Monday, April 23, 2012

Artist I Love: Ira Yeager

Calistoga Follies
With an artist’s romantic eye for the eccentric, Northern California painter Ira Yeager gathers exuberant collections of furniture, antiques, curiosities, and rare objects in his Calistoga studio, country pavilion and barn. Both inspiration and décor, his collections set the scene of his privateNapa Valley world.

Come with me for a private visit to this prolific painter—and be inspired. 

Ira Yeager, dressed for a dinner party at Clarke and Elizabeth Swanson’s house in the Napa Valley, wears a custom-crafted shirt he acquired at the Town School Clothes Closet, his favorite San Francisco thrift haunt for his wardrobe. 

In the wild green hills north of Calistoga, artist Ira Yeager has built a pleasure pavilion for art, music, lavish feasts, and summer frolic. Nearby are his redwood studio and his soaring red barn—and all three are backgrounds for the artist’s gregarious (and prolific) life. 

The Gustavian folly is a venue for an eighteenth-century Swedish cabinet, antique Italian and French chairs, and a Venetian glass vase. The plywood floor was ‘marbleized’ with marine paint and stencils. 

Step into Yeager’s dreamy Gustavian-style country house and it’s like tripping into the 18th-century.

Yeager greets guests wearing a handsome nipped-waist cutaway crimson jacket made in 1776 for a French nobleman. He reposes on a languorous down-filled Provencal chaise longue, dines on elegant French porcelain plates, and displays his French silver teapot on a superb French marquetry desk.

Yeager happily admits that he is obsessed with 18th-century France. So much so that he paints lively gala scenes and portraits inspired by that fabled French century, and he surrounds himself with 18th-century French antique cabinets and gueridons, portraits, and objets (shipped from France by his dear friend, antiques dealer Lillian Williams). 

Arched windows in the pavilion overlook vineyards. The grapes, intensely flavored from the volcanic soil and sunny terroir, are in demand among local winemakers. Yeager’s motto for his French chaise longue and painted table: ‘nothing newer than 1812’. 

After leaving his San Francisco studio to live and paint in the Wine Country twenty years ago, Yeager came upon a neglected walnut orchard in a remote valley north of Calistoga. He decided to build a Swedish cottage in the Gustavian style.

To realize Yeager’s dream, his friend, Calistoga contractor Richard Horwath, limned a charming board-and-batten structure with a soaring ceiling and stripped pine support columns

The pale gray Gustavian folly surrounded by five acres of flourishing walnut trees encrusted with pale green lichen makes a dramatic bucolic scene, with deer nibbling tender grass shoots and doves nesting among the gnarled oaks.

Yeager’s art today is passionately engaging, but it’s clear that the true métier of this painter is recreating the past. 

He loves antiques, especially French pieces with interesting provenance. 

Yeager has been making his mark on the San Francisco art scene since the fifties. He grew up in Bellingham, Washington, and studied art first at CCA and later at the San Francisco Art Institute with teachers such as Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, and Elmer Bischoff. In the sixties and seventies, Yeager studied and painted in Italy, Paris, and Morocco and he lived for a decade on the island of Corfu, off the coast of Greece.

Zinnias from his garden sizzle in an antique Chinese urn on the deck of the pavilion. 

The neoclassical Gustavian style, which flowered in Stockholm in the late 18th-century, was directly inspired by the 18th-century architecture and decor fashionable in France at the time of Louis XVI, a hero of Yeager’s. The French-inspired Gustav III is one of Yeager soul mates.
“I admire and appreciate everything French and 18th-century Swedish,” said Yeager, who studied painting in Paris while in his twenties. “The eighteenth-century was a golden era--the blossoming of design, courtly life, fashion, art, music and culture. I’m curious about what it all means. I paint characters of that period and collect the antiques so that I can understand that century, and come face-to-face with the philosophy and daily life.”
The present is picture-perfect. But for Ira Yeager there is always his brush with the golden and glorious 18th-century. 

The redwood studio has all-day sun. Just as well. Yeager is an all-day painter. 

In his paint-scented studio Ira Yeager stacks recent oil paintings, juxtaposed with delicate antique French and German porcelains. Dust is his mood-altering friend. 

Every day, Napa Valley artist Ira Yeager wakes with the sparrows and works until dusk in his paint-spattered studio.

As sunlight flickers through tall windows, he paints alluring Indians, elegant costumed 18th-century French princes, California landscapes, and Swedish countesses at costumed balls.

