Realist art by Professor Emeritus Robert Bechtle donated to SF State

Author: Matt Itelson
October 25, 2022
Robert Bechtle’s lithograph ’61 Impala shows a lonely Chevy parked inside the SF State parking garage
Photo Credit: Takahiro Okubo

Robert Bechtle’s lithograph “’61 Impala” shows a lonely Chevy parked inside the SF State parking garage.

Gift from the Robert Bechtle and Whitney Chadwick Trust will be used to teach painting, printmaking, art history and more

One of the world’s preeminent realist painters, the late Robert Bechtle inspired hundreds of San Francisco State University students over his three decades on the faculty. Now, students for decades to come will still be able to draw inspiration from him thanks to a generous gift of five original works from the Robert Bechtle and Whitney Chadwick Trust. 

Bechtle (1932 – 2020), a professor emeritus of Art, is a giant of American realist painting known for his tightly detailed renderings of everyday suburban landscapes and vintage cars. He is so precise and detailed that his pieces look incredibly similar to photographs. The Alameda native’s work is represented in the collections of the Whitney Museum and Guggenheim Museum in New York, the SF Museum of Modern Art and the de Young in San Francisco, and other revered institutions. He was married to Professor Emerita of Art Whitney Chadwick (born in 1943), an art historian and author of the widely cited book “Women, Art and Society.” 

The donated works will live in the San Francisco State School of Art’s Graphic Art Collection to be used as teaching resources in printmaking, painting, art history and beyond.  

“This gift is an acknowledgment and an advancement of Robert Bechtle’s legacy, a significant portion of which surrounds his 30-year tenure at SF State,” said Robert Firehock, the estate trustee and Chadwick’s cousin. “We are excited that his work will continue to inspire students’ creativity and discovery of their individual artistic voice.” 

Art Professor Emeritus Mark Dean Johnson is an art historian and curator who worked closely with Bechtle and Chadwick.  

“As a teacher, Bob was soft-spoken and thoughtful; he encouraged each artist to find their personal voice while learning about the craft of drawing and painting,” recalled Johnson, who served as SF State Fine Arts Gallery director for nearly 25 years — now led by Sharon E. Bliss with Curator-in-Residence Kevin Chen. 

Two watercolors, three lithographs 

The donation includes two original watercolors. One is a 1987 study of the ventilation chimneys in front of SF State’s Fine Arts building. Bechtle made it for a class demonstration held outdoors.  

The second, an untitled landscape of a bridge overpass in Golden Gate Park, is an example of how Bechtle planned his pieces with the utmost meticulousness, Johnson says.  

“Here, the paper is still stretched, taped down onto a wooden board, to keep it from buckling with moisture during the painting process, and the layering of watercolor is left incomplete to show his process,” Johnson said. “Both of these paintings provide valuable insider insight into how to paint with watercolor.” 

The gift’s three lithographs were also recommended by Professor Emerita Sylvia Solochek Walters, an esteemed printmaker and close friend and colleague of Bechtle and Chadwick. One highlight is “’61 Impala,” a 1973 piece showing the Chevrolet parked alone inside the vast SF State parking garage. The second is an image of a placid residential street in the nearby Sunset District, “which on close inspection reveals building up of the composition using elegant and subtle drawing with line,” Johnson said. Finally, “Over the Rainbow” is a portrait of fellow realist painter and Art Professor Richard MacLean (1934 – 2014). It is a tribute to a colleague, classmate and friend who encouraged Bechtle to apply for the job at SF State in the late 1960s. 

“These three images evidence how even banal subject matter can become the subject for art that communicates emotion, daylight and the potential for personal expression in the art of representation,” Johnson said. “These artworks join hundreds of others, awaiting discovery by successive generations of students to learn about the techniques and potentials of art on paper.” 

Learn more about the SF State School of Art.