George D. Otis was a widely traveled artist whose time in Nevada was intermittent. In addition to two periods in the 1930s during which he painted landscapes throughout Northern Nevada, Otis is remembered for his naturalistic paintings in dioramas at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Completed in 1941, they served for many years as the backdrop in a number of display cases featuring Nevada wildlife.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Robert A. Nylen
GEORGE D. OTIS
The Completion of the Fleischmann Dioramas for Nevada Day in October 1946 marked an important event for the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. The dioramas were the first exhibits to be financed by philanthropist Max C. Fleischmann, and they represent the museum's first professionally designed exhibits.l Fleischmann had taken a personal interest in the museum since its founding in 1939, and in 1944 he decided upon a $7,500 gift to fund a series of dioramas depicting Nevada's most significant mammals. Two of the dioramas installed in 1946 were notable because their backgrounds were the work of one of America's foremost landscape painters, George Demont Otis.
Otis has been called the landscape painter of America because he traveled and painted in thirty-eight states during a colorful career that spanned sixty-five years.2 Otis's association with Nevada was brief. He spent several summers in the early 1930s painting landscapes that he sold out of a simple wooden stand in Reno. His contribution to the Fleischmann dioramas marked his final association with the state.
Otis was a prolific painter.3 He was also considered an excellent teacher with a strong personal philosophy of life, which he applied to his art. That philosophy was in fact the guiding basis of his art. He said:
Five guiding factors have been my aim in life—using them for the great potentialities that they are—humility, reverence, inspiration, deep purpose and joy. Knowing that all noble art is the expression of man's delight in God's work and not his own and knowing that added to this for utter fulfillment of needs one must possess self-respect and faith.4
For thirty years, Otis was a part-time instructor of both beginners and advanced art students, some five hundred of whom went on to become professional artists. Since he derived a steady income from the sale of his art work, Otis was never required to teach full time. He did, however, have deep convictions about art education: "From the start one must teach the student self-respect and faith in himself." He also believed that he, as instructor, should consider himself as just "another student, a little more able to guide, and as a friend to the aspiring artist, rather than a critic or a pedantic teacher."5 He gave up teaching in 1939 but was always available to advise and assist other artists.6
George Demont Otis was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 21, 1879, the youngest of three children of George and Etta Otis. His father, a railroad engineer, was killed in a train wreck two weeks after his birth, and his mother died when he was six years old. He was sent to live with an aunt in Sedalia, Missouri, but at age twelve, was placed by his relatives in the home of a Chicago family. His artistic talent was discovered early, and at fourteen he entered the Chicago Fine Art Academy.7 His art education was continued at the Chicago Art Institute, the Philadelphia Academy of Arts, the National Academy of Arts, the National Academy of Design in New York, the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy, and Woodstock School of Painting of White Plains, New York, the Cooper Institute in New York, and the Art Students League of New York.8
Early in his life Otis had a promising career in baseball, spending two years as a pitcher with the Nashville and Memphis clubs of the Southern Association. He used his earnings to finance additional art education, and he also produced hundreds of grease-pencil drawings. When his commissions for paintings increased, he decided to give up baseball and concentrate on art.9 Otis returned to Chicago in 1900 and spent the next fourteen years as instructor, stage scenery designer, art restorer, and art appraiser. He worked on curtains, drapes, and side wings at the Opera House in Chicago, and was also associated with other opera houses and theaters in the Midwest and East.10
When he became ill in 1916, he was advised by a prominent Chicago physician to leave the city. Upon arriving in Colorado, he set up a studio in an old barn at Estes Park, "gateway to the Rockies." He painted scenes of Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah and the scenery of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. His work during the years in Colorado won many awards. Otis became interested in the Indian tribes of the Southwest—Hopi, Navajo, Yuma, Isleta, Acoma, Taos, and Pima. He gained their trust and a limited knowledge of their languages. Some two hundred watercolors resulted from his study of the daily life of these peoples.11
