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Surrealist; Psychic Automatist

by Sanam Petri

A member of the artistically renowned Howard family, Charles Howard made his mark both locally and internationally as a first-generation Abstract-Surrealist painter. His consistency and precision helped to solidify his place in the forefront of American modernism. The Howard family’s primary legacy, the integration of nature into art via architecture, sculpture, and painting, held little interest for Howard. Instead, he went on to explore more metaphysical concerns, striving for a balance of intellect, intuition, and the subconscious.

Table Of Contents


Though he was born in the small town of Montclair, New Jersey, Howard’s life became one that knew no physical boundaries. On January 2nd, 1899, he became the third child of Mary Robertson Bradbury (1866-1931) and future architect of the UC Berkeley campus, John Galen Howard (1864-1931). In 1902, the family relocated to Berkeley, California, where Charles later attended both Berkeley High School and UC Berkeley. After majoring in journalism, he went on to pursue graduate work in English at both Harvard and Columbia universities. With thoughts of becoming a professor and novelist, he spent a post-graduation summer abroad; it was there that he met artist Grant Wood (1892-1946), the man responsible for urging Howard to abandon his literary career and take up painting. This, coupled with his self-proclaimed life-altering encounter with a Giorgione altarpiece encouraged him to move back to New York to pursue art in a professional capacity.

This change led him into the hands of Louis Bouche and Rudolph Guertler, who employed him for five years as a journeyman painter at their decorating firm. This was the extent of what may be considered his formal training. He lived in Greenwich Village, occupying his spare time by creating satirical literary sketches. These were the subject of his first one-man show at what would become the Whitney Museum.

His marriage to painter Madge Knight led to his move to England, where she could live in her native country and he could be more involved in the progressive Surrealist scene. Europe afforded him opportunities that America could not, and he took advantage of his close proximity to the artists in his academic circle. He was embraced quickly in London and exhibited there frequently. Unfortunately, the war coaxed them back to the U.S. in 1941, and they made their home near the family compound in the Bay Area. He taught frequently at the California School of Fine Arts, and later at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London. It wasn’t until 1970 that he decided to retire; he and his wife moved to Bagni di Lucca, Italy, where he died on November 11th, 1978.


Though the themes found in his paintings were recurring throughout the breadth of his career, Howard certainly achieved a dramatic evolution. Though always meticulous and precise, a hallmark of the painters in his family, it seems that his canvasses can barely contain the geometric shapes and the free curves that populate their surfaces. His imagery is a search for presumed realities beyond, as he works to suspend his forms somewhere between comprehension and irrationality.

As the 1940’s showed little promise for a moderate political climate, Howard’s style began a subtle change. He began to divide each of his paintings into three vertical sections, rather than work across one larger plane. What has been described as a light source, or a flame, emanates from behind his forms. His colors were slightly altered, his forms multiplied and the fundamental elements more complicated.

Howard was, perhaps because of his familial ties, lucky in finding representation for his work. His career was overseen by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Douglas MacAgy, and, the New York-based art dealer credited with first promoting American Surrealism. Charles, in fact, was one of only two other Americans to be featured in Levy’s momentous international Surrealist exhibition.

Toward the end of his career, however, his direction changed once again. He rid his style of what he considered to be clutter, constraining his palette to just a few colors and creating simpler, much more streamlined works.


Charles Houghton Howard’s Abstract-Surrealist label has often been questioned by those who closely examine his work. Though the themes with which he is primarily concerned- the ephemeral, the metaphysical, the cerebral- are in step with the branch of Surrealism he is commonly associated with, he seeks something of an equilibrium between this intangible world and that of traditional painting.

Although works by surrealists could be seen in America as early as the 1920’s, Julien Levy championed the movement by highlighting artists like Howard, Joseph Cornell and Man Ray, in conjunction with other European artists. Southern California, however, didn’t feel the first rumblings of the Surrealist movement until November of 1934, when a series of shows appeared, highlighting the giants like Dali, Ernst, Miro and Tanguy.

Howard’s role was of intermediary, between the Bay Area art community and that of the European painting in the early part of the century; a balance between careful reasoning and intuitive talent. His worldly experience, in accordance with his finely-tuned instincts, brought new elements of style and composition to both the U.S. and to the Abstract-Surrealist movement.


  • Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • Wright Museum of Art, Beloit, WI
  • The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK

  • 1942 San Francisco Museum of Art
  • 1946 CPLH
  • 1946 Pasadena Art Institute

  • 1940, 1942 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • 1943, 1945 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • 1946 Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena, CA
  • 1926 Whitney Studio Club, New York, NY 1926
  • 1945, 1946 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
  • 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, England
  • 1939 Guggenheim-Jeune Gallery, London, England
  • 1942, 1951 Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • 1942 Art of This Century Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1956 Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, England
  • VII. CATALOG OF WORK (Major Works)

  • 1940 Generation
  • 1942 The Bride
  • 1945 Dove Love
  • 1946 Chain of Circumstance
  • 1947 The Progenitors
  • 1955 Night Painting
  • ND The Ascending Aperture

    1. 1. Ehrlich, Susan. Pacific Dreams. University of California Press, 1995.
    2. 2. Orr-Cahill, Christina. The Art of California. Oakland Museum.
    3. 3. 100 American Painters of the 20th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    4. 4. Mark Borghi Fine Art, Inc. Charles Houghton Howard.
    5. 5. Moss, Stacy, and Woodbridge, Sally. The Howards: First Family of Bay Area Modernism. The Oakland Museum, 1988.