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In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists

November 3, 2002 - March 2, 2003

 

From the California gold rush and early Hollywood to Haight-Ashbury and Gidget, the California mystique has thrived on the idea that the state stands apart from the rest of the country. Seen as frivolous, flashy, and fantasy-prone, California has never been given the serious consideration so freely given to the East Coast. California-based artists -- though as widely educated, traveled, and exhibited as their New York counterparts -- have suffered the same fate. Through In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists, curator Deborah Epstein Solon aims to place California Impressionists like Guy Rose, Alson Clark, and Colin Campbell Cooper within the same national and international traditions as their East Coast contemporaries. Organized by Laguna Art Museum, the exhibit debuted at the Monterey Museum of Art on June 15, 2002, opened at Laguna Art Museum November 3, 2002 and continues through March 2, 2003. (left: Maurice Braun, Southern California Hills, 1914, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches, Collection of John and Patricia Dilks)

As the country's cultural nerve center, New York had little inclination to seek new talent from the far end of the continent. Despite several enclaves of savvy painters, dealers, and institutions to nurture them, the state was still seen as the land of cowboys, renegades, and the culturally backward. Painters there had the advantage of unusual vistas and the ability to work unfettered by the indoctrination of the East Coast scene, but their cosmopolitan educations and experiences were ignored and their efforts marginalized. California-based painters like Alson Clark -- who was internationally schooled and whose art was widely exhibited -- were tagged as regional artists, and as a result their work was critically and monetarily devalued. (left: Alson Clark, La Jolla Cove, 1922, oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches, Private collection)

Solon believes that it is time "to break these artificial barriers -- and to understand California Impressionist painters within the greater sum of American Impressionism, and not as just one of its unequal parts," as she states in the exhibit's catalogue. A long-time proponent of California Impressionists, Solon explored their unique position in a previous exhibit for the Laguna Art Museum, Colonies of American Impressionism: Cos Cob, Old Lyme, Shinnecock, and Laguna Beach. The show examines the disparate experiences of East and West Coast Impressionists by comparing Laguna Beach's to three eastern art colonies. Equally dissatisfied with the second-tier standing of "California artists," essayist Will South notes the limitations inherent in the term. He comments, "how remarkably and fully California artists were 'out' of California as much as 'in' is the theme of the present exhibition, an exhibition that in an increasingly necessary way challenges the ways that art historians, critics, collectors, and the public have chosen to understand art of this time and place." Both Solon and South assert the importance of seeing the represented artists not as California painters, but rather as California-based American painters and Impressionists whose works deserve national and international recognition. (left: Gardner Symons, Winter Brilliance, c. 1925, oil on canvasboard, 20 x 25 inches, Collection of Jacqueline and Arthur Burdorf)

The Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clark Foundation provided major support for the exhibition. In and Out of California is guest curated by LAM adjunct curator, Deborah E. Solon. A 144-page color catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

 

The following additional text is from panels placed on the walls of the exhibition:

 

IN AND OUT OF CALIFORNIA

 

At one time or another, all of the artists represented in this exhibition have been called "California Impressionists." This popular categorization has been so easily adopted that we now tend to think of certain artists as associated primarily with the Golden State, despite their diverse backgrounds and experiences both before and after their arrival in California. The reality is that artists were "out" of California as much as they were "in," traveling easily throughout the country and the world. Scores trained in the academies and ateliers of Europe, and many maintained studios on both coasts.

Artists in California during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century suffered from a two-pronged disadvantage: either they were glorified, occasionally unjustly, by Western critics, or summarily dismissed by the Eastern art establishment in an equally unwarranted fashion. An underlying, if not explicitly articulated position has been that Western painting -- and not just Impressionism -- was merely a footnote to American art history. In and Out of California presents the work of Maurice Braun, Alson Clark, Colin Campbell Cooper, E. Charlton Fortune, William Ritschel, and many others, as a part of the locus of American painting and as a thread in the greater fabric and appeal of Impressionism. The works in this exhibition represent sites around the world, where these artists found inspiration and in which the West was a crucial locale.

 

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

 

Western critics of the early part of the century fabricated mythology about Western painters that was colored by cultural nativism, or the desire to pinpoint what was unique about California's art, literature and history. Such "California dreaming" touted the beauty, climate, and opportunities in the Golden State. The beautiful splendor of the region was seen as superior not only to that of Europe, but to the rest of America as well. This passion, or uncompromising fervor, was part of the boosterism that drew scores of visitors and new residents to the state in the early twentieth century.

Such attitudes spilled over into the parlance of art writers, who wanted to stake claim to Western painters even if that claim was exaggerated or not even true. Western artists were characterized as aesthetic pioneers, who, with little training or guidance, created a novel landscape tradition. That assessment was, in the majority of cases, incorrect. Most Impressionist painters in California trained in the academies of Europe or the United States, at places such as the National Academy of Design in New York, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, or the Académie Julian in Paris. Certainly they used and applied this training to the Western landscape, but not one of these artists was completely self-invented. Understanding these "Californians" within the framework of American and international painting rather than seeing them as distant and poor cousins to their Eastern and European relatives, acknowledges the broader historical milieu in which they developed.

 

AN ISLAND ON THE LAND

 

The idea that California was isolated and out of the mainstream, a strange and incoherent place, an "island on the land," was a notion that has until recently continued to hold currency among art writers. One can easily conjure up the image of the lone California artist, laboring in exile, while the art world in the East and Europe forged ahead.

This romantic vision is contradicted by certain realities. By the mid-1920s, Los Angeles was a modern city with more electric lights, automobiles, and telephones than any other city its size. Given our current standards of travel and communication, the distance between coasts, and certainly between continents, was impressive. However, artists in California managed to travel and exhibit throughout the country and the world with surprising regularity. Moreover, while some chose to live for periods in California, they could be back in the public arena on the East Coast when needed or desired.

 

TRAVELS OF AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISTS

 

The art historical and critical spotlight on Impressionism in California has had both positive and negative repercussions. While increased interest has led to exhibitions and books that have surveyed and, for the first time, studied artists in California during the early part of the twentieth century, it has also effectively isolated these artists from the mainstream of American art. Even more troubling is an underlying perception by Eastern critics that West Coast artists -- merely by a geographic twist of fate -- were not among the first rank. Although in some cases this is undoubtedly true, the same could be said of artists anywhere in the country. We would never think of Childe Hassam as a regional Connecticut painter, even though he spent a significant amount of time there during the beginning of the century. Nor would we consider John Twachtman, who lived and worked primarily in New England, as a regional artist.

The same standards should apply to painters such as Maurice Braun, considered the dean of San Diego painters, who went back and forth to the East Coast, and lived in Connecticut during the early 1920s before returning permanently to Southern California. Colin Campbell Cooper, who spent the last several years of his life in California, was one of the first American artists to be inspired by the growing skyline of New York City, in addition to the exotic locales of India and Burma. William Ritschel, traditionally associated with Northern California, not only exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City beginning in 1905, but also continued to exhibit there every year until 1938. His two-year trip around the world in 1924 culminated in an exhibition of works at the Milch Gallery in New York City. These artists perceived themselves as part of the international art community, and their diverse backgrounds and experiences and their aesthetic accomplishments serve as a clear testament to their roles as American Impressionists .

Editor's note: Endorphin Productions presents a related video: "California Impressionists at the Monterey Museum of Art." Curator Deborah Epstein Solon narrates the 4-minute video

rev. 9/10/05

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