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Who Was José Moya del Pino

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José Moya del Pino  

(Photo by Edward Weston)

It is hard to know how best to describe José Moya del Pino: renowned artist, distinguished statesman, dedicated founder of the Marin Art and Garden Center, respected teacher, or, as he is so often described, a delightful, warm and charming friend. We remember him fondly as past president of the Marin Society of Artists, Vice President of the Marin Art and Garden Center, and namesake of the José Moya del Pino Library.

Moya del Pino was born on March 3, 1890, in Priego, a small town in the province of Córdoba, Spain. His family had a soap factory and shop, manufacturing Castile soap by traditional methods, with residues from the olive trees that are plentiful in the Andalucía region of Spain.


Priego de Córdoba, Andalucía, Spain

The artist discovered his vocation with a passion at the age of 11: on his way to school he liked to peer in the window of a painter’s workshop, and one day the painter, Carlos Mantón, invited him in and they developed a friendship. Mantón was an itinerant painter, meaning that he periodically went on tour through the villages and farmhouses of the region to earn a living painting patron saints or votive offerings; and when the time came for his next travels, little José decided to run away from home and accompany him as his assistant and apprentice. It is here that he started developing a knowledge of the chemistry of color, while grinding the colors for his master; the pigment was put into a casing that looked like a sausage, made from pig intestines. They traveled the coutryside by donkey, sleeping where they could. He apparently returned home “filthy and tattered” and his parents, horrified, annulled the apprenticeship — but the boy had become determined to be an artist, so they agreed to facilitate his studies.

At the age of 13 Moya del Pino moved to Granada to study at the School of Industrial Arts, linked to the Royal Academy. He apprenticed with the painter Rafael Latorre Viedma, painting all day in his master’s workshop and attending school at night. In 1907 he moved to Madrid and enrolled in the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts (at that time called Special School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving); entry into this Academy was highly competitive, with rigorous testing and a low acceptance rate. During this period he apprenticed with Joaquín Sorolla, who had a strong influence on his work. He also maintained contacts with his previous connections in Granada and collaborated articles and illustrations to that city’s magazine La Alhambra.

Upon graduation in 1911 he won the highly competitive Prix de Rome, a scholarship to continue studying in Italy. However, Moya found the academy in Rome to be too much like the official school of Madrid, so asked to have his grant switched to Paris. He spent the next 4 years in Paris, where he formed friendships with Modigliani, Matisse, and Diego Rivera (the latter two he would see again later in California), and also met Picasso, Juan Gris, Leo & Gertrude Stein and others. He attended the famous Colarossi Academy, and also took classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He exhibited works at Le Indépéndent and the Salon d’Automne.

His principal way of earning a living in this period was through book illustrations, most likely traveling frequently between Paris and Madrid. In Spain he had become the youngest member of a group of Spanish artists and writers known as La Tertulia de Levante, which included many noteworthy artists of the time, where he met Don Ramón del Valle Inclán, a pioneer in introducing graphic arts to book writing. They started a collaboration that would last almost 10 years. Moya illustrated most of Valle Inclán’s books, as well as several other writers’ (among them Mateo Barroso, Francisco Villaespesa) and the magazines Mundo Gráfico, Blanco y Negro, and La Esfera. At the same time, modernism was introducing the concept of graphics in commercial ads, which up to then had been purely textual, revolutionizing the field of advertising; and Moya did a series of ads for the soap companies Jabones La Toja and Heno de Pravia. He also earned money painting portraits for wealthy patrons.

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A few of Moya's many book and magazine illustrations between 1911 and 1920

When World War I broke Moya del Pino returned to Madrid, and in 1921 he decided to put into practice an idea that had been maturing for years: to make a complete copy of Velasquez’s work in the Prado Museum in order to show the collection in foreign countries. With the support of King Alfonso XIII, Moya  devoted the next 4 years to this endeavor, and in 1925 departed for what was intended to be a voyage across the Americas. For details on this expedition see The Velázquez Exhibition. However, after exhibits in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, funds dried up, and the political climate in Spain had changed enough that he could no longer receive financial support from his homeland.