Wanderings in 1919 took Otis to Southern California, where he fell in love with the climate and the scenery. He appreciated the fact that outdoor painting there could be done all year round. In 1924, he moved to a mission-style house in Burbank, set up a studio, and became active in the art community in Los Angeles. Employed as a scene designer by the movie industry, Otis worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film mogul Louis B. Mayer. He became very much a part of the Hollywood social scene and developed a friendship with silent-screen comedian Buster Keaton.12
The strain of the social life and pressures of work in Hollywood caused Otis to re-evaluate what he wanted in life. He abruptly left, deserting an art collection, personal effects, and problems in order to get back to nature. His adventurous spirit led him back to the Southwest—to New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado.13
After a year and a half of wandering, Otis settled at the San Francisco studio of the former sculptor Arthur Putnam, just across from Golden Gate Park. Otis was through with traveling, and met at this time his future wife, Clara Van Tine, a businesswoman from San Francisco. They were married in Reno on November 25, 1931, by Judge Thomas F. "Barney" Moran,14 who was a cousin of the painter Thomas Moran, one of Otis's closest friends.15
During the summers of 1932 and 1933, Otis and his wife returned to Northern Nevada to avoid the cold and fog of the Bay Area. In those two stays, Otis executed many paintings and etchings of the Carson Valley, Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe, Mogul, Carson City, and Virginia City. He had a small studio in Virginia City but came to Reno to market his works. They set up a simple wooden stand, and many pieces were sold to divorcees.16
The Nevada landscapes follow in the mold of Otis's previous works, demonstrating richness of color and a great love of trees. His interest in native Americans and Pyramid Lake reappeared, specifically in three beautiful landscapes that focus on the lake. Their titles speak of life on the reservation: An Indian Home, Boats to Let, and Fisher Folks.17
Cottonwood and poplar trees figure prominently in many of the Nevada paintings. Otis loved trees, and they appear again and again in his landscapes. He believed that they represented "God's greatest work."18 A former student, George Roberts, recalled that his mentor loved trees and was known for the way he painted them. Otis had described them thus: "Trees express the wind. They keep the earth from being a desolate place. They graciously furnish a cooling spot in their shade. They feed the hungry with their fruits and act untiringly as sentinels and landmarks. They are living things. Paint them that way."19
Otis's interest in Nevada seems to have waned after 1933; he and Clara had become engrossed in the construction of their house and studio in Kentfield in Marin County, where he spent the rest of his life.20 He painted in the San Francisco Bay Area, but was particularly attracted to the Muir Woods, Lagunitas Creek, and Mount Tamalpais during this period.
Otis's last association with Nevada occurred in 1946 in connection with the final three Fleischmann dioramas. In 1944 Fleischmann had engaged Frank Tose, director of exhibits at the California Academy of Science, to design and install dioramas of the principal Nevada mammals for the Nevada State Museum. Tose was taken ill in October 1944, and died in November.21 His son Cecil,22 who worked with him, completed the contract and delivered five dioramas—mule deer, elk, mountain lion, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep—in time for Nevada Day in 1945.
Upon his father's death, Cecil Tose had convinced Major Fleischmann to allow him to finish the project. He did the technical work on the dioramas, while the art work was done by Gilbert Tange and Walter Rivers.23 Tose spent many weeks in the field collecting information, specimens, and photographs to be used by the artists in painting the backgrounds, which depicted actual Nevada scenes.24
The first five dioramas were so well received that Major Fleischmann and the Board of Trustees decided to add three more. Otis was hired by Tose to paint background murals for the beaver and the black bear.25 The scenery for the beaver was taken from a view of Little Valley just beyond the ridge of the Washoe Valley. The black bear scene was put together from the Tahoe region. These were areas that Otis had been familiar with while he was a summer resident of the area in the early 1930s.26
The Fleischmann dioramas were an important part of the natural history exhibits at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City until 1982, when a new state museum was opened in Las Vegas. The Nevada State Museum's Exhibits Department designed these unique displays into the Natural History gallery at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society in Las Vegas. These two dioramas are Otis's only pieces of public art remaining in the state.
