By: Jenna Curry
“Summer and its blossoms all winter in California.” Around the turn of the 20th century the United States Railroad Administration put slogans like this on thousands of travel posters, hoping to cash in on Americans’ desire to escape the cold, harsh winters of the Northeast and Midwest. But artists didn’t need slogans to entice them. American painters trained in the art schools of Paris, New York and Chicago were drawn to the Golden State by rumors of a special light and gorgeous, remote scenery never before put down on canvas.
Of course, when the artists now known as the California Impressionists arrived in the southern part of the state in the 1880s, they were hardly exploring terra incognita. The gold rush of 1848–55 had focused the nation’s attention on California, and a small group of artists had been on hand to record the scene. In the 1870s Albert Bierstadt, a Hudson River School painter who took part in Western exploration trips across the Rocky Mountains, rendered Californian views, especially in Yosemite, that emphasized the rugged grandeur of a still-wild land. By the 1890s, when Southern California towns like Los Angeles and Pasadena had begun to grow and attract wealthy Easterners in search of gracious living, landscape painting evolved into an aesthetic influenced by French Impressionism.
Plein air painting—creating the work on-site rather than in the studio or, more generally, evoking a strong sense of the open air—was not new when the Impressionists held their first exhibition in 1874. Technology had made it practicable for the first time in the 1840s, when prepared pigments in metal tubes came on the market. The Barbizon School artists worked outdoors, with a technique more tightly controlled than that of the Impressionists (see page 42). The Impressionists used looser brushwork combined with a new method of placing complementary colors adjacent to each other in order to convey not the literal appearance of things but the way light made “impressions” on the eye and mind. While the Impressionists’ innovation was at first harshly criticized by the artistic establishment, by the time the movement reached California it had been widely accepted. And although the American version of Impressionism was somewhat toned down, it is evident that European artists strongly influenced California’s landscape painters.
Of course, the weather, especially in Southern California, had an influence on the state’s art history, as well. “The environment lent itself to painting, in the same way the movie industry ended up out here,” says Scot Levitt, vice president and director of the California paintings department at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles. Filmmakers and painters alike could spend a great deal of time working outdoors without having to worry about when it would rain.
Like the Parisian Monet going to Giverny, artists such as Guy Rose, William Wendt, Granville Redmond, Joseph Kleitsch and Arthur Mathews went to California seeking freshness and spontaneity. “A lot of the artists who came out here were looking for a certain kind of a freedom,” says George Stern, whose galleries in Beverly Hills and Carmel, Calif. specialize in American painting. “California was very appealing because of the great weather and diverse areas of painting. Many would come out to visit and eventually stay.” According to Whitney Ganz, director of William Karges Fine Art in Los Angeles (which also has a gallery in Carmel), the biographies of most of the early California painters have certain similarities: They studied at art schools in Europe or New York or Chicago, traveled to California on vacation and eventually settled there. Landscape artists often worked in Monterey, Carmel and San Francisco in the north and Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, San Diego and Santa Barbara in the south.
Today Northern and Southern California plein air painting are generally considered separate movements. “There’s a difference in the landscape and most importantly, a difference in the light,” Stern says, explaining that the northern light is cooler and bluer, while that of the south has a yellowish tinge. Also, artists from Northern California, particularly San Francisco, typically followed the organized, traditional plan of East Coast and Midwestern art colonies, according to Stern: “You had to go to art school, exhibit with the primary exhibition sites and then be picked up by galleries.”
One of the most influential plein air artists in Northern California was Mathews, the teacher of Redmond and Maynard Dixon. He was also an Arts and Crafts furniture designer who, with his wife, Lucia, maintained a shop in San Francisco that sold their pieces and promoted their design philosophy. After the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, they were instrumental in helping rebuild the city. The Mathewses founded what came to be known as the California Decorative Style. Today Arthur Mathews’ paintings, which exhibit a variety of styles from pre-Raphaelite to Art Nouveau to Tonalist, are rarely seen on the market, but an extensive collection of his work can be found in the Oakland Museum of California.
