Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Far East Monotypes of Dan Sayre Groesbeck

Daniel (“Dan”) Sayre Groesbeck (1879-1950) is known in California art circles for his historical murals in buildings like the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and to film scholars for his largely uncredited, behind-the-scenes contributions to approximately two dozen films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially those directed and produced by Groesbeck’s close friend, Cecil B. DeMille.  His career as a graphic artist, however, is all but forgotten except to a number of discerning collectors.

2nd Liberty Loan Poster (1917) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck

Many of the details of Groesbeck’s early life are shrouded in mystery and are likely high exaggerated.  Much of what is known comes from movie studio publicity mill press releases and should be taken with a grain of salt.  Based on a 1942 interview with Groesbeck that I read, he seems to have been complicit in embellishing the facts of his life story.  Groesbeck was allegedly born in Hawaii (his WWI enlistment documents say St. Helena, California), the son of a supposedly famous surgeon who Groesbeck claimed had delivered the baby of King Kalakaua’s sister (and later queen) Liliuokalani.  Groesbeck received his initial art training at the Throop Polytechnic Institute and later studied the art of newspaper illustration, probably at the California School of Design.   By 1904 Groesbeck was an illustrator for book, magazine, and newspaper publishers in New York and Chicago, influenced by the work of noted illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Charles S. Reinhart.  He allegedly roomed with O. Henry in New York City and specialized in illustrating stories of adventure by the likes of Joseph Conrad and Jack London.  He also claimed to have covered the Japanese war in Manchuria (1904-05) which, if true, would have been his first trip to Asia.  He eventually went to work for a Chicago lithography company where he attracted notice for his movie poster designs (as well as for a prize-winning poster for the federal government’s second Liberty Loan program during WWI).

Dan Sayre Groesbeck (c. 1918)

In March 1918, Groesbeck enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force 85th Battalion destined for service in Russia as part of the “Cordon Sanitaire” designed to contain the Bolshevik Revolution.   It is known that he sailed to Japan on his way to Vladivostock in January 1919 and that he left Russia sometime in April or May 1919 when the troops were disbanded and he was discharged.  While in Russia, he participated with the Roadhouse Minstrels, a theatre group formed to entertain the troops whose actors included a young Raymond Massey.  Various sources recount Groesbeck painting scenery and drop curtains, designing costumes, and doing the actors’ makeup for the Roadhouse Minstrels. 

Russian Calvary Scene (1918) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck

Groesbeck later claimed to have arrived in Archangel, Russia in 1916, that he fought with a company of Czechs at the Russian front against the Germans, and that he was later taken in by the White Russian Army as they retreated to the plains of Siberia.  Where the truth lies is uncertain, but his works depicting Finnish peasants do not make a travel to Archangel at some point in time entirely improbable, and his Russian oil paintings bearing a 1918 date before his trip to Vladivostock do not preclude them from being based in part on drawings made on some earlier trip to Russia.  Whether real or imagined, Groesbeck had an exhibition of his “war sketches” at the Friday Morning Club in October 1919, and regularly exhibited his Russian genre paintings throughout the early 1920s. 

Scene from Gone With The Wind (1939) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck

Groesbeck’s career in Hollywood began with some drawings of Biblical figures in costume for DeMille’s 1923 silent movie version of The Ten Commandments.  Three years later, Groesbeck’s reputation as a painter of Russian subjects made him a natural choice to work on DeMille’s The Volga Boatman (1926).  While Groesbeck did not invent the storyboard concept, he raised it to new highlights.   His experience as an illustrator was put to good use in creating “visualizations” of the film script for his directors.  His sketches, watercolors, and storyboards would not only vividly depict the personalities of the film’s characters and the key scenes of the story, but also specific costumes, makeup, lighting effects, set designs, and camera angles to be used.  Some directors, DeMille especially, would use Groesbeck’s artwork to cast actors and to stage and shoot scenes.  With DeMille, Groesbeck would go on to work on such period films such as The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Plainsman (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), and Samson and Delilah (1949), as well as the likes of David Copperfield (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), Union Pacific (1939), and For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) with other directors.  Groesbeck would often also design publicity materials and posters for films once they were completed, most notably a portrait of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939) wearing her green dress made from the drapes of Tara.

Production drawing for The Good Earth (1937) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
Courtesy of Pacific Coast Art

Production watercolor for The Good Earth (1937) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
Courtesy of Pacific Coast Art

Cecil B. DeMille’s autobiography mentions a series of drawings that Groesbeck made while travelling through China, and it is known that he dwelt and sketched for a time in Southern Tibet.  It is unclear when these trips took place, but they might have been a research trip that Groesbeck took as late as the mid-1930s when he was working on the films Lost Horizon (1937) and The Good Earth (1937).  Throughout his life, though, whenever he was in between assignments, Groesbeck would hop a freighter and sail off to some distant land.  If Groesbeck actually visited all the placed depicted in his paintings and prints, the list of countries in Asia alone would include Russia, Japan, Manchuria, Korea, China, Tibet, and Java.

The Landing of Cabrillo (1924) by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
(oil on canvas)

Groesbeck's career as a muralist began in 1924 when he was  commissioned by the Santa Barbara County National Bank and Trust Co. to paint a mural (10 feet by 13 feet) of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landing on the Channel Islands in 1542 off the coast of Santa Barbara.  In 1929, the City of Santa Barbara commissioned what would be by far Groesbeck's largest mural for the 70 foot by 40 foot Assembly room on the second floor of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.  It depicts key historical events in the Spanish settlement of Santa Barbara.  I've included below an image of the room's back wall panel.  To see a 360 degree panoramic view of this massive mural, click here.

