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The Millard Sheets We Didn’t Know

 

By Thea M. Page

 

Detail from Mural for the Home of Fred H. and Bessie Ranke, 1934, by Millard Sheets. Depicting a bucolic California landscape of stylized hills and trees, the mural—painted on a woven wall covering—was painstakingly removed and conserved before being installed in the Stewart R. Smith Board Room at The Huntington. Photograph by Tim Street-Porter.

Detail from Mural for the Home of Fred H. and Bessie Ranke, 1934, by Millard Sheets. Depicting a bucolic California landscape of stylized hills and trees, the mural—painted on a woven wall covering—was painstakingly removed and conserved before being installed in the Stewart R. Smith Board Room at The Huntington. Photograph by Tim Street-Porter.

 

The Huntington is the new home of a residential mural by Millard Sheets

For many of us who grew up in Southern California, Millard Sheets’ mid-20th century public murals are among the indelible images of our childhoods. The mosaics’ active, stylized mashups of iconic Californians—from Native Americans to farmers to typical middle-class families—glittered in glass tiles and flashed before us daily, glimpsed from the back seat of Mom’s car, at the local mall, or in the neighborhood bank. They were packed with moving shapes, lines, and colors, and always upbeat—depicting the California dream of a cultural melting pot with its own character and legacy.

 

In his feature article “Paying Dividends,” which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011-12 issue of Huntington Frontiers, Adam Arenson, a 2012 Haynes Foundation Fellow at The Huntington, wrote glowingly of Sheets: “[He] was a Pomona Valley native and an art wunderkind who started teaching at art school even before he graduated.”

 

At the Los Angeles County Fair, Sheets created the first major annual art and design exhibition in the region. He also established the art program at the Claremont colleges, and, by serving on the board of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation, helped form what would later become the core of The Huntington’s American art collection. Most notably, his studio would team up with financier Howard Ahmanson to create more than 100 mosaics for Home Savings & Loan buildings throughout Southern California and beyond.

 

But in an essay for the 1935 book Millard Sheets, produced when the artist was only 28, Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote about another important aspect of Sheets’ oeuvre, one less public and thus less well known: “While [Sheets] was winning the prizes and painting the pictures which proved so popular, he was decorating houses inside and out, choosing furniture for them, painting murals on their walls.” One of these rarely seen residential paintings, Mural for the Home of Fred H. and Bessie Ranke, 1934, has now found a permanent home in The Huntington’s new Stewart R. Smith Board Room, part of the recently opened Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center.

 

The Rankes commissioned the mural for the dining room of their Hollywood Hills home. The elegant painting depicts, in soft and subtle tones, a pastoral California panorama with rolling hills, a lake and its tributaries, and a shepherd tending his flock. Larry McFarland and M. Todd Williamson, the current owners of the Ranke home, donated the mural to The Huntington to preserve the work of a man whose native landscape inspired and shaped his artistic vision, and to draw attention to a long-hidden side of an artist we thought we knew so well.

 

Thea M. Page is director of marketing communications at The Huntington.

 

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The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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