Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California

by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure

 



 

Continued from page one

 

Eucalyptus School

In the September 1, 1928, issue of the West Coaster, Merle Armitage, art critic, wrote;

"Soon exhibitions will be hung in our various galleries for the fall season. Our artists have returned from desert and mountain, trail and canyon, and columns will be written about Susie Gumdrop's handling of tree forms, John Popcorn's rendering of California mountains, and Mr. Whosit's lovely handling of desert colors. What does it all mean? Most of it means that nine-tenths of the men and women painting here on the West Coast are grinding out the usual output of pleasant calendars. They all see a desert, a sunset, a mountain or the sea with exactly the same eyes and the same minds. They are simply unintentionally making illustrations rather than creature [sic--creative] art. The difficulty of this situation from the standpoint of the reviewer is that most of them are such excellent folk that one shrinks from naming specific instances of their harmless art. I call it the 'eucalyptus school' of painting."

This column gave birth to the title which has since been applied (and wrongly) to all landscapes created in Southern California before what some people consider the enlightened 1950's. What was the Eucalyptus School and how does it relate to the American Impressionist movement in general and to the Southern California Impressionist movement specifically?

The Eucalyptus School, taking its name from eucalyptus trees which have been a unique arboreal feature of California since their transplantation from Australia in the late nineteenth century, is a loose title to cover the large number of landscapists active in Southern California from about 1915 to about 1930. Eucalyptus School artists used local geography for subject matter. Their paintings were generally representational and they usually excluded humans, animals or architecture. Landscape was the most popular subject matter of Impressionists, and a natural for local artists. As early as the first regular art reviews we know that Anderson and his fellow artists revered and admired the local landscape.[25] We hear that its coloration was considered subtle and exquisite,[26] that its mountains were not as grand as the Swiss Alps, but were appreciated for their greater humanness,[27] that to paint the landscape made local artists unique [28] and that the local landscape was so outstanding it could attract Eastern artists.[29]

The Eucalyptus School artists painted with attractive, acceptable coloration and loose brushwork. This style was based on Impressionism's liberation of brushwork and color but it also borrowed elements from numerous other progressive art movements of the early twentieth century, such as the Ash Can School. (This absorption was probably not conscious but a natural reaction of sensitive individuals to outside stimuli.) Like many things American, the Eucalyptus style was a mongrel (or as art historians would say, eclectic) and, in fact, not too dissimilar from the style produced across America in mid-sized Americas cities and such artists' colonies as Gloucester, Cape Ann, Provincetown, Silvermine and Woodstock. That is not to say depiction of local geographic features and local coloration was not unique and, in fact, critics even noted the stylistic difference between Southern and Northern California.[30] But the style shared a generic similarity to all American painting contemporary to it.

The term Eucalyptus School, as originally applied, had a negative connotation which it has not yet outgrown. Even as late as 1981, critics, historians and collectors stand too historically and physically close to view it objectively, that is, to ignore the work of the large number of amateurs who participated in it. (Amateurs existed in equal proportions in other United States art colonies, but are obscured to us by distance.)

Eucalyptus School pictures have been condemned for numerous faults -- bland coloration, undeveloped or uninteresting compositions, weak construction, superficial, weightless, substanceless form, insignificant content, cotton-candy fluff brushwork, decorativeness, etc. Bland coloration suggests bland ideas and compromise to decorators and, indeed, pastel tones dominate Eucalyptus School landscapes. Yet the irony is that these are Southern California's true colors. No one can deny that after a rain or wind the air is so clear and crisp that colors and forms glow with unnatural brilliance and saturation. But most of the year Los Angeles' atmosphere is tinged with haze. This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1542, Cabrillo observed the effect of Southern California's inversion layer when he saw smoke rise from an Indian campfire at San Pedro Harbor and level out a few hundred feet in the air. Because of this he named the bay "La Bahia de los Fumos." In 1912 a traveler who ascended five thousand feet up Mt. Lowe observed that "the effect of Los Angeles smoke on the surrounding pellucid air is evident and apparent as a gray brown veil hanging over the city."[31] Today, we call this haze "smog. But under whatever name, the haze has the same effect. Landscape colors are paled to pastel, close to the tones we criticize in Eucalyptus School landscapes. And, while no one can deny that Southern California enjoys beautiful greens in the spring of the year, most of the time the desert climate leaves the hills scantily covered with dry-looking brush in shades of bland buffs and browns.

Eucalyptus School pictures have been called decorative. Merle Armitage called them harmless decoration. Antony Anderson admitted, "...where there is a surplus of scenery, there is also apt to be a large measure of the painting of mere externals."[32] In 1921, in a rare negative mood, he recorded an opinion that was to become more and more true of landscape in the 1920's:

"'Eucalyptus and Clouds' by Douglas Parshall, while original in its decorative scheme of gold and gray colors, remains only a decoration...Orrin White took a prize on his 'Eucalypti'...yet we note here, as in many other pictures by Mr. White, a sort of diffusion of many colors, not all of which are closely related...when he joins beauty and strength, he will be a very fine landscapist indeed."[33]

Is harmless decorativeness a fault? In serious painting it is. Anderson tells us, "Art is not a plaything for idle hands, but the expression of a strong soul's aspiration toward the ideal in life."[34] The French Impressionists' works had been decorative, yes, but they had also managed to invest them with strength and character which saved them from banality. But when Southern California Eucalyptus School artists reacted to Impressionism, instead of pressing forward toward the greatness prophesied for them, they diverted from the experimental path of true art, down a tangent stream of harmless decorativeness. Why did the local mainstream lapse into decorativeness? We know local artists were serious about improving their art. The numerous artists' clubs formed for self-improvement demonstrate this. [35] Yet they seem to have striven for professionalism, not for experiment. Certainly, the relative isolation of Los Angeles from the East Coast, the widely separated residences of the artists which discouraged intellectual or other competition, the frankly prosaic living conditions had their effect. Arthur Millier attributed local weakness to the lack of great models in museum collections from which our artists could learn.[36]

One of the strongest factors was probably lack of strong direction. Antony Anderson's art criticism might have helped, but anyone reading the Los Angeles Times art reviews between 1906 and 1924 cannot help noticing Anderson's overly-positive, encouraging attitude. Like an over-protective, over-anxious and overly-supportive mother, Anderson cajoled, congratulated and encouraged almost all the artists. In view of the generally unsophisticated nature of local art prior to 1914 and the fact that it was in a vulnerable, youthful state, he probably felt he was doing more good than if he had leveled scathing criticism,

Arthur Millier, the art critic who followed Anderson about 1924, was more critical but does not seem to have been able to effect much change. In his first years on the job he wrote some pretty substantive reviews, though they were not overly critical. By the 1930's, when he had begun to call paintings as he saw them, his reduced column and an overload of work which sapped his energies and resulted in brief, five-sentence reviews, left no room for extended appraisal.

Local artists were also hampered by their belief in the mystique that their place of residence and their potential for greatness were far superior to that of Eastern artists. The idea that Southern California was an artistic mecca, a Garden of Eden, a "Land of Heart's Desire"[37] probably originated with the real estate promoters who developed Los Angeles, but it came to be heartily believed by local artists. This became bound up with the ages-old philosophical notion that rural is more honest and natural than urban, and that the West (as identified with rural) was more healthy than the East (which was identified with urban).

"We have been told that conditions are right for a renaissance of art in California -- that we have the proper civilization, the correct climate for self-expression in the realms of thought and beauty. On the whole we are inclined to believe that these glowing prophecies will come to pass, are already beginning to come to pass -- and that the Great Far West will soon have an art epoch of strength and originality. Living in California our strength goes without saying, and living on this glorious side of the Great Divide, we'll have to have originality if we have anything at all. Even though our young painters go East to study in ever increasing numbers, the most of our landscape painters remain, and it is in landscape that we have freest expression."[38]

Even late into the 1920's, art lovers were confident Los Angeles' climate gave it the potential of becoming the Athens of the West.[39] Arthur Millier believed the sun was the lodestone of the Southland [40] and even as acerbic a critic as Merle Armitage said, "I will not maintain that Los Angeles, the home of the mediocre, is the Athens of the West, but I will point out that the curiosity and the vigor of this community is potentially important, that we are more likely to accept new modes and expressions in art than the inelastic Eastern mind suffering with arrested development."[41] This message was spread to the nation in a number of magazine articles extolling Southern California's qualities as an art paradise.[42]

Even after 1921, the year the optimistic Antony Anderson was driven to level accusations of decorativeness at local landscapes in the California Art Club exhibition and perceptive people realized the mainstream of Southern California art had taken the tangent toward decorativeness, the movement had its defenders. Millier railed against Merle Armitage's name-calling in the West Coaster.[43] He defended the school for its honesty when C.J. Rider complained the local artists were academic, imitative, and painted for the public, not in the true spirit of inventive creativity [44]