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse Mural: "1786  Fr. Presidente Fermin de Lausén builds the Xth Mission at Santa Barbara after the death of Fr. Junipero Serra at Carmel." by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
(oil on linen)

Exhibitions of Groesbeck’s paintings during the 1920s included both etchings and monotypes.  Reviewers favorably compared Groesbeck’s etchings with those of Frank Brangwyn.  How he learned to etch is not known, but he claimed to have taken up etching for relief from work on his ambitious mural compositions, just as Brangwyn and Whistler had done.  Singled out for particular praise were Groesbeck’s monotypes, many of which depict Asian subject matter, especially his lively portraits of Tibetan peasants.

Japanese Triptych by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
(mixed media)
Personal Collection

A press release from the Stendahl Galleries of Los Angeles reported that Groesbeck used a white porcelain plate upon which he rapidly painted not with a brush but his fingertips and the palm of his hand to impart a softness that gave the impression almost of watercolors.  The image would then be quickly transferred from the wet porcelain plate through pressure to a sheet of paper to produce a single, unique image.

Tibetan Guard - Costume Design for Lost Horizon, reproduced in Cinema Arts (July 1937)
Courtesy of Robert Dance
(unknown medium)

Some of Groesbeck’s monotype compositions were later recycled for use in movie productions that Groesbeck worked on.  A monotype of Tibetan longbow guard (#14 below), for example, would later reappear in the form of a costume sketch for the movie Lost Horizon (1937).  A number of Groesbeck’s monotypes were also reproduced commercially in the form of either color lithographs or serigraphs for decorative use.  These copies will bear the stamped notation “copyright by Catalda Fine Arts, Inc. of New York City” in the upper margin.  They also tend differ somewhat from the original monotypes in the colors used and may omit or modify inscriptions and other details found in the originals.

Groesbeck’s monotypes and etchings all seem to be undated and, as far as I know, he did not keep detailed records of his print output.  Moreover, the unique nature of monotypes make it difficult to compile after the fact a complete list of his monotypes.  Excluding his American, European and Russian subjects, the Far East titles that I’ve catalogued so far are listed below.  It can be presumed that, if a serigraph exits, it was based on a generally corresponding monotype.  Unless otherwise indicated, all the following works are monotypes.


1. Village Schoolteacher - Tibet

2. Melon Man - Tibet

3. One Man Theatre - Lhassa Tibet

4. Begging Lama, Thibet

Courtesy of the DeMille Estate

Note: It is possible that one of the above images is a serigraph.  Also, it possible that version owned by the De Mille Estate is actually a painting that the monotype was based on.  However, a third possibility exists, namely, that one is cognate (ghost print) of the other to which color and other details were subsequently added by hand.

5. A Merchant of Lhassa

Courtesy of James Main Fine Art

6. Court Actor, Thibet

 Courtesy of James Main Fine Art
7. Court Dancer, Thibet

Courtesy of James Main Fine Art

8. Hired Funeral Mourner, Tibet

Courtesy of James Main Fine Art

9. Street Beggar, Tibet

Courtesy of James Main Fine Art

 10. Royal Wizard, Lhassa, Thibet

Courtesy of James Main Fine Art

11. Village Beggar
Courtesy of James Main Fine Art
12. Street Juggler, Lhasa, Tibet

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


13. Temple Dancer, Tibet

14. Longbow Guard, Tibet

Courtesy of Peter Calvin

15. Travelling Doctor - Tibet

16. The Puppeteer - Lhassa - Tibet

Personal Collection


17. Dancing Girl - Lhassa - Tibet

18. Street Dancer


19. Court Dancer - Lhassa Thibet

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

20. [Tibetan] Temple Dancer


21. The Sheriff of Shangri-La


 22. Tass(?) Priest with Prayer(?) Wheel

23. Temple Dancer, Lhassa - No image available.
24. Beggar of Lhassa, Thibet - No image available.

25. Street Puppeteer, Lhassa, Tibet - No image available.

26. Teahouse Girl, Tibet - No image available.

27. Dried Grasshoppers, Tibet - No image available.

28. Palas Dancer, Thibet - No image available.

29. Street Dance (possibly Street Dancer) - No image available.

30. The Rain Maker, Thibet - No image available.

1. Girl of Korea

2. Korean Fisherman

Note:  This design appeared on the cover of the June 1949 issued of Travel magazine.  Although stylistically similar to some of Groesbeck's other monotypes, it might actually be a painting or a colored etching.

3. Fruit Seller, Korea - No image available.

4. Korean Merchant - No image available.


1. Sundown On The Yangtse

(etching with aquatint)

2. Coolie Girl

Courtesy of G. Breitweiser


1. Reflections, Hokkaido (detail only shown)

Courtesy of G. Breitweiser

Dan Sayre Groesbeck (1937)

I invite other collectors and dealers to let me know of other Far Asian monotypes and etchings by Groesbeck to add to this list.  For further information on Dan Sayre Groesbeck, I recommend the catalog Destined For Hollywood: The Art of Dan Sayre Groesbeck by Robert Henning (Santa Barbara Museum of Art 2001).

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