Overlooked No More: Granville Redmond, Painter, Actor, Friend
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times from 1851 onwards.
In the opening scene of the classic silent film “City Lights” (1931), Charlie Chaplin’s character, the little tramp, dangles comically from a statue, while his sculptor looks on in horror, puts his hand to his mouth in surprise and wipes his forehead.
The actor, who portrays sculptor Granville Redmond, has appeared in seven Chaplin films, recognizable by his wild mane of hair. Redmond was deaf and his appearances were early examples of deaf representation in Hollywood. Some believe Redmond even taught Chaplin, who is known as a pantomime, how to use sign language.
But Redmond was primarily an artist who inspired Chaplin with paintings of California’s natural beauty: calm, brown tone scenes; lonely rock monuments jutting out from an island peninsula; tree-strewn meadows lit by a warm sun; blue nocturnal swamps under the dramatic moonlight. Today his pictures are among the best examples of Californian impressionism.
The Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote in 1931 that Redmond was “unrivaled in realistically depicting the Californian landscape”. His style was never uniform, however: some paintings left parts of the canvas exposed and chunky buildup of pigment, while others took on a smoother look.
He was best known for his paintings of golden poppies, the official flower of the state. His poppies accented his depictions of the rolling meadows of the San Gabriel Valley, often accompanied by purple lupins. Sometimes they added yellow highlights to a coastal scene.
“He painted her better than anyone else; I don’t think that can be argued, ”said Scott A. Shields, who curated an exhibition of Redmond’s work at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento last year. “You can feel the seasons. You can feel when it’s spring, you can feel when it’s winter, and you can feel when it’s starting to get summer. “
To Redmond’s chagrin, his paintings of poppies became popular souvenirs among tourists. he preferred to paint scenes of loneliness.
“Unfortunately, people are not going to buy them,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They all seem to want poppies.”
Chaplin supported Redmond’s painting career by offering him a room to paint in the attic of an unused building on his studio property. During the breaks, Chaplin visited Redmond there and watched him quietly at work.
“Redmond paints loneliness, and yet, according to a strange paradox, loneliness is never loneliness,” Chaplin told Alice T. Terry in a 1920 article for The Jewish Deaf, a magazine.
He had such an appreciation for Redmond’s paintings that he removed the photos of movie stars from his walls so as not to interfere with the Redmond work he placed over his mantelpiece.
“You know, I’m a little confused about Redmond’s pictures,” Chaplin was quoted in 1925 in The Silent Worker, a newspaper for the deaf. “You all have a wonderful joy.”
“Look at the joy in this sky, the rush of colors in these flowers,” he continued. “Sometimes I think that the silence in which he lives has developed a meaning in him, a great ability for happiness that the rest of us lack.”
Grenville Richard Seymour Redmond was born on March 9, 1871 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest of five children of Charles and Elizabeth (Buck) Redmond. (He changed the spelling of his name to Granville in 1898 to distinguish himself from an uncle.) His father was a Civil War veteran in the Union Army and a worker in a variety of occupations.
Redmond lost his ability to hear when he was 2 years old after contracting scarlet fever. The next year his family moved to San Jose, California to live near a family member who owned a ranch.
In 1879 he enrolled at the California Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Mute and the Blind (now the California School for the Deaf) in Berkeley. It was there that Redmond found an affinity for drawing under the guidance of another Deaf artist, Theophilus Hope d’Estrella, who introduced him to an art class on Saturday at the California School of Design. He enrolled in school. In 1893 he was selected by the faculty to create a drawing for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Redmond communicated through sign language and writing, but due to his focus on the arts, he never mastered written English, a gap in his education he regretted. “In my early school days, I used to draw, draw,” he wrote.
After graduating, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1895 his painting “Matin d’Hiver” (“Winter Morning”), which depicts a barge on the banks of the Seine, was accepted into the Paris Salon, a great honor for an artist at the time. He painted in France for a few more years, hoping to see another painting in the salon and win a medal, but struggled financially and returned to California depressed in 1898.
In 1899 he married Carrie Ann Jean, who was of Indiana and also deaf, and they had three children.
Redmond’s early works were tonalistic in nature, an allusion to his education in San Francisco and to the artists of the Barbizon School of the 19th century, whose landscape paintings he had become acquainted with in France. Many of his paintings are scenes from Terminal Island, Catalina Island, and Laguna Beach in Southern California. In 1908 he returned to Northern California and lived and painted in counties of Monterey, San Mateo and Marin.
“Many newspapers wrote that he could see more than the average person because his sense of sight was increased,” Shields, the curator of the Crocker Museum, said in a telephone interview. “Redmond kind of believed that himself.”
Redmond’s work was well received, but a lack of funds – due in part to an economic downturn at the start of World War I – led him to return to Los Angeles and try his hand at acting.
In the silent film era, Redmond’s disability, coupled with his artistic inclination, worked to his advantage. Chaplin saw him as natural to small parts in his films because Redmond expressed himself through gestures, Shields said. The two men communicated on set by signing with each other.
At times, Redmond’s numbness invaded the storylines. In Arthur Rosson’s “You’d Be Surprised” (1926), Redmond played a coroner who pretended to be a deaf valet. Only viewers who knew the sign language could follow the conversation.
The films also gave him a new market for his art; Buyers included Hollywood elite like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Redmond died on May 24, 1935 of complications from heart disease. He was 64 years old. (Chaplin died in 1977 at the age of 88.)
Alice Terry, the author of The Jewish Deaf, saw artistic similarities in the two friends.
“These two have been working side by side for more than two years,” she wrote in 1920, “Chaplin, quiet and dramatic, through his ingenious little things that bring joy and sunshine to millions of tired people; and Redmond, quiet yet effective, illuminates everyone’s life with his bright, engaging canvas images. “