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California, The Golden Years: Selections from the Bowers Permanent Collection


On September 29, 2002, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art opened one of its most popular exhibitions, California, The Golden Years: Selections from the Bowers Permanent Collection. This exhibition made its debut in the fall of 1994 and highlights the museum's extensive collection of plein air paintings, many of them recognized as masterpieces of the style. The term plein air is French for "open-air," and describes landscapes painted outdoors in natural light.

The California Plein-Air movement was inspired by French Impressionism, which developed in the 1870's. French artists, who used bright colors and broken brushwork, sought to capture the effects of light and atmosphere on their landscape subjects. Although knowledge of French Impressionism was known in California as early as the 1890's, Impressionism did not become widely popular until 1914, when American expatriate artists brought the style back to the United States at the time of the outbreak of World War One. Impressionist art shown at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 also inspired California artists.

California, The Golden Years is an extraordinary exhibition featuring landscapes and figure paintings. Visitors will find familiar scenes of Laguna Beach and Orange County, as well as views of southern and northern California, painted by such noted artist as William Wendt and Joseph Kleitsch. Figure paintings in the Impressionist style include Guy Rose's beautiful portrait of Marguerite (c. 1900-1910) and Fannie Duvall's Confirmation Class, San Juan Capistrano (1897), one of the earliest works included in the exhibition.


The following texts are excerpted from panels mounted on the walls of the exhibition:


CALIFORNIA: The Golden Years
Paintings from the Permanent Collection


The landscapes, figure pieces and still lifes selected for this show from the Bowers Museum collection were produced by California artists between 1875 and 1955 with most coming from the period between 1915 and 1935. Most of the works are landscapes that were painted outdoors, on-site, placing them in the recently coined category of California "plein air" art, a French term meaning "open air." These paintings generally incorporate French Impressionist broken brushwork, light colors, and the goal of capturing sunlight. In order to show the cohesive aesthetics of this twenty-year period, a small grouping of paintings produced before 1900 and after 1935 have been placed at the beginning and end of the exhibit. These works reflect how the various forms of Modernism evolved after the Impressionist period by replacing dark, richly painted scenes with lighter, Impressionist-inspired works.

Southern California artists produced the majority of the paintings in this exhibit, with the remainder having been painted by Northern California artists. These works provide but a mere glimpse of the more than 300 works of art owned by the Bowers Museum.

The paintings are not arranged in any specific chronological or thematic order, since nearly all of them come from a narrow historic period spanning c. 1915 to c. 1935, and most are aesthetically and spiritually akin, we find the paintings are better served by being viewed as a complete response by the individual artists to a single movement. The many paintings made by California artists before and after the "plein air" period act like bookends to showcase the stylistic traditions that existed before the emergence of the "plein air" school, as well as after, when the modernist styles replaced the landscapes.


In California

Most of the paintings in this exhibit were made in Southern California, and many represent the Orange County area. From the 1870s on, Southern California began to promote itself as a place to live with a beautiful terrain and an attractive climate. Thus, it is not surprising that the painters who settled here, beginning in the mid-1880s, painted primarily landscapes. Through the early twentieth century, the number of painters and collectors steadily increased so that in the 1920s, when Southern California was enjoying a post-WWI boom, landscape painters abounded, and this was the area's great decade of landscape painting. While the works shared aesthetic traits such as loose brushwork and a light-colored palette, each artist produced an individual variant that is as distinct as his or her own personality or handwriting.

Southern California's varied terrain was a painters paradise. Laguna Beach offered a pretty, crescent-shaped beach, dramatic sandstone bluffs and flows of black lava. The nearby San Gabriel mountains offered pine trees and snow. The desert offered oases of palm trees and stretches of sand or cactus-dotted plains. The Los Angeles basin had numerous canyons and arroyos that contained picturesque sycamores, river boulders, and meadows. The plains supported occasional eucalyptus or the native live oak and in the spring were carpeted with wildflowers. By the 1920s, most artists could conveniently reach these sketching sites by the newly popular automobile. Because of the pleasant year-round climate, many of the paintings were completed in the field. Works also featured Mexico and the Mexican influences in the Los Angeles area.

A few of the paintings were produced in Northern California. "Plein air" landscapes created in Northern California often have a cool color scheme, which is said to reflect the cooler northern light. Since the cool weather encouraged studio work, Northern California artists produced a greater proportion of figural works.