In spite of the many general arguments against the Eucalyptus School, a number of its landscapists rose to extremely high competence. Each had his or her own slightly different style. Benjamin Brown, mentioned earlier as Los Angeles' first resident "impressionist," used a greater impasto than most of his fellows and was known for his views of pine trees bowed by thick blankets of snow. Franz Bischoff, who entered the local landscape movement quite early, carried over his relatively dark palette from florals. He is well entrenched in the Eucalyptus School category primarily by intent. Some of Paul Lauritz's paintings, such as his Arroyo Seco (Private Collection), are crisp in brushwork and highly articulate, and are among the top of the line, but his later works are hardly worthy of mention. Edgar Payne, too, excelled among his brethren. Even though his three favorite subjects (boats in harbors, Indians riding through Southwestern landscape, and mountain scenes) were exceedingly repetitive, his construction, palette and application of paint remained even and highly professional. Hanson Puthuff spread pale greyed-greens over rolling hills and lavender over distant mountains. His career, like several other Eucalyptus School painters, included diorama and theater scene painting. These disciplines involve the literal translation of surface appearance and may have influenced him toward naturalism. Arthur Hill Gilbert (1894-1970) simplified landscape to the point of poeticism. Though lack Wilkinson Smith varied from super-slick calendar artist to sincere craftsman, he painted some technically well-developed marines and landscapes. Alfred Mitchell and Maurice Braun were the premier San Diego landscapists. Braun potboilered yards of softly-muted, cotton-candy hills and valleys, but occasionally extends himself to produce an outstanding work which reveals conscientious compositional construction and more developed coloration, See California Valley Farm (Private Collection). These are just a few of the many artists who sought to transcribe nature realistically onto canvas, but who achieved a certain distinction in their style. Others certainly exist who are not mentioned here.

 

Conclusion

Can the nineteenth century French terms Impressionism and Post-Impressionism be applied to any Southern California art movement of the early twentieth century? The answer is no, not to any movement,when the terms are used in their purist sense. But they can be, without hesitation, applied to the work of some individual local painters, most often to European or East Coast trained artists who moved to the Southland after careers elsewhere. The closest thing to a movement which involved either Impressionism or Post-Impressionism was the Modern Art Society, but that was basically a short-lived exhibiting group and not a movement. The Southland's one true art movement, the Eucalyptus School, was a definite offspring of Impressionism, but probably did not adhere to enough of French Impressionism's original tenets to deserve to be called Southern California Impressionism. The terms "impressionistic" or Impressionist style," meaning a colorful, light-filled rendering of landscape or a landscape approaching the French Impressionists' style, could probably be used with most Southern California landscapes painted in the period between 1915 and 1930.



Endnotes

1. Splitter, Henry Winifred, "Art in Los Angeles before 1900," Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, XLI, June, 1959, p.136.

2. First reproduced oil,"Mt. San Antonio," in Land of Sunshine, December, 1896, p. 34, is very amateurish and not impressionistic.

3. Millier, Arthur, "Growth of Art in California," in Frank J. Taylor, Land of Homes, Los Angeles: Powell, 1929, Chap. 13, p. 334. Millier traces the beginning of the California landscape movement to the artists Elmer Wachtel and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel, Benjamin C. Brown, Hanson Puthuff, Jack Wilkinson Smith and William Wendt, and says, "Elmer Wachtel was one of the first to discover the beauties of characteristic dry arroyos where coloring is pale under the strong light with lavender shadows. He may be truly said to have founded a school."

4. Although his earliest reproductions and reviews suggest he preferred sunsets, moonlight scenes and nocturnes which were more common to Barbizon style, some works were said to have reached for intense and glowing sunlight.

5. Approximate order of arrival: Hanson Puthuff (1903), Sam Hyde Harris (1904), Ernest Browning Smith (1904-11), Jack Wilkinson Smith (1906), John Gamble to Santa Barbara (1906), Martin J. Jackson (1906), William Wendt (1906), Jean Mannheim (1908), Alfred T. Mitchell (1908), Maurice Braun to San Diego (1910).

6. Antony Anderson discusses the California colony of Paris' Latin Quarter and the inclusion in the prestigious Salons of work by Los Angeles artists Mrs. Aurella deWalt Payne (not related to Edgar Payne) and Maude Daggett, sculptress of Pasadena, Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1910, 3-14-1,2; Los Angeles painters at the Salon, Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1911, 3-21-1.

7. Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1917, 3-4-4.

8. Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1908, 3-16-3.

9. Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1912, 3-18-2.

10. Gerdts, William, American Impression, exhibition organized and circulated by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, 1980.

11. Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1917, 3-4-4.

12. Two articles in Western Art, June, July, August, 1914.

13. Museum of History, Science and Art, Exhibition of Selected Honor Paintings from the Palace of Fine Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915, October 1, 1916-May 1, 1917.

14. Museum of History, Science and Art, Exhibition of Paintings Loaned from Gallery of Fine Arts, Panama-California Exposition, San Diego, January 18-February 1, 1916.

15. Petersen Galleries, The Paintings of Sam Hyde Harris (1889-1977), a Retrospective Exhibition, Beverly Hills, 1980.

16. Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1915, 3-20-2.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid, column 3.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid, column 5.

