The Blanket of Night: The Story of Charles Rollo Peters
by Jeffrey Morseburg
Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928) was a painter of mysterious nocturnes who was known by the appellations “The Poet of the Night” or “The Price of Darkness.” While many artists have painted moonlit landscapes, Peters’ eerie work was extraordinary for the range of moonlights that he depicted – from panoramic scenes lit by the full moon to inky black nights where just a warm sliver of light from a window illuminates the painting – and the incredible command of his medium that allowed such subtleties. While his life was full of difficulties, both self-inflicted and due to the vagrancies of fate, we will never know whether his almost exclusive embrace of his nocturnal moods was due to something deep inside of him or was rather simply an aesthetic choice.
Peters was a smallish man, the only child of a wealthy, philanthropic San Francisco couple who sent him to boarding schools. His first teacher was Jules Tavernier, who introduced him to his own moody but colorful Barbizon-influenced aesthetic as well as to the Monterey Peninsula. He studied at the San Francisco School of Design with Virgil Williams and Christian Jorgensen (1860-1935), then after painting and exhibiting in Northern California, it was off to Paris to matriculate at the official Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the private Academie Julien.
Peters spent his European summers sketching along the coast, as he seemed to draw his inspiration from such locales. His travels took him to Katwyck on the Dutch coast and then in 1888 to the little art colony of Concarneau, where he came to know Alexander Harrison (1853-1930), a painter of incredibly subtle and beautiful marines. Harrison became his friend and mentor and Peters credited the older American painter with helping him refine his work and encouraging his adoption of the nocturne as his life-long subject. He painted a huge, haunting moonlight of a Breton girl standing before a moonlit crucifix from his sketches titled “Juxta Crucem,” which became his entry for a Munich exhibition.
After having one of his Dutch maritime subjects accepted in the Paris Salon, Peters returned home to San Francisco in the fall of 1889 as a fully formed artist. He opened a rustic atelier on Sacramento Street, was invited to join the Bohemian Club and began enjoying the social life of San Francisco’s artistic scene. Peters traveled to Monterey with his neighbor Amedee Joullin (1862-1917) and discovered the old Spanish ruins of the town, which would become his most famous subject. In 1891 he became engaged to a girl of Irish origin named Kathleen Mary Murphy. In December of that year he had his first solo exhibition at the San Francisco Art Association, which was a rousing success. After his marriage on December 30th, he and his bride departed for Europe.
In 1895, after a four-year sojurn on the continent which took the newlyweds to the art colonies in Barbizon, Grez, Brittany as well as Germany and England, the family, now with a son, Charles III (1892-1967), arrived in New York along. Once back in San Francisco he had a sale on his European works, which was again a resounding success. A second son, Warrin Hugh, was born in 1896 after the family had set up housekeeping in Monterey.
Ensconced in a bohemian studio with treasures from his travels, Peters began to paint the old adobes and rustic homes of the peninsula, usually in deep blue tones that made the structures depicted really feel like they were bathed in moonlight. These romantic paintings were dominated by close color harmonies like Tonalist works, but Peters’ dark but more chromatic palette also showed an awareness of Impressionism. In 1898 his friend Alexander Harrison came to visit from France and the two exhibited in San Francisco together to great acclaim. In 1899 Peters toured the country with a collection of his works, which sold for ever escalating prices. The results of his exhibits at the private Lotus and Union League Clubs in New York were sensational.
In 1900 Peters exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery in New York and traveled to London, returning to Monterey to purchase a thirty-acre property where he would build a home for his family. Construction began on a rustic estate that was to be known as “Peters Gate.” He lived lavishly, drank freely and entertained frequently. His home became a gathering place for artists and the literati who had come to love the coast as much as the painters. His circle included the novelist Jack London (1876-1916), the prolific writer James “Jimmy” Hopper 1876-1956), the author Charles Warren Stoddard (who had returned to the peninsula) and Pictorialist photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942). The mystical poet George Sterling (1869-1926) was a close companion. He and Peters shared the same vision of Monterey as a peninsula haunted by its past, and the poet dedicated poems to the painter and his moonlit work.
Unfortunately, while living on the haunted peninsula, tragedy did seem to stalk the artist. In 1902 Kathleen Peters died after giving birth to twins Dewitt (1902-1966) and Kathleen and only two years later the little girl stumbled into a fireplace and died from her burns. The painter, who had a weakness for alcohol, drowned his sorrows in the bottle while he kept living beyond his means, even though his nocturnes remained popular. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Peters did a dramatic series of nocturnes of the ruins of the city which were displayed in Roosevelt’s White House, works that garnered him national attention. He entertained artistic refugees from the Bay Area generously in Monterey, even though it was becoming difficult to pay the piper.
In 1909 he met Constance Mabel Easley (1880-1939), a well-to-do widow who was also a painter, which was a spot of good fortune for the troubled artist. The two were soon married and traveled to London, where Peters had an exhibition. Travel would become a constant in their life together. The two artists shared a studio in San Francisco where Peters opened his own gallery. When the jury for the Panama Pacific Exposition excluded his work, an outraged Peters mounted his own exhibition in retaliation and it was a resounding success. In 1920, the stress of Peters’ drinking caused a rift between him and Constance and in the fall they were granted a divorce.
In 1923 Peters traveled to Europe, hoping to win his wife back, but after a few months he returned to New York. After his health began to fail, in 1926, the couple did renew their relationship and Constance took care of him until his death in San Francisco in 1928. Copyright, 2008-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without the specific written permission of the author.