The Desert is Wallace DeWolf’s sweeping view across a flat, open expanse toward a mountain range tinted lavender and pale blue beneath a blue sky softened by a few high fair-weather clouds. The desert is shown in its most colorful season, the tawny ground streaked with dull-green scrub and bright orange blossoms, likely California poppies. The open horizontal composition, unbroken by vertical features, suggests the vastness of the light-bathed desert vista.
DeWolf traveled widely in the western U.S., visiting Colorado on business as early as 1902. Fascinated by the color, variety, and changeability of the desert landscape, he began to specialize in painting it soon after taking up art seriously around 1912. Two years later, some of his paintings were included in the exhibition “Paintings of the Far West” at the Art Institute of Chicago. DeWolf showed The Desert in the Art Institute’s “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition in early 1922; later that year he gave the painting to the museum. Until it was deaccessioned and sold at auction in Chicago in 1996, The Desert bore the date 1913. The circumstances under which the date was changed to 1917 are unknown.
Inscriptions on the back of the canvas and stretcher, likely not in the artist’s hand, indicate that the subject of the painting is the Mojave Desert and the Calico Mountains in Southern California. A frequent visitor to and eventually part-time resident of Pasadena, DeWolf undoubtedly traveled between Chicago and Los Angeles on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which took him within sight of the southern flank of the colorful Calico range just east of Barstow. However, DeWolf is not known to have painted there until 1916, when he created several landscapes that were included in his solo exhibition at the Art Institute early the following year.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD