The Development of Southern California Impressionism

by Jean Stern



The following essay was written in 1982 by Jean Stern, then Director of the Petersen Galleries in Beverly Hills, CA. It is an essay written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, by Ruth Lilly Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-0-7


With the advantage of retrospect of over eighty years, the Southern California Impressionist style, or plein air style, can be traced as a concurrent phase of the American Impressionist movement and, thus, as a direct offshoot of the French Impressionist style, although decidedly tempered and qualified. The style was established in California at a time when Impressionism was just becoming acceptable in general throughout the United States. The practitioners were a closely knit group of professional artists who painted together and were active in numerous artistic societies, on the East Coast as well as in California. They exchanged ideas and were open to outside influences .

The diverse group of artists who came to Southern California did so for a variety of reasons: a bright sunny climate that is ideal for out-of-doors painting, an opportunity to settle in a fresh environment, a need to escape tight restrictions of the Eastern art milieu. it was a reasoned decision calculated to improve their art. A few artists came later in their careers, some because of failing health; others stayed after brief visits. In any event, once in California, most artists recognized the potential benefit to their art and either settled permanently or established part-time studios. After coming to Southern California, these artists did not sever commercial relations with the East but continued to participate in Eastern art exhibits and competitions. They were products of the American art scene and remained a part of it in spite of the vast geographical separation.


The Advent of Impressionism

Impressionism made its debut in France in 1874, amidst loud and virulent criticism, From its nascency, Impressionism was at best an inexact technical innovation. The original group, made up of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Camille Pissaro (1830-1903), Paul Cezanne (1893-1906), Edgar Degas (1832-1917), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), had no theoretician and, almost from the first, strong divisions in philosophy tended to fragment the group. In its original form, Impressionism developed from the Romantic-Realism of the Barbizon painters, whose art was devoid of any social or religious content and who, like the American Hudson River painters, chose to paint the beauty and grandeur of nature. Theirs was thus primarily a landscape school. By contrast, the Impressionists rejected the essentially academic techniques of the Barbizon artists and infused a new, anti-academic painting style with a scientific method of color application.

Guided by scientific investigations in optics and several new color theories of their time, the Impressionists carefully controlled color to create the effect of intense sunlight and vibrant shade. Reasoning that the whole of pictorial representation is light, which in turn creates color and thus the visual image, the Impressionists were determined to capture, as accurately as possible, the true effects of light. To do so, it was necessary to paint the entire painting outdoors and to paint it quickly enough to catch the fleeting light effect. In this aim, the artists omitted the traditional underpainting, which was an integral aspect of academic painting, and painted directly on primed canvas with a quick brushstroke, rarely working for more than two hours at a time. The quick painting method not only accelerated the basic task of painting, but it also compelled the artist to paint only the visual scene, the "impression" without attention to fine detail. According to Impressionist thought, the human eye sees only what it is directly looking at, while the rest of the vision field is a blur of unfocused color and form. So it is that in an Impressionist painting, one sees the central image in clear detail while the rest is applied in quick and colorful strokes.

As for color application, the "true" Impressionist painter reduced all colors to the three primaries, red, yellow and blue, and to their corresponding complementaries, green, purple and orange, to be mixed if necessary only with white. All other colors could be created through optical mixing as opposed to palette mixing. To achieve optical mixing, small patches of color are carefully painted next to each other. From a small distance, the patches are seen as a mixed color. The traditional method of painting with colors mixed on the palette does not create the visual contrast which gives the Impressionist painting its vibrant appearance.

Color placement was influenced by a series of scientific color theories that were formulated in the early part of the nineteenth century. The most important theories were published by Eugene Chevreul in 1839, with an English translation appearing in 1872.[52] Chevreul was a chemist in a tapestry factory and experimented with ways to produce more vivid colors. He deduced that the role of the chemist was not as important as the role of the artist, and while more potent dyes did not improve the results, proper color placement did. In his Laws of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors he states, "...the apparent intensity of color does not depend as much on the inherent it does on the hue of the neighboring color."[53] In addition, Chevreul noted that, "The greater the difference between the colors, the more they mutually beautify each other; and inversely, the less the difference there is, the more they will tend to injure one another."[54] Therefore, the strongest contrast between two colors, and hence the analogy between light and dark or sun and shade, is when a primary color is next to its complementary. For example, an object in strong yellow light would cast a shadow in purple, the opposite color of yellow. Even though the natural color of that shadow is not purple, the contrast of yellow and purple is the strongest contrast and the effect would be true. Chevreul advised the artist that "...there are colors inherent to the model [the subject of the painting] which the painter cannot change without being unfaithful to nature, [and] there are others at his disposal which must be chosen so as to harmonize with the first."[55]

Chevreul's theories were effective and quickly gained a wide acceptance, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), the archetype American painter, was well versed in these ideas and he made good use of them in his art. Homer owned a copy of Chevreul's book and referred to it as "my bible."[56] Indirectly, Chevreul's ideas were to be the most influential aspect of Impressionism in American art.

Overall, the Impressionist painting was not intended to accurately capture the color and brightness of nature as much as it was designed to imitate the effect of light by creating movement on the optical plane through the juxtaposition of selected color patches. This movement on the retinal field closely approximated the natural fluidity of light.[57]


Neo Impressionism and Post Impressionism

Although the original Impressionist painters were all friends and shared a common unity in their desire to change the established order of painting, they were nonetheless individual artists. Within a few years of the first exhibition, the group was split along philosophical lines.

