Siegfried: Artist of the Marshland
Siegfried: Artist of the Marshland
Edwin Siegfried was born in Alameda in 1899, one of John and Sophie Siegfried’s nine children. His father came from Germany at age 18, and his mother was a native Alamedan. John was a tea importer. He owned his own firm in San Francisco and was a prominent figure is mercantile circles in San Francisco and the Orient.
The family was wealthy and lived on a large estate between Alameda and Encinal avenues. The family built the home that still stands at 2044 Alameda Ave. They lived there until about 1920. The property was one of the city’s showplaces and featured tennis courts, stables, extensive gardens and a greenhouse.
The Siegfrieds had a keen interest in exotic plants, orchids in particular. John introduced orchids to the West Coast. (Rumor has it that he also introduced the pesky Argentine ant as well.) The Siegfried children operated Western Orchid Farms as a family business. They regularly delivered boxloads of the flowers to Podesta Baldocchi, a highly respected florist in San Francisco. Western Orchid Farms was located on the Siegfried property at 2057 Encinal Ave., the site of today’s Encinal Nursery.
Information is scarce on Edwin’s childhood and education. Although he was self-taught as a painter, some architectural training is evident in his work. He was a talented and accomplished pianist. He joined the Army in 1918, served as an infantryman in France and Belgium and was discharged in 1919.
The record is unclear and recollections differ as to where Edwin lived after he moved out of the family home. At one time he had a studio and living quarters in the attic at 1819 Central Ave. From about 1941 until his death he lived at 1813 ½ Alameda Ave.
Though reared in affluence, Edwin never seemed to care for money or social position. The family fortune was gone by the time he reached his late 20s. He managed a simple existence playing the organ for silent movies in San Francisco theaters and working as an artist for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. During World War II Edwin worked as a guard at a local shipyard. A friend got him a job after the war at the Naval Air Station library illustrating a log book of station aircraft, a job he held until shortly before his death.
Edwin didn’t earn a great deal from his painting, either. He gave many of his pastels away as gifts and asked very little for those he sold, saying that he didn’t want high prices to keep people from having them.
He was impressive in appearance. He stood more than six feet tall and had big hands with fingers like “bologna sausages.” His figure told of a man who loved to eat well and often. He usually looked as though he could use a new suit, and yet he would appear at concerts and musicals impeccably dressed in a tuxedo.
Although he was a well-known figure around town, he appeared shy and withdrawn to all but his closest friends. He seemed to prefer the company of children and animals, and was rarely seen without his dogs. Big though he was, he seemed to fade into the woodwork at social gatherings. He never married.
There was another side to Edwin, though. One that only his few close friends saw — Edwin the entertainer, the gourmet cook and the practical joker. This was the man who served dinner guests tomato aspic made from sponge rubber and who demonstrated the difference between art and pornography by adding a garter to a nude he had painted.
As with his painting, music afforded the shy Edwin a way to express himself. He enjoyed giving piano recitals and playing duets with his friends. Children huddled around him to hear songs he selected especially to delight them. Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven were among his favorites. One friend recalls Edwin saying, “Musicians play Bach to impress people, but they play Brahms and Chopin to please them.”
When Edwin was in his 50s, his eyesight began to fail him. Although he had a cataract operation, his vision remained quite impaired. He suffered a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 66. He died soon after at the Veterans Hospital in Oakland.
Edwin Siegfried has been dubbed “Artist of the Marshlands,” because more than half his works depict either dawn or dusk on the salt-water marshes that once lined Alameda and San Francisco Bay.
Siegfried began painting in oils, but in the early 1920s he set aside the brush for pastels, a medium well suited to his style and subject. He excelled in depicting the subtle, delicate variations in light and color of the marshlands. The range of mood in his marshes is impressive, particularly when they are seen side by side in an exhibition.
In addition to marshes, Siegfried painted scenes from his travels, including the Monterey coastline, Monument Valley in Arizona, Lake Tahoe and Point Reyes. One of his WPA projects was a series on the California missions. Mary Baker Eddy’s birthplace was the subject of one of his pastels, a gift to the Alameda Christian Science Church, to which Edwin belonged.
Perhaps the most fascinating is the pastel entitled “Dream House,” showing a Southern-style mansion with lights blazing in every window. Edwin drew accompanying floor plans to his “Dream House.” They included grand pianos at either end of a magnificent ballroom.
It is said that he did little painting on location, probably because pastels are difficult to work with in the open. He did most of his pastels from memory or from sketches he made at the scene. He did most of his smaller works on his lap, using his thumbs for shading and occasionally swept a broom across the surface for a rain effect.
According to newspapers of the day, Siegfried’s pastel technique received great acclaim in the United States and Europe. Art students were sent to Siegfried to observe the best pastel artist of the time. During the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island, Siegfried showed some 30 to 40 pastels in the Alameda-Contra Costa Counties Building. He exhibited the entire duration of the exposition and sold his works to people from all over this country and abroad.
In 1949 the Alameda Times-Star reported that some 300 Alamedans possessed Siegfried pastels. Today many still grace Alameda homes, as well as businesses and public buildings, including several schools, City Hall and the Main Library.