Frank Cuprien and the Sea
written by Grove Koger
Among the painters who helped create Laguna Beach’s art colony, the name of Frank Cuprien holds a prominent place, but in the years since his death in 1948 he’s gotten little attention. That’s a pity, because Cuprien played a key role in the community’s early artistic life and became the foremost champion of its spectacular coastline.
Cuprien was born on the other side of the continent in Brooklyn in 1871 and attended classes at the Art Students League of New York and the Cooper Union Institute before studying under landscape painter Carl Weber in Philadelphia. Details are sketchy, but a more important Philly influence seems to have been marine artist William Trost Richards.
Like many an American artist-to-be, Cuprien then moved abroad—in this case for 11 years—to absorb what the Old World had to offer. His pilgrimage took him to Athens, Rome, Florence, and Paris, in the last of which he studied at the Académie Julian, the school that had also attracted fellow Americans Guy Rose and Granville Redmond. But Cuprien also excelled in music, studying voice and piano and graduating from Leipzig’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater in 1905. Along the way, the multi-talented vagabond even shipped as a seaman on a trawler out of Hamburg.
Returning to the States, Cuprien taught at Baylor University in Texas for five years before moving on to Southern California in 1910. He visited Laguna Beach for the first time in 1912, planning, as he later wrote, to investigate the community he had been hearing so much about. “Reports of its charm had not been exaggerated, I decided that day.” Cuprien spent a few months painting on Catalina Island during the same period, but in 1914 he became one of the first artists to settle in Laguna. In celebration of his time at sea, he called his home—which stood on a bluff overlooking the Pacific near Bluebird Canyon—the Viking House.
Cuprien established a roundtable at the Sandwich Mill, at the corner of Forest Avenue and Coast Highway, where he and fellow artists could gather to talk shop. More importantly, he also helped the community turn an abandoned house into its first gallery. “In the summer of 1918,” he would recall, “we fixed up the ramshackle old building with the assistance of [grocery store owner] Nick Isch. First we drove the bats out of the building and built a skylight in the roof. We whitewashed the walls and oiled the old floors. Later on we had a sewing bee, with all the ladies of the town present, and covered the walls with burlap.” The gallery opened in late July, and the following month, with the support of more than one hundred patrons, the artists founded the Laguna Beach Art Association.
“Everybody realized that the Gallery was the cultural center of the community,” Cuprien explained, but his subsequent comments remind us of just what the community was like in those early days. “Every Saturday night was Open House at the Gallery. Lagunans groped their way down the narrow dark streets, lighted lanterns in their hands. On cold nights they brought their own oil stoves. Even on the stormiest of nights a few of us plowed through the mud … and kept the Gallery going … [W]e knew what it would mean to the future of the town.”
But above and beyond his sense of civic responsibility, Cuprien was in love with the sea that washed Laguna’s shores, recreating its moods in painting after painting. He was particularly good at capturing the play of hazy sunlight on the water. A contemporary critic pointed out that Cuprien “loves to paint a slow incoming tide with a subdued illumination of the sun, or the softness of the after-glow on the ocean at dusk.”
Visitors frequently named Cuprien the most popular painter in the art association gallery, and when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s motorcade passed through Laguna in 1938, he was presented with one of Cuprien’s seascapes.
Talented as he was, however, Cuprien wasn’t a technical trailblazer like some of his colleagues. Nevertheless, he seemed to delight in playing the role of the bohemian painter. A photograph taken by Edward W. Cochems and now held by the UC Irvine library shows the bearded Cuprien be-smocked and be-capped, standing on a hillside overlooking the surf, palette in one hand and brush in the other as he contemplates his canvas. In town, he sported knickers and puttees and belted jackets.
By the time of his death in 1948, Cuprien had become known as the Dean of Laguna Beach artists, and he left his house and the rest of his estate to the group that he had nurtured and that had nurtured him in turn.