The first splinter occurred in the early 1880's and was led by George Seurat (1859-1891) and his disciple Paul Signac (1863-1935). The movement was called Neo Impressionism, but Seurat preferred the more esoteric and descriptive term "chromoluminarism." The aim of the Neo Impressionists was to put more science into Impressionism, to codify the technique and to eliminate the subjectivity of the artist. Seurat's technique was "divisionism," the breaking of color into its very basic elements and applying them as very small and regular dots next to each other for a completely optical mixture of color. In addition, Seurat investigated compositional theories that likewise structured and objectively presented forms under "scientific" principles. Seurat's theories came to fruition in 1886, at the last Impressionist Exhibition, where he showed his monumental painting Sunday Afternoon on Grande Jatte Island, a work which took more than two years to paint, dot by dot. Another variety of Neo Impressionism is "pointillism," a term meaning to paint in dots though not necessarily with the aim of breaking color.

Neo Impressionism had very few adherents, although every major Impressionist tried it briefly. The main objection was that the style left nothing to chance and it did not allow any creative freedom. Also, to properly paint within the tenets took too long a time.

The second and more important offshoot of Impressionism was Post Impressionism, a movement which began in the early 1880's and was concerned with the basis of Impressionism: form and color. One group of artists believed that form was the most important aspect of a painting and aimed to develop greater pictorial harmony. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) were the leading figures in this branch of Post Impressionism. Eventually, the exploration of form led to the development of Analytical Cubism and other modern art styles.

The other group, led by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), explored the emotional power of color and its placement. They perceived the role of color as more important than the task of capturing a visual image and often sacrificed form for color. The development of these ideas led to Fauvism, and eventually to the modern color field artists. Several of the Southern California artists were much influenced by this movement. Bischoff produced numerous copies of paintings by van Gogh and, on one or two occasions, used sealing wax with oil paint (see Fishing Boats) in an attempt to achieve the rich surface texture.

By the early twentieth century, Post Impressionism had evolved into Expressionism, a style that completely disassociated itself from the aim of Impressionism: to capture the effects of visual imagery.

By the time that Impressionism and all its offshoots came to be accepted in America, the style had been combined into one vaguely defined whole. American artists were influenced by the overall Impressionist style with little regard or few adherents to Neo Impressionism or Post Impressionism as separate entities. American Impressionist paintings often show aspects of Neo Impressionism and Post Impressionism right along with basic Impressionism.

Impressionism in America

Impressionism made its first appearance in the United Stated in 1883, at the "Foreign Exhibition" in the Mechanics Building in Boston. Paul Durand-Ruel, the famous French art dealer and friend of the Impressionists, arranged the show which included works by Monet, Pissaro, Sisley and Manet. In 1886, Durand-Ruel opened an art gallery in New York that showed French Impressionism and also organized a major Impressionist show at the American Art Association in New York. By the late 1880's, Americans were familiar with works by the major figures in French Impressionism.[58]

Although Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), an American, had been accepted as a member of the original Impressionists, her influence among American artists was slight. The most important American artist to be associated with Impressionism at an early date was Theodore Robinson (1852-1896). Robinson met Monet in 1887 and lived in Giverny for five years, becoming a close friend and admirer of Monet. In 1889, Robinson exhibited an Impressionist painting at the Society of American Artists exhibition, one of the first Impressionist works by an American to be shown in this country.[59] By 1890, Monet's home in Giverny had become a meeting place for several young American painters: Louis Ritter (1854-1892), Willard L. Metcalf (1858-1925), Theodore Butler (1860-1936), John Breck (1860-1899), Theodore Wendel (1859-1932), Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937), Frederick Frieseke (1874-1939), Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933), Richard Miller (1875-1943), Lawton Parker (1868-1954), Guy Rose and Theodore Robinson. All these artists were young art students in France and enthralled by the "new" style of painting.

In 1893, Impressionism had its national debut in American art at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The style was easily accepted by the American art public and by 1898 the first major American Impressionist group, "The Ten," was formed. The Ten were a group of prominent American artists who, after dissatisfaction with the exhibition policies of the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists, decided to organize and exhibit their paintings by themselves.

The Ten were: Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), Joseph DeCamp (1858-1923), Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Willard Metcalf, Robert Reid (1863-1929), Edward E. Simmons (1852-1931), Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938), John Twachtman (1853-1902), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) and, after Twachtman's death in 1902, William Merritt Chase (1848-1916).

By 1900, Impressionism had become the most popular art style among American artists and "everyone" was an Impressionist in one way or another. Yet, as in France, Impressionism was a catch-all term for a large variety of painting styles, each incorporating one or more of the basic principles that originally marked the movement. The most common aspects of Impressionism that appear in American painting are the quick, short brushstroke and the bold approach to color harmonies. The plein air tradition was already present in America, as was the preference for landscapes and genre as subject matter. A purely scientific approach to color placement was never widely practiced in America and it rarely appears in French painting -- only in the very early stages of Impressionism and then only by a few dedicated adherents. The method was simply too complicated and too restrictive. Likewise, the brief infatuation with altered perspective, an influence from Japanese woodblock prints, was rarely seen in American painting. In general, Impressionism in America radically changed the painter's use of color and considerably loosened the brushstroke and technique of paint application. Otherwise, the American painter continued in the traditional directions of American art.


Continued on page two
Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California


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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