The Development of Southern California Impressionism

by Jean Stern



Continued from page one


Impressionism in California

In the 1870's and 1880's, at the time that Impressionism began in France and was slowly coming to America, California was a distant, isolated region, both hazardous and time-consuming to reach. The initial transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Prior to that the only ways to reach California were overland through hostile territory or by ship around South America, an equally long and risky method.

In 1876, a railroad route was opened between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1885, a railway route was completed from Los Angeles, through the Southwest, to Chicago.[60] This became the first commercially viable link from the large agricultural area of California to markets in the East. Within a few years, the population of Southern California increased tremendously with the arrival of large-scale agricultural and industrial activity.

As a result of the real estate boom of the early 1880's, Los Angeles began to attract professional artists. By the late 1880's, several artists were permanent residents: among the most prominent were Elmer Wachtel and Elizabeth Borglum (1848-1922).[61] Wachtel was at first very much a Tonalist, showing moody and poetic landscapes in dark tones. As he progressed, he lightened his colors and adopted a more decorative and lyrical style, very reminiscent of Arthur Mathews, although Wachtel did not include figures in his compositions. Elizabeth Borglum also painted in the dark tonalities that were popular in American painting in the late 1880's. She had been a student of William Keith (1839-1911) in 1885, and of J. Foxcroft Cole (1837-1892) in 1887, both of whom were well entrenched in the Tonalist-Barbizon style.

At the turn of the century, when Impressionism had only recently become an accepted American style, Southern California experienced an influx of young artists, most of whom had been trained in that style. The period from 1900 to 1915 marks the flowering of California Impressionism. Among the important artists who came in the first ten years of the twentieth century, one can count the cream of the California style: Granville Redmond, Hanson Puthuff, Marion K. Wachtel, William Wendt, Franz A. Bischoff, Jack Wilkinson Smith, George Gardner Symons and Maurice Braun. In addition, Edgar Payne was making frequent visits to Los Angeles and Laguna Beach and, by 1914, with the return of Guy Rose and the arrival of Donna Schuster, the stage was set for one of the most remarkable and distinctive schools of regional American art.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, in San Francisco, marks both the last great Impressionist show in America and the first major Impressionist exhibition in California. The exposition brought to California most of the major figures of American Impressionism. William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell and Edward Redfield (1869-1965), among others, were given individual galleries to hang their works.[63] The Grand Prize of the exposition went to Frederick Frieseke and the Medal of Honor to Willard Metcalf. The impact of the exposition on the California painters was tremendous and immediate.

Nineteen-fifteen also marks the beginning of San Diego's professional artist community. In competition with San Francisco, San Diego likewise marked the opening of the Panama Canal with an exposition, the Panama-California Exposition, held in the newly constructed Balboa Park.


The Southern California Artists

The leading artists of Southern California were all professionals who, like their contemporaries in the East, had been through the same training and instruction required of artists of the time. Although they came from various parts of the country, a large number were from Chicago, either trained there or working professionally prior to coming West. The Art Institute of Chicago was the most prominent art school in Chicago. Those artists trained at the Art Institute included William Wendt (briefly in the early 1880's), Alson S. Clark (1895-98), Marion K. Wachtel (late 1890's), Jack Wilkinson Smith (late 1890's), Edgar Payne (briefly c. 1900), Donna Schuster (c. 1900), Christian von Schneidau (early 1900's) and Anna Hills (early 1900's). In addition, Hanson Puthuff, who came to Los Angeles as an established pictorial artist, studied at the Chicago Art Academy in the late 1890's.

The Art Students' League of New York was another popular art school where many Southern California artists had studied. Having been established as an alternative to the conservative National Academy of Design School of Art, the Art Students' League produced artists who were more inclined to use the bold tenets of Impressionism. Alson S. Clark, Clarence Hinkle and Frank Cuprien were, to some extent, products of the Art Students' League of New York.

After initial art studies in American art schools, most American artists of this period spent several years studying in Europe, principally in Paris. The attraction of Europe for American artists was the universally recognized teaching methods of the art academies. The preferred French art school was the École des Beaux Arts, but entrance examinations were rigorous and few Americans managed to win admission. Thus, the young Americans invariably studied at the Academie Julian or the Academie Colarossi. The most popular and influential teachers at these academies were Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824-1904), Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Leon Bonnat (1833-1922), Benjamin Constant (1845-1902), Carolus-Duran (1838-1917), G.A. Bouguereau (1825-1905), Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888), and Jules Lefebvre (1834-1912). They had been the most successful participants at the annual Salon de Paris exhibitions, the established arbiter of taste in France.

The American art students joined their European counterparts in spending endless hours drawing from casts and constructing stable compositions for their paintings. They were taught the complex traditional method of painting, from preparing numerous studies and details of their subject to preparation and underpainting and, finally, to painting the finished work using the traditional techniques of paint and color application. This method put great emphasis on copying works in museums or galleries. The prevailing pictorial models which students were obliged to copy were the Salon paintings which were, by the late nineteenth century, usually devoid of originality and often comprised of classical and mythological subject matter. Their appearances were sentimental and contrived. Yet these classes and their instructors were immensely popular, in spite of the trivial subjective approach, because the techniques and draftsmanship were sound and this was the best way to prepare for any artistic career. In addition, the Salon style was widely fashionable with the art-buying public and the paintings commonly sold for large sums.

