California paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries represent an exciting opportunity for collectors in search of beauty and quality.Long before there was midcentury modern or Bay Area Abstraction and Figuration, California boasted a lively art scene. Its styles were firmly rooted in European Impressionism but adapted to the unique light and landscape of the state. Just as California beckoned to sun-seekers everywhere, it attracted artists looking for a plein-air paradise. “Most of them were from the East Coast, the Midwest or Europe,” notes George Stern, a longtime dealer of early California painting based in West Hollywood. “They came because of the promotion of California as a new Eden, with great opportunities and great weather—and the ability to paint outdoors almost 365 days a year.”
While Southern California painting is more popular today, Northern California painting came first, and it was not strictly speaking plein-air. In the 1890s, painters in the San Francisco area made the transition from doing large-scale, painted-to-impress views of well-known landmarks to more intimate, contemplative studies of the effects of light and atmosphere, based on close observation but often executed in the studio. This approach is known as Tonalism, and took its inspiration from the Hudson River School landscape work of George Inness and from the daring light-and-dark effects of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Among the Tonalists were William Keith and Thomas Hill, as well as Charles Rollo Peters, a San Francisco-born specialist in moonlit nocturnes who spent a great deal of his career in Monterey. Peters was a particular admirer of Whistler, and the notoriously critical expatriate master returned the feeling. Another prominent Northern California Tonalist was Arthur Mathews, who with his wife, Lucia, was also a furniture designer and a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. In fact, interest in Arts and Crafts was a major factor in the revival of interest in early California painting in the 1980s, after a long period of disfavor.
One of Mathews’ students, Granville Redmond, represents in his own person the shift of California’s artistic center of gravity in the early 20th century. Stern describes him as a “transitional figure,” in that he began with Tonalist compositions while living in the Bay Area and switched to an Impressionist style after settling in Los Angeles. “Redmond’s early works are very Tonal,” says Whitney Ganz of William A. Karges Fine Art in Beverly Hills . “He came down here and his works got brighter and brighter.” Redmond’s landscapes, rich in floral detail, are among the most sought-after California paintings in today’s market, the top price at auction for a canvas of his being $542,000.
After the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, many artists abandoned the area and moved South—especially to the Carmel–Monterey area but also to Laguna and of course Los Angeles. Once there, their art inevitably changed under the powerful influence of the strong sun and the special colors and effects it creates in combination with the local flora, desert and mountains. Among the other major figures of this period (through the 1930s, when the Depression effectively caused the demise of California Impressionism and its collector base) were William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Armin Hansen, Franz Bischoff and Guy Rose. Rose is interesting because while a native of Los Angeles, he spent a great deal of time (until 1914) living and painting in the Giverny art colony, where he befriended Monet.
Rose’s style is very close to French Impressionism, which makes him a standout among his California colleagues. “California Impressionism is not pure Impressionism, defined like French Impressionism, it but does carry on some of those traditions, like painting out of doors and capturing atmospheric conditions,” says Ganz. “In general, it has a slightly more realist look than what you would find at height of French Impressionism. Guy Rose is biggest exception—he paints most like a French Impressionist of all the early California artists.” A Rose oil on canvas, Woman Sewing in a Garden, will be offered in Bonhams’ sale of California and Western paintings in L.A. on December 11, estimated at $400,000–600,000. His auction record is nearly $2 million.
After decades of obscurity during which modernism eclipsed California plein-air and Tonalist painting, the revival of the 1980s and ’90s brought about a long-term upswing that is still going on. Of course, the recession of 2008–09 has affected the California market as it has in all art fields. Ganz says, “Although the market certainly isn’t where is was five years ago, we are selling paintings, especially top-tier works in terms of quality. But if someone wanted to acquire a few paintings or put a collection together, now would be the time to buy.” He explains that at the entry level, a beginning collector “can get nice collectible material between $10,000 and 20,000—something that would really hold up over time.” The next tier up would be in the $20,000–75,000 range, and the top is six figures to over $1 million.
Auction houses are also seeing a relatively soft market right now. “The California Impressionist market is still in recovery, but we are seeing good prices consistently now for the “A” artists,” says Katie Halligan, vice president and fine art sales director at John Moran Auctioneers, in Altadena, which holds two sales a year devoted to early California painting. “Buyers are willing to step up for Payne, Rose, and so on.” Scot Levitt, Bonhams’ director of fine arts in L.A. and San Francisco, says, “The top end of the market continues to be strong, and, as best we can tell, always will be strong. For anything else, the market is volatile, it’s up and it’s down. Sales that used to be 90 percent sold are now 75 or 80 percent, and that’s entirely due to the economy.”
Stern says, “We can still sell paintings in the six and seven figures, but there are great opportunities for beginning collectors to come into it and pay under $10,000. There are very fine quality painters you can still collect because they are not on radar of most collectors.” Among the undervalued artists he cites Clarence Hinkle, “a post-Impressionist who can occasionally get into an almost expressionist style of work,” Aaron Kilpatrick, William Judson and John Bond Francisco. Alternately, one could try collecting works in a style other than that for which an artist is most famous. Stern observes that Redmond’s moodier Tonalist paintings sell for significantly less than his more familiar verdant landscapes with poppy fields. In general, Tonalist works are lower priced, and Peters’ night scenes, says Stern, are “interesting and desirable but not so expensive.”
Whatever one buys, early California paintings will likely continue to appeal, both within and outside their home state. “I’ve had a lot of clients who collect it because they love Impressionism and obviously it’s cost-prohibitive to collect paintings by great French Impressionists—if they were even available,” says Ganz. “But it’s also it’s about the place where they grew up. The attraction is historical, topographic and aesthetic. You look at these paintings and think, wow, that’s what the area used to look like before there were any houses there!” Stern points out that California painting is “very straightforward, very appealing, and the concept of beauty is something that is very relevant to it. Those are not the primary motivating factors for people who are collecting contemporary art, but it was with these painters.”
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Coastal Impressions”