California Expressionist, Richard Van Wingerden (or “Van” as he is best known) was a native of Rotterdam, Holland who made his artistic mark on the West Coast of California. Van devoted most of his life to the arts, especially painting. He was passionate about helping other artists and he took an interest in mentoring his friend and colleague, Ross Curtis. Together Van, along with Ross and Eileen Curtis, started a regular artist group at Curtis’ Sausalito property. This group is now known as “The Sausalito Teahouse Group”.
Born Dirk Pieter Johannes Van Wingerden, Van was born on the 14th of June in 1893 in Kralingen, Nederland above the grocery shop owned by his Grandfather where his parents both worked. His father Hendrik Pieter Van Wingerden died on February 1st of 1897 after diving in a canal to save one of the children who had fallen in and getting pneumonia. His mother, Martha Bouman Van Wingerden died on November 18th, 1898 leaving the children orphaned. They were placed in an orphanage where Van remained until 1910. On April 2 he went to Canada to join his uncle Dirk Van Wingerden.
Expressionists made use of modernist deconstructive techniques in their work to make the viewer aware of the negative realities of the dispossessed, the evils of war and the dangers of social conformism. They did so through the distortion of familiar forms and the exaggeration of common features. Some of their techniques included flattening outlines, defining and exaggerating shape and volume, and the distortion of color, form, line and movement to bring out their emotional reaction to the subject.
Van was deeply inspired by the beauty of the Northern California landscape, often painting (in watercolors and oils) directly in the outdoors. His California Expressionist style can be clearly seen in these landscapes. The images are less of an exact representation of the scene, and are more of a “push-pull” investigation into color, texture, brushstrokes and form, at times moving towards abstraction. In the 1960s, Van would move from Expressionism into an exploration of Abstract Expressionism.
Van’s other great inspiration was the female form – which he returned to relentlessly throughout the decades. American Expressionists allowed the human body to speak for itself when brought to the center of focus. For many of them the human body, primarily the female body, was a landscape of many moods. In painting the body, they tried to capture that body landscape as if it were the essence of nature itself.
Shortly after Van came to North America, his younger brother, Leonard, followed in August of 1911. They worked for the Canadian Stewart Company Ltd in Calgary until about 1916. The brothers harvested wheat and other crops in both the United States and Canada crossing the border with harvesting crews. Their uncle died in July 1918 leaving them on their own once again.
Both boys were strongly influenced by the uncle, a printer and journalist. Through the uncle the boys first learned of the Marxist-Socialist tradition. Hence, as itinerant workers, both Leonard and Van soon joined the new Debs party-union, the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the “Wobblies”). Anarcho-syndicalism, as expressed by the I.W.W., appealed to millions of American youth, particularly, the immigrants.
Van was gifted with a strong drawing talent and loved the Dutch and Flemish schools of painting of his native land. The ‘Wobblies’ had a good educational program, particularly on the cultural side; but the boys gained their education reading Marx and Nietzsche in the Chicago Public Library, riding the roads across America, singing from the little red songbook, reciting Omar Khyyam over bottles of red wine in the hobo jungles, and seeing modern art in New York galleries. This happy-go-lucky education was tempered in the tank town jails of America, where striking Wobblies inevitably ended up. The story goes, that Van started to paint in one of these jails, adding another skill to his already extensive work experience (Van worked as a logger, farm worker, drayman, and even movie extra).
Van soon undertook some formal study of art, which was to influence his painting. This study was with Thomas Hart Benton (the famed Regionalist and teacher of Jackson Pollock) at the Art Students League in New York. He also studied at the Mary Hopkins Institute of San Francisco where he worked with the sculptor Benjamin Bufano and the portrait painter Spencer Macky.
During the Twenties, life was still bumming around, working the harvests, making a stake, and holing up in winters, preferably in a warm place like San Diego. But sometimes winter quarters were found in the Northwest beaches or in San Francisco's bohemia enclaves such as the "Monkey Block" at Montgomery and Columbus. Partly because of its popularity and partly because of the ease of watercolor for an itinerant artist-worker, much of Van's early work was done in that media.
In the 30’s, and with the onset of the Depression, Van and Leonard became more settled, Leonard marrying at this time. Van spent time in Oregon at Grey's Harbor where he dug razor clams and harvested crops, which was lucrative enough to support a lazy life (until the newest migration appeared in the form of the Oakies) Another more permanent location was the San Francisco Bay Area. Both Van and Leonard participated in the Great Strikes on the western waterfont and eventually found permanent employment in the Longshore and Warehousemans Union of the Bay Area. Van, however, tended to remain footloose and fancy free, often going back to the fields and orchards of the West Coast.
Van settled down in San Francisco at the onset of WWII, he began to paint more and more in the oil media, doing large works. After the age of 55, his production began to increase. Van and Leonard got jobs at the shipyard at Mare Island in San Francisco and rented a large unit above a garage near Golden Gate Park. About one third of the area was a three-room unit which consisted of a large bedroom, a small living room and a large kitchen. Across a long hall which extended to the only bathroom facilities, a toilet, were two smaller rooms which Van used as his living quarters. Much of this area was used as his art studio. Facing constant unemployment in the 50's. Van painted consistently and began to create a large body of work. The paintings in general followed a pattern of still life painting in the late 40's and climaxed in the mid 50's with paintings of the nude figure in a very light pallet. In this manner, Van freed himself of the earlier academic grays. Van also worked on sevearl WPA murals in San Francisco around this time. At one point he moved to the Paper Doll, a San Francisco bar, where he had a job as a janitor.
Around 1959 Van moved to Forest Knolls in Marin Country and lived on the property of his brother, Leonard. There he lived in the basement and had an art studio.
The 60's were very productive for Van. His style of painting was always in the Expressionist mold – a style that wasn’t particularly popular with the public. Subsequently, he received little institutional recognition.
Also in the early 1960s, Van’s friends, Ross and Eileen Curtis established a home for themselves on a Sausalito Farm, and Van became part of the artist scene there. Together they built a potters studio and hosted art events. A Japanese Teahouse, believed to have been recovered from the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, served as a studio and exhibition area for the three of them, along with other notable artistic figures of Marin. During this time Van was also dating another painter, Helen Fox, some of whose work is featured in the Lost Art Salon collection. She was also a regular figure at the Teahouse art shows.
While public recognition eluded Van, he could be called the “artist's artist”, and they all appreciated his delicate and slender drawings and paintings of the nude figure, his vigorous powerful calligraphic brush, and his a la prima color. Above all, he was a true proletarian artist, finding those forms and expressions in the workers' lives, street car riders, old decaying flora in workers' flop houses, empty clothes poles, baskets, and baby carriages. Late in life, and with remarkable energy, Van returned to the Eugene Deb's spirit of revolution and pacifism in the heroic figures of the mothers, the prophets, the Third World, and always, the truly beautiful woman, the essence of life.
Van’s life unexpectedly ended after suffering injuries in a car crash in 1969. Van’s devotion to painting has provided Lost Art Salon with a beautiful collection of his art. His foray into abstraction and his love for the west coast landscape are all evident in the paintings he leaves behind.