Before The Plein Air Movement

To best understand the traditions leading up to the "plein air" school, this exhibit includes a few landscapes created in California before the "plein air" movement began. Most of the early landscapes are from Northern California, which witnessed an important art movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, due to the economic and population growth generated by the Gold Rush of 1849. Northern California artists of the 1860s and 1870s painted grand panoramas of wonders like Yosemite and the redwoods in styles that had been invented in Europe a couple of decades earlier. By 1880, artists reduced their vision and settled down to painting pastoral panoramas of the San Francisco Bay. At the turn of the century, the French began what is known as the "Barbizon" style of painting, which spread to California, and focused on intimate-sized copses and glades, meadows and small valleys. Stand back and compare the darker, more serious "feel" of these works as opposed to the "plein air" works.


History of the California

New art styles are usually started by one revolutionary individual or group. These styles usually spread outward to fellow artists across country borders and down through the generations. The impressionistic-style characterized by bright and clear colors, the desire to capture light and air on canvas, and the use of certain subject matter, was begun in the 1870s by a small group of artists in France. Knowledge of Impressionism penetrated to "far off" California as early as the 1890s. However, because art styles are adopted at a conservative pace, Impressionism did not become widely popular in California until about 1914, when the style was given impetus by American expatriate artists forced back to the United States at the outbreak of World War I, and by the Impressionist art shown at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

By 1914, the original French style had become greatly modified. California artists did not share the French interest in the scientific properties of light or optics, but did adopt the loosened brushwork and the use of brighter colors - colors that closely reflected the natural tints, hues and shades of the sunny Southland. Local artists were most interested in the subject of landscape, although a few figure pieces and city scenes were painted.


After The Plein Air Movement

Around 1930,changing social and aesthetic factors in America caused the demise of California's "plein air" school. "Plein air" landscapes were suddenly "passe" while a new style called "Regionalism" became popular. Regionalism was in turn replaced by the post-World War II Abstract Expressionist movement, which in turn was supplanted by Pop, Op, Photorealism, and a plethora of other styles. The Bowers Museum collection contains some fine examples of a few of these styles, which showcase the great aesthetic leaps of change with which the art world was mesmerized after 1930.

Images and label text from the exhibition:



Confirmation Class, San Juan Capistrano Mission

c. 1897

Oil on canvas

Gift of Miss Vesta A. Olmstead and Miss Frances Campbell

BMCA 8214

Fannie Duvall studied in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1888. She was one of the earliest accomplished artists to settle in the Southland. Throughout the 1890s, when she produced landscapes and still lifes, she was at her artistic peak. Fannie Duvall was one of the first local artists to adopt the new theories of Impressionism. In 1893, she produced a masterpiece, Chrysanthemum Garden in Southern California, which was shown at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (This work burned a couple of years ago in the infamous Oakland fire.) Confirmation Class, depicting a scene at the San Juan Capistrano mission, shows how she found California themes to satisfy Impressionist formats. Girls heading to confirmation via a mission garden is a local translation of the popular French theme of women dressed in white standing in flower gardens. After 1900, while Duvall considered Los Angeles her home, she spent much of her time abroad in study and travel.


FRANK COBURN (1862-1938)

Ideal California Day

c. late 1920s

Oil on board

Gift of Mrs. Georgia De Long in Memory of Mr. Frank Coburn

BMCA 3951

Frank Coburn was living in Santa Ana at 715 West 8th Street when he painted "Ideal California Day." The original exhibit label, on the reverse side of the frame, is from a one-man show at the Bowers Museum in 1938, the year of his death. The label describes a sunlit scene of figures and flower vending stands in Los Angeles.





GUY ROSE (1867-1925)


c. 1900-1910

Oil on canvas

Gift of the Martha C. Stevens Memorial Art Collection

BMCA F7693

Guy Rose was the first painter born and raised in Los Angeles who rose to international importance. He spent much of his art career outside Los Angeles, studying in San Francisco and Paris, working as an illustrator and teacher in New York, and then living in Giverny, France, a colony abroad for American artists. In 1914, he permanently settled in Los Angeles. Although Rose mainly produced landscapes, he was a fine painter of the human figure, which made him one of Southern California's few good figure painters. Marguerite and Nude Figure by Firelight are two of his top figural works. Marguerite was a model he frequently employed in France; she wears a kimono, a garment that became fashionable with late nineteenth century women after Japanese goods began to flood Occidental markets. Artists enjoyed painting kimonos because of the bright colors and bold patterns.



GUY ROSE (1867-1925)

Nude Figure by Firelight

c. 1910

Oil on canvas

Gift of the Martha C. Stevens Memorial Art Collection

BMCA F7675

Nude Figure by Firelight, showing a figure backlit by fire, is a variant of the popular Impressionist theme of figures seen in various kinds of lighting, e.g., full sunlight, dappled sunlight, and indoors with various kinds of backlighting. Note how the backlighting creates a halo around the figure in this work. Nudes were rarely painted in Southern California in the early years as patrons were generally very conservative.



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