“History for me stopped in 1812, and I’m besotted with eighteenth-century Europe and long-ago California,” said Yeager. 

An Italian gilded niche with saint. 

In the studio, new painting completes, amid a certain orderly chaos. 

From the rustic Calistoga headquarters, Yeager’s studio manager, Brian Fuller, ships canvases to avid collectors and galleries in Aspen, Carmel Valley, Santa Fe, Houston, New York, Beverly Hills, London and Mumbai. Yeager’s works have been exhibited around the country, and he always seems to have an exhibit at any moment in a California gallery.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a long career,” said Yeager, taking a break to pick ripe heirloom tomatoes in his garden. “I studied in the early sixties and I’ve been painting ever since. When people ask me if I’m still painting, I respond, “What else is better to do?” I research and work on my art every day.”

Yeager recently released, with Berkeley publisher Peter Koch, ‘Paul Bowles 2137 Tanger Socco’, a lavish shocking pink boxed compilation of Yeager’s letters to writer Paul Bowles over four decades. It’s illustrated with original portraits, in a limited edition of twenty-five.

“I met Paul Bowles in the late sixties in Tangier,” said Yeager. “He was so encouraging for my work. And we always kept in touch.” 

“I first discovered St. Helena and Calistoga around 1975, long before they were chic,” said Yeager. “There were a handful of fine wineries, some great friends, but no social life or restaurants. It was pure discovery. Until the 1830s, the Wappo Indians used to hunt and live in the region where I now live. I often find their obsidian arrowheads.”

“The Napa Valley is a wonderful place for an artist,” said Ira. “It’s relaxed and incredibly beautiful through the seasons. I can disappear for days and throw myself into my paintings, or I can head down Highway 29 to the French Laundry or the Swanson Winery salon, and be very social. I might drive over to the St Helena Olive Oil Company to buy the best olive oil in the world. I invite my best friends to a special dinner at The Napa Valley Reserve, ultra-private and elegant. There at the Reserve, everything is possible in the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire said.”
He’s twenty minutes from the town of Calistoga, but it feels distant. Mountain lions stalk across his meadows, and deer tiptoe through the walnut orchard.

Yeager’s redwood board-and-batten studio, built like all of his follies by Calistoga contractor Richard Horwath, reaches high into the surrounding ancient oaks. Topped with a jaunty cupola, it lights up like a magic lantern on a summer afternoon. 

Yeager’s dramatic red barn is used as a painting studio, for impromptu entertaining, and to display his artfully arranged collections, some precious, some eccentric. Contractor: Richard Horwath.

An architectural fragment plays stage for vintage albums and a Chinese birdcage. 

Half a mile away, surrounded by manzanitas, stands the red barn, built from a Swedish-style barn kit and shipped west from Alabama.

“I dream up houses and iconic farm buildings and Richard turns them into sun-filled pavilions and studios,” says Yeager. “I see an image of a folly or a pavilion in a design book, and want it build it, decorate it with my antiques, have parties.” 

Abstract paintings, intentionally paint-laden, create a colorful contrast with a farm table gathering of forty years of curiosities.  

A painting by Yeager hovers above a marble-topped French table topped with crystal. 

On weekends, friends from San Francisco and the Napa Valley arrive bearing bottles of wine from their estates, as well as artisan cheeses and baguettes, and gossip from the city.

Equally unstoppable, when Yeager steps out of his studio, he’s sleuthing through Petaluma antiques galleries for gilded French antique chairs and rattling around San Francisco flea markets in search of Meissen porcelains. 

He recently found a set of twelve delicately carved ballroom chairs from Antique & Art Exchange in San Francisco that now adorn his pale grey pavilion. New finds cluttering an old farm table include delicate Venetian wine glasses, an eighteenth-century French nobleman’s crimson silk jacket with the original carved mother-of-pearl buttons, a cache of French cut crystal carafes from a Bordeaux chateau. 

The peripatetic Yeager has painted in Morocco, Corfu, the South of France and Paris.

“I’ve been happy in studios around the world, but I’m happiest in Calistoga,” he said. “In California, I can invent, dream, create, and live a wonderful life.”


All photography by Adrian Gregorutti, Napa Valley, California. Presented here with express permission of the photographer.

Adrian Gregorutti with both a European and South American background brings his great talent and diverse sensibilities to his work photographing wineries, architecture, interiors, historical buildings, people and art. He lives in Rutherford, in the heart of California’s Wine Country.

To contact Ira Yeager:


Tara Dillard said...

How am I possibly the 1st commenter?

Thank you for this introduction.