21. Pierce, Patricia Jobe, The Ten, North Abington, MA: Pierce Galleries, 1976.

22. Reproductions listed in Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall, Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California before 1930, Los Angeles: Privately printed, 1975.

23. National Gallery of Art, Post Impressionism Cross Currents in European and American Painting 1880-1906, Washington, DC: 1980, p. 14.

25. Los Angeles Times, 18,1908, 3-2-5.

26. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Painting and Sculpture in Los Angeles 1900-1945, September 25-November 23, 1980, pp. 8 and following.

27. Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1915, 3-20-4.

28. When A Sufferer ("A Chance for Real Art," Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1907, 6-2-1,2) attacked the landscape painters of Laguna and the Arroyo complaining that he had seen seventy-nine versions of the "Twin Sycamores in the Arroyo Seco," Anderson was quick to explain that, "Not cheap French restaurants but the lovely vistas of the Arroyo Seco distinguish Los Angeles from other cities; not five-cent theatres,but the marvelous scenic beauties of the Garvanza hills, not little Italian priests in queer little transplanted gardens, but big native California laymen in perennial rose bowers of a hundred acres."

29. Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1907, 6-2-4.

30. Oakland Museum, Impressionism, A California View, 1981, p. 20. Both Antony Anderson and Arthur Millier had noted this difference. Both writers admitted a definite rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles (not just in art but in other matters, primarily real estate). Anderson saw more vigor in San Francisco art, and believed the cooler, foggier weather discouraged landscape painting, while he felt there was more subtlety and refinement in Southern California art and that the Southland's favorite climate fostered landscape painting, Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1922, 3-20-4. Arthur Millier attributed San Francisco's aesthetic, intellectual ideas to its urban personality and its concentrated artists' quarter which fostered stimulating interchange of ideas. Southern California, on the other hand, tended to produce more representational art, due to its dispersed artists' residences and the agrarian background of most of its residents, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1927, 3-22-1, 2, 3 and 3-23-1,

31. "Los Angeles 1781-1981:' special issue of California History, LX, Spring, 1981, p. 54.

32. Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1915, 3-20-3.

33. Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1921, 3-2-4, 5.

34. Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1908, 3-2-4.

35, In the early years these were Art Association (1890), the Palette Club of Los Angeles (1905), the Painters Club (1906) which became the California Art Club (about 1909). See other clubs in Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall, Artists' Clubs and Exhibitions in Los Angeles before 1930, Los Angeles: Privately printed, 1974.

36. Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1927, 3-20.

37. Frederick R. Miner, "California the Landscapist Land of Heart's Desire," Western Art, June, July, August, 1914, pp. 31-34.

38. Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1912, 3-18-1.

39. Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1933, 2-3-1.

40. Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1927, 3-19-7, 8 and 3-22-1.

41. West Coaster, June 15, 1928, p. 24.

42. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, op. cit., p. 13, footnote 8.

43. Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1928, 3-17. "In The West Coaster, wisecracking Hollywood monthly, trying with more or less success to be the New Yorker of this region, Merle Armitage writes about art in the snappy manner demanded for this after-cocktail type of magazine, which insists that everything must have a 'kick' in it. He informs us that the galleries will soon be draped with exhibits of paintings by members of the 'Eucalyptus School of Painters,' who are, however such nice people that he just hasn't the heart to tell the dreadful truth about their 'harmless' art...This division of art into 'creative' and 'harmless,' with the inference that one is real and the other bogus, is a comparatively recent invention and one that won't bear water...The truth is that the 'harmless' art of the 'Eucalyptus' school is the most hopeful ground-work for a really genuine indigenous Southern California art. To over-praise its average production is obviously misleading, but to patronize it shows a complete lack of understanding of the processes whereby art comes into being.

44. Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1928, 3-17-7, 8.

 

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Also in this magazine or available through the Internet: an essay by Deborah Epstein Solon on the Laguna Art Colony; The Development of Southern California Impressionism, an essay by Jean Stern; information on most artists listed in the essay via our Distinguished artists; 100 top-ranked California artists courtesy of AskArt.com, including many artists referenced in the above essay; Harvey L. Jones' essay on California Tonalism, "Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting 1890-1930;" California Art Club; Mission San Juan Capistrano: An Artistic Legacy; Gardena High School Art Collection; The Fieldstone Collection: Impressionism in Southern California.

On a national scale see: American Impressionism to Modernism: A Brief History, by Patricia Jobe Pierce; American Impressionism from the Permanent Collection, from the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden; American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; American Impressionism from Great Lakes Museums; Sunlight and Shadow: American Impressionism 1885-1945; Maurice Prendergast and His Associates: American Impressionist and Early Modernist Works on Paper from the WAM Collection; Visions of Home: American Impressionist Images of Suburban Leisure and Country Comfort; Decisive Moments: American Impressionist Painting from West Coast Collections.

rev. 7/3/01

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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