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California - A New Beginning

Julian headed to California for the first time in August of 1929, three years after his mother, Angela, had moved there. Angela had achieved some success getting parts in movies as an extra and convinced Julian that he could also get work as an extra. The two were happy to see each other after their three-year separation. Julian stayed with Angela in her Tamarind Street cottage in Hollywood where Julian had his own bedroom.

Julian Ritter tells of his first trip to California

The first time I went to California, I took the train riding coach, sitting up the whole way. I was overwhelmed by the mountains and the open space, because in Europe space doesn't exist. I saw my first real Indians in New Mexico and Arizona, selling their objects at the train station. They weren't exactly what I imagined from the Leatherstocking tales, but I was still very impressed with their dignity and poise. I've always been interested in Indian folklore and history and I've always been interested in Indian art, although it has never influenced my own work. I can remember painting only one Indian, a princess that I met many years later in Costa Rica.

I remember arriving in Pasadena, waking up to see a palm tree. I was thrilled; I'd never seen one before. Then I went to Santa Monica and saw the ocean for the first time. I was very, very happy.

Julian quickly tired of his mother's bad temper and soon got a room of his own, but was barely surviving on what he could make as an extra. He had no friends in Los Angeles and was lonesome for the company he had enjoyed in Chicago so, in the fall of 1929, Julian headed back to Chicago. But with Evelyn attached to a new boyfriend and his old pals off the scene, Julian was nearly as lonesome in Chicago as he had been in Los Angeles. As the miserable Chicago winter closed in, those palm trees and sunny beaches took on a new allure. Julian was back in California before the end of the year.

Ritter had followed Angela to Los Angeles with the intent of pursuing an art education in earnest. Julian managed to meet Stanley Reckless who was the fine arts painting instructor at Art Center School; Reckless was impressed with Ritter's work and arranged for Julian to study at Art Center on a work/study program. There, Julian was introduced to figure painting under the tutelage of Reckless who studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Art and taught in the tradition of Frank Duveneck and the Munich School. This tradition involved the classical study of anatomy and used live models for subjects. The Munich School is characterized by a naturalistic style and dark chiaroscuro.

Julian was a great student and a natural painter of the human body. Stanley Reckless saw Julian's great potential and already accomplished ability and singled him out as the stand-out in his class.

Jimmy Lawrence, a classmate said

"I was student at Art Center School at the same time as Julian was there. We were in a life-study drawing class that Stanley Reckless taught. I remember one day a few months after the class began, Reckless complimented us on our progress.
'You're all moving along very well,' he said, 'but Julian is a racehorse.' Julian's ability was so superior, he was in a class by himself."

While still a student at Art Center School, Ritter received the following positive review for a showing of his work at the Brice-Lowe Galleries:
Still another young artist holding his first local showing is Julian Ritter, whose water colors are at the Brice-Lowe Galleries. Of German birth he depicts various types and stages of man. Character is what interests him. His people are driven, by life or will. In one picture we see a procession of mendicants woefully singing or posing for sympathy, each a carefully studied type. In another a woman pushes the man who, in turn, pushes the wheelbarrow (his load) out on to the slender plank over the abyss. He has individual types of great interest: the old philosopher talking forever to a blank wall, the peasant woman going to church against the wind of life. Ritter's color is very delicate and helpful to his purpose, which is, however, mainly expressed through sensitive drawing.

Times were still tough for Julian and he was financially strapped. He worked at a restaurant where he ate for free on the days he worked but he would often go without meals on his days off. He scrounged through the school's trash looking for art supplies. Compared to his life in the North Avenue studio in Chicago, his life on Micheltorena was quite sedate. His housemates were all serious art students and Julian simply didn't have the time or the money to party.

Julian Ritter on his life at the Micheltorena house

I didn't have much time for partying. I went to school at eight o'clock in the morning, and I didn't get through until ten o'clock at night. I went to school all day, bussed in the restaurant at lunch and cleaned it up after dinner at night; after that, I'd spend another couple of hours cleaning the school. By the time I'd walked home, I was pooped. And I'd sleep a good part of the weekend, trying to recover from the week.

The observation of housemate Bill Miller

"Four of us shared a little house on Micheltorena Street, hardly more than a shack. We paid sixteen dollars a month for it, four dollars a piece. But even that little was sometimes more than Julian could scrape together. One month, he didn't have his four dollars for rent, so he traded me a clown portrait for it–the first clown he ever painted. There was a lot of bare canvas, because paint cost money. But I liked it, and I've kept it ever since."

Ritter graduated Art Center School in 1932 and found work at Los Angeles's film studios painting portraits for movie sets and doing other set design for Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount and Universal. Ritter met Francesca Chesley (11/16/1913 - 6/14/2006), a tall and beautiful aspiring actress, in 1933. Though the two had very disparate backgrounds, their love for the arts fast made them a couple.