Artist and his photographer AND your writing.

You've hit this blogpost ball out of the park.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

helen tilston said...

Hello Diane

What a delightful and interesting article on Yeager. His is a very accomplished artist and his style of living and dress and way of life lives up to his profession. I love his style and his joy for life and living. He is one I would love to be sitting next to on a long, long flight.
Thank you for such a wonderful post


Rosalind San Felipe said...

You have to love a man in a blazer and a truck!

Wonderful article and visuals...always love the places you choose to show us..the epitome of armchair travel.

I have all your books and find them wonderful inspiration for my home and my art.

Thank you...


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Tara, over there on the East Coast...this is not the usual view of California!
Yes...I am happy to be the traveler so that you can 'armchair travel'...and I hope later take that route.
If you are in the Napa Valley, by all means contact ira...and go and visit. He would love it.

Helen-you are right. Ira is endlessly fascinating. Did you know he was a great and longtime friend of PAUL BOWLES the author in Tangier...Ira kind of knew everyone and knows everyone. I love to see him... your note. And...see that Ira's double breasted jacket and his French-cuff shirt are from the TOWN SCHOOL CLOTHES CLOSET...which is a shop where his friends donate clothes to raise money for a boys' school here in the city. Ira buys custom made shirts (with someone else's monogram) and jackets and crocodile shoes...for very little money...and turns up looking very very swell...he does it with a great sense of humor. It is definitely my impression that it is kind of I know he could be affording Charvet shirts or custom made jackets...

Stay in touch and let me hear from you. very best, DIANE

cindy hattersley design said...

I have loved his work since I first spotted it at the now defunct showroom at the design center that I will not mention....amazing talent..his work speaks to me like no other...but that is just me.

Robert Webber said...

Hi Diane!
What a fabulous guy. Such talent and style.
Fabulously presented by you.
You really show blog-world how it SHOULD be done!
Thanks as always

mary said...

Amazing vision and passion. Thanks opening my eyes. Mary

peggy braswell said...

Love this interview. Diane, you are the best blogger. I will look Ira up when in Napa next.


I cannot believe LILLIAN W. is still with us!Does she have a BLOG or Website?Loved this post!I remember her shop from my youth in San Francisco!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends--

I'm thrilled that you all love this story--and each of you sees it differently.

I've also had wonderful comments from my friend Suzanna Allen, and my dear friend Margot in Munich, and from my Facebook pals.

Yes, Lillian Williams is alive and living in western France in Normandy I think. Still friends of Ira's.
He paints every day.
He sells lots of paintings...all over US.
He loves is his life.
He has millions of friends.
He's witty, charming, fun, a quite good cook with things fresh from the garden--and an impromptu entertainer.
He is a member of THE NAPA VALLEY RESERVE...very private and very special wine club at Meadwood that I love...and he entertains there often.
Stay in touch dear friends--I adore your enthusiasm and your comments.
Give Ira a call...through the website...and see if you can go and visit...I know he would love it.
cheers and happy days, DIANE

alan said...

just beautiful pictures lovely has no bbq grill anywhere thou

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


....oh, I think there is a grill...

He dines well and often...and grows his own veg and I can tell you his tomatoes are so delicious.

Stay in touch! DIANE

Virginia Country House said...

What a terrific post! Such an interesting artist. I love the contrast between his art and his home... N.G.

The French Tangerine said...

Diane, I commented a few months ago when I bought my Ira Yeager, and have done multiple posts on my obsession with his artwork. I've bought all of your books in hopes of stealing a glance at a painting, or a glimpse of his home.. (and your books are lovely)
This post is a dream! So glad i happened upon it.. I will promptly follow so as not to miss another thing!

mbwife said...

This artist is living the life I dreamed of as a girl when I aspired to being an artist (except I think I was supposed to be on an island.)
In any case, great post, great introduction to some very interesting work, and once again, you transported me to someplace new! - Norine mbwife

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview. Ira is a classic individual!

@ La Contessa and Diane--

Lillian and Ted are very much alive. I visited with them at their gorgeously decorated pied a terre in Paris last week. Very charming couple and so extremely knowledgeable. We spent all day discussing the 18th century. Days before I was at their folly in Normandy. It seems as though they only visit there a few weeks out of the year during the summer. I would grab it up in heart beat if only I had the funds!

Jo said...

Oh My! What an incredible experience to interview and visit with Ira Yeager. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful post.

Brillante Interiors said...

At first photography was the major appeal in this post and then...words made the images come to life!