In addition to the traditional art methods, the art student in Paris was also exposed to various non-traditional styles. These would be encountered during visits to art galleries and other artists' studios, The most radical and contagious "modern" art style in the late 1870's was Impressionism.

Several Southern California artists pursued studies in France. These included William Griffith (late 1880's), Guy Rose (1888-91), Granville Redmond (C. 1896), George Gardner Symons and Jean Mannheim. In 1899, Alson S. Clark studied under the American expatriate James M. Whistler (1834-1903) and the Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1934).

The closest equivalent to the Parisian art academies in California was the San Francisco Art Association (known after 1907 as the San Francisco Institute of Art). Formed in 1871, it was operated on the European model and soon became the most influential art school in the West. Under the directorship of Arthur Mathews (1860-1945), from 1890 to 1906, it earned a national reputation. In addition to influencing a large group of San Francisco artists, the Art Association counted several southerners in its roll, notably Granville Redmond (1890) and Clarence Hinkle (c. 1903).

Many other nationally known art schools are represented in the training of artists who came to live in Southern California. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a school steeped in the tradition of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Thomas P. Anshutz (1851-1912), produced Alfred Mitchell, whose paintings of the period (1918-1921) are solidly in the tradition of the Bucks County Impressionist Edward Redfield (1849-1965). The Cincinnati Art Academy, long associated with progressive teaching methods, trained Jack Wilkinson Smith.

Besides the regular art academies, many prominent artists had individual pupils or followers and some had their private schools in which they taught large classes for both amateur and professional students. The most important teacher of American Impressionism was William Merritt Chase. Himself an early convert to the style, Chase began teaching at his home in Shinnecock, Long Island, in 1890, several years before the style became fully acceptable in American circles. His school was the first organized art instruction held strictly in plein air. [63] In 1902, Chase was invited to join The Ten after the death of member John H. Twachtman. His fame as an Impressionist was worldwide and he attracted a large following. He taught each summer at Shinnecock and, in 1914, held a summer class in Carmel, California.

Among the Southern California artists who studied with Chase were Alson S. Clark (1898-1899), Marion Kavanagh Wachtel (late 1890's), Maurice Braun (1901) and Donna Schustcr (1912, and in Carmel, 1914). Chase's students absorbed much from the master, particularly his devotion to plein air painting and the insistence on speed in painting. Chase would admonish his student to "...take as much time as you need. . .take two hours if necessary. . ." to paint a scene. Edmund Tarbell, the noted Boston artist and member of The Ten, had a large following that included Donna Schuster. In Schuster's early paintings, one sees a remarkable fidelity to Tarbell's style. Her later work with William Merritt Chase had a similar effect on her style, leading to her mature style which drew heavily from Tarbell, Chase and Monet.


Thus, the Southern California school meets all the prerequisites for a legitimate and active regional school of American painting. The artists who made up the school were professionally trained artists who relied on their artistic output for a living. Although they came from various parts of the United States, they all came to Southern California to continue their artistic development and, indeed, their mature work was formed in California in an artistic milieu that allowed them to broaden their individuality and constantly improve their art. The majority came here with preconceived art styles rooted in their schools and teachers, and in time, the better artists were able to develop personal styles which would not have been possible outside the Southern California environment. The Southern California artists were able to produce a unique and unified style, which in itself was constantly growing and changing in response to continuous outside stimuli. The style was not suffocated by gross commercialization -- this did not happen until the late 1930's when the Southern California region became the victim of mass tourism. Indeed, the few artists who settled here in the early part of the century wanted to escape the restrictions of commercialization and stylistic regimentation that pervaded the New York art establishment.

Many artists, such as William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Maurice Braun and George Gardner Symons, continued to keep studios East and West, and arranged to ship their California work for sale to Chicago and New York. Marion Wachtel was a regular contributor to the New York Watercolor Society annual shows and had dealers selling her work in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The attraction of Southern California was felt throughout the United States and the resultant influx of artists led to the creation of a style that cannot be found anywhere else. Although most of the artists came here from different parts of the country, they remained here for the rest of their lives and died in Southern California having fulfilled their lifelong pursuit of art.



52. Homer, William 1., Seurat and the Science of Painting, Cambridge, MA: 1964, p. 27.

53. Ibid., p. 20.

54. Ibid, p. 28.

55. Ibid, p. 28.

56. McCoubrey, John W., American Art 1700-1960, Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1965, p. 159.

57. Cogniat, Raymond, Monet and His World, London: Thames and Hudson, 1966, p. 62.

58. Gerdts, William H. American Impression, Seattle, WA: The Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 1980, pp. 29 and 30.

59. Ibid., p, 53.

60. Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall, Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California before 1930, Privately printed, Los Angeles, 1975, p. xv.

61. Ibid., under headings for Wachtel, Elmer, and Borglum, Elizabeth.

62. Gerdts, op. cit., p. 126.

63. Gerdts, op. cit., p. 24.

64. Hoopes, Donelson E, The American Impressionists, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1972, p. 44.

65. Art in California, San Francisco: R.L. Bernier, 1916, p. 68.


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Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California

Also in this magazine or available through the Internet: an essay by Deborah Epstein Solon on the Laguna Art Colony; Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California, an essay by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure; information on most artists listed in the essay via our Distinguished artists; 100 top-ranked California artists courtesy of, 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.

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

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

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