1. In the late 1940s Major Max C. Fleischmann funded the construction of a replica of a silver mine at the museum at a cost of $50,000. The mine replica opened on October 31, 1950, and remains one of the museum's most popular exhibits. Sessions S. Wheeler, Gentleman in The Outdoors: A Portrait of Max C. Fleischmann (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985), 56-58.
2. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist (November 1979): 74-79, 108-111.
3. Otis specialized in landscapes, but he also was skilled in portraits, still lifes, marine, and city scenes. He worked in all the major media, including oil, watercolor, gouache, opaque, etching, dry point, pastel, wood block, and wood carving. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist (November 1979); 74.
4. The San Rafael, California Daily Independent-Journal, 12 August 1950. (Hereafter cited Daily Independent-Journal)
5. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist (November 1979).
6. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist (November 1979): 74-79.; "George Demont Otis 1879-1962, American Impressionist, Painter of America," in Golden Gate Collection Exhibit Catalogue. (Fort Mason, Ca.: George Demont Otis Foundation): n.p. (Hereafter cited "Otis: American Impressionist."); Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
7. His talent was discovered in 1893 by the wife of Illinois's United States Senator James Atkins. Mrs. Atkins was a teacher at the Chicago Beale School. Shortly thereafter, Senator Atkins arranged for a full scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute; Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
8. Otis studied under many prominent artists of his day, including Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Vanderpoel, Winslow Homer, George Inness, and Thomas Moran; Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960; George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artists (November 1979): 74; George Roberts, "George Demont Otis Was My Teacher," in Golden Gate Collection Exhibit Catalogue (Fort Mason, Ca.: George Otis Foundation, 1977.)
9. Otis's baseball wage was $250 to $300 a season plus $3 for each exhibition game; Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960, M4. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist, (November 1979): 79.
10. Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
11. Otis painted many scenes focusing on basket weavers, sheepherders, turquoise workers, and potters; Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
12. During the 1920s, Otis often returned to the Southwest between motion-picture jobs to paint the desert landscapes; Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
13. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artist (November 1979): 109.
14. Nevada State Journal, 20 August 1938.
15. Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
16. Grace Hartley, telephone interview with author, Carson City, 14 July 1986.
17. George Demont Otis File Folder, Nevada State Museum Archives, Carson City.
18. Daily Independent-Journal, 13 February 1960.
19. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis Was My Teacher," in Golden Gate Collection Exhibit Catalogue (Fort Mason, Ca.: George Otis Foundation, 1977).
20. George Roberts, "George Demont Otis: Western Impressionist," American Artists (November 1979). George Otis died in 1962 at the age of eighty-two.
21. San Francisco Chronicle, 16 November 1944. Frank Tose was born in England in 1884. He was director of exhibits at the California Academy of Science for twenty-five years.
22. Cecil Tose also worked for the California Academy of Science. He studied under the famous Janas brothers who made most of the large habitat sets in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Reno Evening Gazette, 4 November 1945.
23. Both Tange and Rivers were familiar with the requirements of diorama construction. Tange had been a pupil of the elder Tose at the California Academy of Science during the construction of the Stimson African Hall. Walter Rivers was a former student of Otis.
24. The content of the Fleischmann dioramas is as follows: The antelope diorama was designed to show pronghorn antelope in northern Washoe County at the Sbeldon Reserve. The mountain sheep scene presents the animals crossing from the summer range in the Monte Cristo Mountains grazing south to a point near Indian Springs. The elk diorama depicts a site at Success Summit looking toward Duck Creek in White Pine County. The mule deer diorama was designed around a scene on Mount Rose. The mountain lion diorama came from a scene near Sacramento Pass near Ely. The beaver diorama design came from Little Valley near Washoe Valley. The black bear diorama was from Tahoe. The coyote diorama shows Jack's Valley looking toward Job's Peak in Douglas County.
25. Cecil Tose knew that Otis was familiar with diorama techniques because Otis had worked for Tose's father on the Stimson African Hall in 1932.
26. See Nevada State Museum Accessions Records, October 1941-June 1956; Accession number 190-G, November 1946.
None at this time.