Unable to return to Spain, Moya del Pino had to settle in San Francisco and attempt to rebuild a life for himself. He was a proficient portraitist, and had one big advantage: upon his arrival in San Francisco with the Velázquez exhibition he had been introduced to many patrons of the arts as an emissary of the king of Spain, and met other prominent figures through Mr. Cebrián, president of the National Honorary Hispanic Society, and José Gimeno, consul of Spain in San Francisco. He was able to move among San Francisco’s society elites who supported him and appreciated him, and was therefore able to get portrait commissions.

Shortly after, he met his future wife, Helen Pauline Horst, daugher of E. Clemens Horst, a prominent businessman and at one point the largest hops grower in the world. The Horst company’s global exports (including to Guinness in Ireland) allowed it to weather prohibition, and the family was well off. The couple were married in 1928; San Francisco Archbishop Edward J Hanna presided over the ceremony. They had three children in San Francisco; then in 1938 they moved into their permanent home (designed for them by their friend the architect Gardner Dailey) in the town of Ross, California. During their courtship and in the first years of their marriage Helen and José communicated mostly in French — the one language they had in common, since both had previously spent time in Paris (Moya’s English was still not very good, and Helen spoke no Spanish at all.)


Moya del Pino continued painting portraits and landscapes, and was also very active as a muralist. His most visited mural is in Coit Tower in San Francisco, but he also painted for the Merchant’s Exchange Club in San Francisco, three brewing companies (possibly through his father-in-law’s connections) and various post offices and federal buildings under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal. He also painted extremely large murals for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40. [Read more about José Moya del Pino’s murals.]


In 1935 Moya became an instructor for the San Francisco Art Students Association, where he taught mural composition, still life, and painting in general; and by the early 1940s he was also teaching mural painting at the California School of Fine Arts (later called San Francisco Art Institute).


During World War II he took leave from teaching and painting to do his part to help the war effort, working at the Marinship yards where Liberty ships were being built. He buffed rust and painted the hulls of the ships; the rust particles and fumes from the lead paint caused him to fall ill with bronchitis, but as soon as he felt better he returned to work, this time painting numbers on steel components.

After the war, he taught painting and art history at the Katharine Branson School in Ross, and at the College of Marin from 1947 to 1963. Moya del Pino also taught portrait painting in his home studio, located in a lush setting at the back of the garden of his home in Ross, California. He tried his hand for a while at abstract expressionism, which was becoming quite popular in San Francisco at that time; but soon returned to what he described as “the interpretation of reality in a direct simple way.”


He was president of the Marin Society of Artists, and in that capacity was instrumental in the founding of the Marin Art and Garden Center in 1945, becoming its first Vice President (with Caroline Livermore as president). Moya was on the board of trustees of the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, on the advisory committee for the San Francisco Museum of Art (now MOMA), and on the board of the San Francisco Art Association. He was a member of the San Francisco Society of Mural Artists and the National Society of Mural Painters, and had been elected honorary member for life of the Merchants Exchange Club, exhibiting member of the Foundation of Western Art, and Honorary member of Sigma Delta Pi Hispanic Honor Society.

In 1962 Moya del Pino’s health started failing. Diabetes was impacting his vision, slowly impeding his activity as a painter; then complications during a surgery procedure damaged parts of his brain, and he never fully recovered his cognitive abilities. Accustomed to fighting adversity, Moya tried to continue painting, but was never again able to complete a new work. He also suffered a leg amputation in 1968.

As his health was failing, Caroline Livermore, president of the Marin Art and Garden Center, sought a way to honor him for his leadership and many contributions. Moya and his wife Helen acknowledged their desire for a library that could serve as the cultural and educational heart of the Center, and the Octagon House, the only building of the original Worn/Kittle estate to survive a devastating 1931 fire, was selected for it. Helen provided initial funding and the building was moved to its present location and fully renovated. Roger Hooper was the architect and Carla Flood the interior designer. Unfortunately Moya passed away before completion of the project; but his personal library of books and those contributed by members of the Center, covering fine arts and gardening, are a living memorial to his artistic and intellectual judgement.

José Moya del Pino died on March 7, 1969, and is buried in the Horst family plot in Olivet Memorial Park (formerly Mount Olivet Cemetery) in Colma, California. A digitized collection of his papers and an oral history recorded in 1964 for the Archives of American Art are preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

For more information, a much more detailed, illustrated biography is available at online booksellers.

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