, where a close friend, Dr. Henry S.F. Cooper (1895-1984) and his family lived. The great-grandson of the author James Fenimore Cooper, Dr, Cooper practiced in New York City, but spent a great deal of time in his ancestral home. Nelson was commissioned to paint murals in Fynmere, the Cooper family homestead.
In the later stages of his career, Nelson painted a number of architectural works, distinguished homes in colorful country settings. As he aged him works became more stylized, but even these paintings are rarely discovered. During the Great Depression, when art sales were scarce, Nelson joined the massive WPA Art Project and he seems to have remained with it until it was wrapped up in 1943, during the middle of World War II. It was long thought that Bruce Nelson died in 1952, but more recent information has come to light that he passed away in New York City in September of 1971. Copyright, 2009-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without the specific written permission of the author.