Thursday, June 2, 2016

Frank Serratoni, California Watercolor Artist

Often an estate sale is a good place to find art supplies. And, it turns out, fine art.

Drawing and painting were common pastimes for members of the Greatest Generation; women and men alike took art classes. Sometimes they bought more sketchbooks, boxes of pastels and watercolors, canvases, art pencils and charcoal than they could ever use.

Sometimes they kept their own amateur artworks, which in turn showed up at their estate sale. 

At this morning's estate sale, I spotted a large stack of framed paintings that had obviously been done by someone who'd taken an art class 40 or 50 years ago.  I looked through them: a nicely-done still life showing a pitcher and some fruit; a slanting, doe-eyed, ragged cartoonish child standing next to a trash can in an alley; a gunmetal gray horse-shaped object in a field of various shades of green, straight out of the paint tube.

Tucked away in between the somewhat dubious results of Grandpa's art class, I spotted a large old picture frame that had definitely seen better days. 

The frame was pale distressed wood with an even more-distressed orange burlap center.  The back was a nightmare of crumbling brown paper and twisted hanger wire.

But the painting inside the old frame was definitely not executed in someone's art class.

I'm no art critic, but I didn't have to look long at the image to realize that someone knew what they were doing when they painted this picture. My mother was a very good amateur artist in her time, and she taught me a few things to look for in a good watercolor painting.  

One of the things Mom had said, was that anyone can put color on white paper, but a good watercolor artist knows how to control the color so that the unpainted white paper shows through in the completed image. This artist knew how to control the colors.

Frank Serratoni, the signature said.  

I bought the painting, brought it home, liberated it from the frame (where it was held in place by an aging, crumbling thick piece of corrugated cardboard that had been installed long before the time acid-free paper was readily available) and inspected it more closely.

This artist was no amateur! He was Frank Serratoni (1908-1970).

Frank Serratoni, my online search informed me, was born in Detroit, Michigan, studied art in Chicago, and was a well-known artist in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s.  In the late 1940s, Serratoni issued a series of twelve hand-colored lithographs of California cityscapes and landscapes, which you can still find for sale online today.

You could buy Serratoni's artworks in iconic San Francisco stores like the City of Paris department store and the Paul Elders bookstore.  And you could find Serratoni's work in at least one place outside The City: there are newspaper ads for Braverman's Furniture Store in San Anselmo in 1950, promoting buying art by Frank Serratoni as a Christmas gift.

"Landscapes of places you've seen, choice of six subjects so familiar you'll recognize the setting at one glance. Nicasio, Los Altos, Navarro River, Woodside, Mt. Diablo, Sonora...." 

I wonder if the painting I found today, originally came from one of those venerable stores? 

Footnote: In my online searching, I found a blog post about the Grateful Dead that said that Jerry Garcia once lived in a house called The Chateau in Menlo Park, California, that had earlier belonged to Frank Serratoni. 

Here's a short bio of Frank Serratoni:


  1. I have just found 2 Frank Serratoni paintings at a thrift store. one is just like the one pictured above, with farm house & trees. It is an original watercolor, signed, it has printed in pencil "At the turn of the Road on the bottom. He must have painted a series of these?

  2. I just inherited one with a covered bridge over stream. did you find out anything about him?