Main Gallery

The Piazzoni Legacy

Three Generations Paint the Splendors of California

April 30 - June 26, 2005

Curated by Jan Holloway

Gottardo Fidele Ponziano Piazzoni, Mireille Piazzoni Wood, Thomas Wood and Russell Chatham


This talented family’s artistic legend begins in 1887 in California’s Carmel Valley when a15-year-old Swiss boy, Gottardo Piazzoni, fell deeply under the spell of the incomparable Monterey landscape. He had emigrated with his mother and brother, joining his father who had earlier established a ranch. But it was soon apparent that Gottardo’ s interests lay not in raising cattle or working the soil but somehow capturing the beauty and spirit of his new home permanently. He had shown an interest in drawing and painting, and his father, finally realizing his son’s ardor, permitted him to go to art school. Enrollment at San Francisco’s California School of Design lasted a few years, and then Europe and its opportunity to study with the masters beckoned. Those years were important: mastering skills and being constantly exposed to the great paintings of the day. He had embarked on a life journey; he was now forever compelled to give voice to the passion evoked from his early close association with an unspoiled natural world.

Returning to San Francisco in 1897, he began what was to be a richly prolific career: painting, sculpting, teaching, founding the California Society of Etchers, and exhibiting nationally and internationally to highest acclaim.

During the early years, he met and married Beatrice, sister of Maurice Del Mue, an artist and close friend. The year 1905 found the couple in Europe again, where Piazzoni exhibited work and won high praise from the critics. Home again in 1907, he began work on his first commission for large mural paintings . Piazzoni believed firmly in the unification of art and architecture. Among his many celebrated works are the magnificent murals executed for the old San Francisco Library. They have been restored and have been reinstalled at the new DeYoung Museum, to open in October in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

During Gottardo’s lifetime, and beyond, the extended Piazzoni family continued to enjoy long stretches at the Carmel Valley ranch where painting, reading, and music were enjoyed with friends, family and neighbors.

To try to define or attach an “ism” label to Gottardo Piazzoni’s painting style is an empty exercise. As he progressed in his creative development, he resisted the prevailing modernist trend, but followed a personal credo, skillfully producing powerful works of highly individual expression. In 1906 a leading Roman art critic wrote, “Any of Piazzoni’s pictures is the faithful expression of what he has observed not only with the eye of a draughtsman or a colorist, but also with the feeling that has penetrated his soul. His pictures are chants…Poetry is the essential quality of his work, and it is poetry without ornament, free from all artificiality, simple, sincere, and totally spontaneous.” And Spencer Mackey, dean of CSFA, said of Gottardo Piazzoni’s art..”In these murals, Piazzoni emerges calm and powerful, and I believe utterly triumphant…This art, emerging from the very heart of California itself, entirely free and independent of the rest of the world, is a tangible demonstration of the real art of California.”


Gottardo passed down his love and intense feelings for the land to his family, daughters Romy and Mireille. Mireille was to follow most closely in his artistic

footsteps, exhibiting in her first professional art show at age15. Often tagging along with her father’s painting classes, sketching on location in Marin’s open hills, she too, soon enrolled at CSFA. The following years were filled with exhibitions: most notably inclusion in the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco’s Treasure Island. In 1937 she married a fellow art student, Philip Wood. They raised their two sons, Thomas and Jon, in San Francisco. Throughout her entire ife she painted with verve and delight, always on the move to capture the landscape and life in San Francisco, Marin, the Oakland Hills, summer enclaves at the Russian River and, certainly, the Piazzoni ranch.

Mireille’s son, Thomas, was also just a child when he learned to paint at a parental knee. He relates “When I was seven years old, my parents gave me a box of paints and an easel, the way other parents give their sons a baseball. Growing up, my cousin Russ and I painted together every summer at the Carmel Valley Ranch. We loved it”

Tom grew up in San Francisco, but from childhood on he never stopped painting, even though, for many years, he was a college instructor in English and then worked in the photography field. He has been painting full time since 1980; his studio is in Nicasio, where he lives with his wife, Arden, also an artist. Tom’s inspiration is continually nourished by the idyllic Marin and Sonoma landscape. Mainly painting on site, he often backpacks to remote spots away from roads, combing the Marin and Sonoma hills, valleys and coasts for sites that speak out. Tom Wood’s paintings can be found in important Bay Area collections and he exhibits regularly throughout the Bay Area. His interest in landscape painting also reflects a deep concern about the preservation of open space, park and wild lands and waters; it communicates the value of society’s relationship to the natural world.

Russell (“Russ”), was born to Romy, Gottardo’s other daughter and grew up in Marin, where his happiest moments were painting, fishing and hunting. Russ recalls the awe he felt watching his grandfather working on the murals and writes about the early lessons from uncle and aunt when they all painted outdoors in the warm embrace of the Monterey countryside. Growing into adulthood, he tried higher education, took odd jobs, but always continued to paint knowing this his life work was to follow Gottardo’s inspiring example. By 1972, he was head of a young family. Desperate to make ends meet and disheartened by encroaching development in Marin County, he decided to move his family to Montana, where he hoped he could somehow make a living and pursue his other passion — fishing. Settling in Livingston, the first years were very difficult, but he wrote, he painted, he traded pictures for necessities, and was slowly “discovered”. In Montana his subjects are the ranches and mountains in all seasons, but he still returns, in his memory and emotions, to his roots, painting the Marin hills, marshes and lakes. Throughout the past several decades, Chatham has become nationally recognized for his writing, painting and lithography, and his work is held in major museums and private collections

Thus, a devotion to Nature influences all of the Piazzoni’s. As they work, each has interpreted that emotional response in a distinctly personal style.

– Jan Holloway, Curator