Wendt, who moved to Laguna Beach in 1912, had made numerous previous trips to the state with his friend and fellow artist George Gardner Symons. The paintings the friends produced during these trips were often exhibited in their hometown, Chicago. Wendt saw the relationship between God and nature as the keynote of his work: “He viewed himself as God’s faithful interpreter,” wrote Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum, in the catalogue for the 2002 exhibition titled Masters of Light. Wendt’s style is bold and masculine, with patterns of distinctive planes, according to Ray Redfern, a dealer in Laguna Beach. The painter worked outdoors to capture the land’s natural beauty, and rarely did he include people or animals in his paintings.
Redmond, who is best known for his colorful paintings of poppies, also focused his work on nature. He had come to California to study and paint, but he also had ambitions to become an actor in Hollywood. He became friends with Charlie Chaplin and appeared in minor roles of seven of Chaplin’s films. At an April 2009 Bonhams & Butterfields sale, Redmond’s Poppies and Lupine by a Lake With Mountains in the Distance set a world record for the artist when it sold for $542,000 (est. $350,000–550,000).
Although Edgar Payne didn’t settle in Laguna Beach until 1918, he visited often, and eventually founded the Laguna Beach Art Association. He was awestruck by the Sierra Nevada, and made frequent trips to observe and paint the scenery at a time when sections of the mountain range were still undocumented. “In the Sierras one finds mineral ledges everywhere,” wrote Payne. “There is a diversity of color. There are reds and greens not to be found anywhere in Europe. One finds here in the mountains of Switzerland under the skies of Italy.” Kleitsch came to Laguna Beach in 1912, but he was already acquainted with Payne and other landscape artists in the area. He considered himself a portraitist but achieved recognition for his landscapes and still lifes, using a bravura brushstroke and bold colors in most of his works.
Perhaps the California painter whose work most embodies Impressionistic influences is Rose. Prior to settling in Pasadena in 1914, he and his wife, Ethel, had lived in the art colony in Giverny and were among the few artists of their generation who came to know Monet on a personal level. Rose even adapted the great French Impressionist’s concept of painting the same location at various times of the day.
According to Redfern, a collector can obtain an important early California painting at a price ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million. However, many works fall within the $10,000–100,000 range. Although it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the California Impressionists began to gain more art-world recognition, their markets seemed to skyrocket soon after. Two books, Plein Air Painters of California: The North (1986) and The Southland (1982), both by Ruth Westphal, drew attention to the brightness and impressionistic style of about 100 early California landscape artists. A Rose that had sold for about $5,500 at Bonhams & Butterfields in 1977 brought more than $1 million around 2002. Ganz notes that not all of the artists’ prices jumped, but those for Rose, Wendt, Payne, Kleitsch and a few others did, quite significantly. Numerous galleries dedicated to early California landscapes opened throughout the state in the ’80s. Bonhams & Butterfields, Christie’s and John Moran Auctioneers hold up to three sales a year devoted entirely to the field.
Before the ’80s, however, California painting was widely perceived as merely a regional school, according to Peter Fairbanks, president of Montgomery Gallery in San Francisco. “But then there was a confluence of exploding population growth and a dynamic economy,” he says, “and people were suddenly realizing that collecting California Impressionist paintings was not an embarrassment.” The market, says Fairbanks, “still continues to grow, in part because the landscapes these artists were painting are disappearing.”
The period of California Impressionism had come to an end by the early 1940s; the Great Depression caused a drastic decline in the cultural and economic appeal of landscape painting. Many artists turned their eyes toward the urban scene and tried to address the harsh socioeconomic realities of the time. Today California Impressionistic paintings maintain their allure, because the early artists were able to capture the essential beauty and light of California’s natural landscape during an era of relative serenity, prosperity and hope.
DeRus Fine Art, Bellflower and Laguna Beach, Calif.
562.920.1312; 949.376.3785 derusfinearts.com
George Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood and Carmel, Calif.
310.276.2600; 831.626.1100 sternfinearts.com
John Moran Auctioneers, Altadena, Calif.
Montgomery Gallery, San Francisco
Redfern Gallery, Laguna Beach, Calif.
Sullivan & Goss, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Trotter Galleries, Carmel, Calif.
William Karges Fine Art, Los Angeles and Carmel, Calif.
310.276.8551; 831.625.4266 kargesfineart.com