Francesca Chesley's first impression of Julian

"My first impression of Julian was 'Wow!' He bowled me over. He was very handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a magnetic personality. The things that most attracted me to Julian were that his free soul and unusually exotic nature."
They were married on December 16, 1934 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Ventura, CA. There was no honeymoon. After a celebratory dinner in Santa Barbara, the newlyweds went for coffee and cake at the home of Ken Webber, a teacher from Art Center School who lived in Santa Barbara. From there, they went back to Los Angeles - Francesca to her parents' home, Julian to his apartment on Edgecliff Drive. It wasn't until a week later that Francesca moved in with Julian, inaugurating yet another stormy chapter of his life.

Francesca tells about the wedding

"Julian and I met in early 1933 while he was still living on Micheltorena. We were married on December 16, 1934, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Ventura, California. The hastily arranged ceremony included only a couple of witnesses - friends of Julian from Art Center School. It wasn't exactly an elopement; we were over twenty-one. But neither Angela nor my parents attended. It wasn't until several days later that I broke the news to my family. They weren't happy."

Julian recalls that he did "oodles" of paintings and drawings of Francesca in their first months of marriage while living on Edgecliff Road. Julian also began experimenting with still life composition there.

Julian  Ritter on painting still lifes

That was new for me: it was the first time I'd ever done still lifes. I'd done some at school but they were lousy. I wanted to learn to paint them better. When you can't afford a model, it's awfully handy to be able to paint still lifes.

Julian engaged in self-improvement on several fronts in early 1935. He was studying English at a night school for immigrants conducted by the Los Angeles School District. And, thanks to a referral he got through that school, he was studying anatomy at the University of Southern California's medical school, cutting up corpses under the supervision of Doctor McKibben.

The rent on the Edgecliff Road apartment was more than Julian and Francesca could afford so, when Stanley Reckless offered them the opportunity to rent his studio on Loma Vista Place, they jumped at it. The rent was cheaper, the studio was large and well-lit and Julian and Francesca were hoping that the lower monthly expenses would take some of the pressure off their relationship.

Julian was still struggling financially and poverty was taking its toll on his marriage. When Ritter lost his full-time job at Warner Brothers, the two started arguing more and Francesca walked out on Julian a couple of times in 1936. Julian found freelance work at other studios but the pay was a half or less of what he had previously been making; their financial situation became very precarious with little food in the cupboards and rent seriously in arrears. Julian became depressed, even contemplating suicide. They moved into an efficiency apartment at La Brea and Franklin in Hollywood but they soon separated again with Francesca heading to Escondido to live on a ranch with some friends.

Francesca talks, 'For better or worse'

"Julian's moods were sometimes unpredictable. He'd be sitting there painting, apparently quite calm; next thing I knew, he'd break a paintbrush in half and fling it across the room, or throw his palette clattering against the wall. He wouldn't stay angry; he'd usually be sorry the minute he did it, but it did scare the daylights out of me.

My temper wasn't as explosive as his, but I went off the deep end at times too. Once, we had some guests over for dinner - very nice, polite people, not like us at all. Julian must've made some critical remark about the dinner – something that just infuriated me. So I picked up the cream pitcher and dumped it on him. He jumped up, grabbed the milk and threw it at me. Then he chased me all over the house, outside, around the back yard, and back in.

Our guests were polite, but quite amazed. They said, 'Well, we've never seen anything like this, except in the movies.' "

With no work and nothing tying him to Hollywood, Julian quickly agreed to a proposal from Francesca's father to prospect for gold in the Mojave desert. Julian was always taken in by the notion of a treasure hunt and figured that, since Chesley was an engineer with a new process he created, they would soon be rich. Julian's sole contribution was the sweat equity he put in but after several months he had nothing to show for it. About two months after their separation, Julian heard from Julian through her parents and in one of his carton cards where he said "I want my wife." Francesca felt she had not made enough effort so headed to the desert to be with Julian. Shortly after, Julian got wind that Anton Grot was doing pre-production for a major movie, "The Life of Emile Zola," with Paul Muni. Julian hired on for the production and painted a portrait of Muni. Julian ended up working on the film for about three months, making good money and living very frugally. With the money he had saved, he was able to buy a second-hand Ford roadster. He headed back to the desert but was much more independent having his own car. He labored away at hunting for gold with no real success so, with the torrid summer approaching, he and Francesca decided to give Los Angeles another try, moving into a rooming house at Adams and Hoover.

Settled back into Los Angeles, they both looked for work. Julian even landed Francesca a screen test for a role in "Zola." The director wanted Francesca but the producer insisted on another performer. Meanwhile, Julian managed to land a speaking role as a cavalry officer in the film "The Road Back." The role was less speaking than Julian singing loudly in German since none of the other characters knew the language. Their short-lived success in the summer of 1937 provided little relief from their financial burdens and they soon resumed their quarrelsome habits. They separated once again but this time it was permanent.

After their separation, Julian did attempt to commit suicide while living in a ramshackle cottage in Manhattan Beach, CA. On miserable day with no food and foul weather, Julian sat with a bottle of whiskey and the gas oven turned to 'Full'. Fortunately, the rain caused a flood in the cottage which humored Julian and caused him to change his mind and when the folly of the situation came to him, Julian broke out in laughter until he passed out, dreaming of brighter prospects