Betty Guy, Internationally Renowned Watercolor Artist, Dead at 95

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Betty Guy, a beloved, internationally-renowned watercolor artist and San Francisco native, has died. She was 95.

Guy, who passed away on July 22 at her home in Bernal Heights, was the house artist for the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet right up to her death, and counted John Steinbeck and England's Queen Elizabeth II as fans.

"Betty was an incredible chronicler of the artistic richness of San Francisco Opera," Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera's general director, said. "Over decades she told in painting the story of our stage, and did so quietly but with humor and incredible heart. She always had a smile (and a kiss) for you and in that smile was everything good about San Francisco Opera. We miss her deeply."

"In Venice" by Betty Guy
"In Venice" by Betty Guy (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Born in San Francisco in 1920, Guy developed her painting style while attending UC Berkeley and later, the L'Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, France. Her big break came in 1961, when her show at San Francisco's Legion of Honor was described as being "the most delightful show of the year" by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein.

Guy went on to exhibit all over the world, and to work for institutions such as the San Francisco Symphony, the Port of San Francisco and Royal Viking Cruise lines, among others. For three decades she was an in-house artist at the high-end department store Gump's, making her the artist who worked there the longest.

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In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II visited San Francisco and received a Guy painting as a gift from the Port of San Francisco. The queen later wrote the Port, thanking its representatives for the painting and adding, "the picture will always awaken some very happy memories of their stay in your lovely city."

Guy managed to come in regularly to work at the San Francisco Opera until recently, when health issues kept her homebound. After her passing, San Francisco Opera retail manager Jay Stebley sent this message to his co-workers:

I was afraid that Betty’s health was in decline in the last year when her elfin appearances in the Opera House became fewer until she finally called to say she wouldn’t be bringing her paintings in last fall. She had shown up without fail every season for decades to sketch the dress rehearsals for the wonderful water colors she then had autographed by the artists on stage. Hundreds of patrons have purchased her paintings over the years, the proceeds going to San Francisco Opera, a company she loved with a passion. There are few folks here who don’t know her work since it has appeared on program covers, books about SFO, in galleries and, of course, on SFO stationery and prints. Her distinctive and cheerful style captured the essence of grand opera and she gloried in the beauty of the War Memorial Opera house itself. Please read her obituary; you will realize what an extraordinary and wide-ranging artist she was.

And she was a wonderful, loving person, a perpetual smile in sensible shoes. The last couple of seasons, I have been asked almost every night by patrons missing her presence and her work in the Opera Shop about her health and it is with great sadness that I share this news with you. I’ll miss the kiss on my cheek she always dispensed on opening night…

Services will be celebrated for Guy at 11am on Tuesday, Aug. 2 at the Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco.