The following 2002 essay was written by William H. Gerdts, Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of the City University of New York, for the illustrated catalogue Masters of Light: Plein-Air Painting in California 1890-1930, ISBN 0-971-4092-3-4 (cloth), which accompanied the exhibition, Masters of Light, the first ever international exhibition of California plein air paintings to tour Europe. The essay is reprinted with permission of The Irvine Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact The Irvine Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

RLM page 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

The Land of Sunshine

by William H. Gerdts

 

"THE LAND OF SUNSHINE" IS AN ALMOST UBIQUITOUS EXPRESSION that was bestowed upon California at the turn of the 20th century and after, deriving both from the poem by C. R. Pattee and from the magazine with that title, in the first issue of which the poem was published.[1] Soon after the magazine was founded in 1894, its editorship was taken over by Charles Fletcher Lummis, probably the most ardent and effective booster of Southern California's attractions, which included the physical beauties that are extolled in almost every painting in this exhibition.[2] Lummis himself wrote only occasionally about California artists, including articles on Ed Borein and Alexander Harmer, but the magazine frequently included pieces on California painters, some by George Wharton James, Lummis's great rival as a cultural arbiter, and the circle who gathered around Lummis in the Garvanza-Arroyo Seco district of Pasadena and eastern Los Angeles, which included pioneering California Impressionists such as Elmer Wachtel,William Wendt, Granville Redmond, and Hanson Puthuff as well as critical champions of the movement such as Antony Anderson and Everett Maxwell.

Reference to California as "The Land of Sunshine" is more specifically directed toward Southern California, but Impressionist painting first appeared in the state in San Francisco in the I890s.[3] A number of pictures by Guy Rose, Evelyn McCormick, and Ernest Peixotto, which probably demonstrated a tentative Impressionism, appeared in exhibitions held at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Mechanics' Institute in that city in 1892 and 1893. These works depicted scenes in Claude Monet's home village of Giverny, France, where those painters were among the earliest Californians to join the artists' colony that was established there in 1887. Both Rose and Peixotto returned to Giverny in 1894, and the latter subsequently exhibited additional Giverny scenes in San Francisco at the Guild of Arts and Crafts in 1896 and at the Bohemian Club in 1897.

Still, these works by native Californians probably had less impact than the pictures on display by leading French Impressionist painters and eastern American artists. In March 1891, and again in 1893 and 1895,William Kingston Vickery[4] supervised a series of loan exhibitions held as benefits for San Francisco orphanages and hospitals. In November 1891, another show was mounted at the San Francisco Art Association to support the San Francisco Polyclinic.These exhibits introduced Impressionism to California in the form of paintings by Monet, Eugene Boudin, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Renoir, and Edgar Degas.[5] These pictures were lent by Mrs.William H. Crocker, the leading, if not the only, California patron of French Impressionist art at the time. And in 1894, paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Boudin, and Alfred Sisley were on view in the city at the California Midwinter International Exposition, in which McCormick and Peixotto were also represented.

The critical reaction to such innovative work was varied. John A. Stanton, himself an exhibitor of Breton and Parisian subjects and the chief administrator of the Exposition, noted that "never since Corot's time has there been a man of so much prominence in art as Claude Monet," describing his works as "so full of atmosphere and color that it really dazzles you, and makes you catch your breath. The work may not be appreciated or understood by the masses... Pizzarro [sic], Renoir, and Sisley, are pronounced impressionists, and their works can be carefully considered by those who are interested in the new school."[6] Even Tonalist painter Arthur Mathews, the most influential artist in San Francisco and director of the California School of Design, was at least equivocal about the paintings by Monet (identified incorrectly as "Manet" by him), concluding: "For myself I feel that this particular phase of art sacrifices too much for a problem - the vibration of light and color; but I am not prepared to discuss the issue."[7] The Californians, though not specifically named, fared less well, with Lesley Martin noting "several specimens of daymares in landscape, resulting from the swallowing of camels in the effort to paint vibrations and see purple in every condition of the atmosphere. In excuse for these outbursts it may be said they have most of them been done in France at a time when the waves of Impressionism and Symbolism met the conflicting stream of the Vibrationists in full flood. As these painters are young they will have time to repent them of their deeds."[8]

If Martin was not receptive to Impressionist art, another critic received the new strategies with tremendous enthusiasm when a show of Maurice Prendergast's watercolors and monotypes appeared at the Vickery Gallery in May 1900, sent on from the Macbeth Gallery in New York, where it had been two months earlier. These were scenes of Italy, primarily Prendergast's magnificently colorful watercolors of Venice, painted in 1888-99. The reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle recognized in these pictures the essential modern-life concerns of Impressionism, believing that the show "marks an epoch in the art records of the West. This is, in fact, the first time that the stay-at-home local painters and patrons of the beautiful have had an opportunity to study not the exaggerated, but the legitimate impressionist .... In the first place, every picture teems with life, of the gayest and brightest. It gives the opportunity for action and nuance of color."[9] Vickery held a second exhibition of ii watercolors and 42 monotypes by Prendergast the following year, again well received."[10]

But despite the ardent welcome accorded Impressionism, the art world of San Francisco remained mostly dominated by French-influenced Barbizon and Tonalist aesthetics associated especially with Arthur Mathews. Although it was obviously the poetic mood and spiritual resonances that nourished the Tonalist approach, Mathews also found naturalistic underpinnings to support his formal strategies, noting, "Our sun is not so clear or our colors so intense .... The atmosphere here is thicker and richer for that reason."[11] At the turn of the century, Mathews was the city's most influential figure, while William Keith - earlier the most renowned painter of the panoramic grandeur of the California landscape - had, since the 1880s, turned increasingly to more broadly rendered and densely packed scenes of scrub and oak forests, abandoning not only the specificity of his earlier work, but also the topographical celebration implicit therein. Keith's later work bears close similarity to that of eastern master George Inness, at the time esteemed the country's finest landscape specialist.This affinity was enhanced by Inness's visit to California in 1891 when he and Keith painted together and formed a firm friendship. One of the earliest American Impressionists to visit and paint in California was the Indiana painter Theodore Steele, recognized as the leading figure of the so-called Hoosier school; Steele was on the West Coast in 1892. On his way from Oregon to Redlands, where he was to paint some of the earliest Impressionist scenes of Southern California, Steele stopped in San Francisco and visited Keith. Steele reported that Keith found the grandeur of the California landscape no longer paintable. By and large, this view remained held strongly by San Francisco landscapists for some time, though Steele himself presciently decided:

I do not think his conclusions that these subjects are unpaintable is correct, but they will be painted by artists of the Monet type, for one can see Monets everywhere. The same color charged air, the same scintillating radiance that Monet finds in the south of France, though with nobler forms and greater compositions than one usually finds in his pictures. I have no shadow of a doubt that some day there will develop a school of painters on this western coast, that can fully interpret these great subjects, and give to the world a new and powerful school of art.[12]

In actuality, this new and powerful school of Impressionism had just begun to form, but it did so in Southern, not Northern, California.[13]

Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, the brilliant scholar of Southern California art, has posited the names of William Wendt, Granville Redmond, and Elmer Wachtel as the leading landscape painters of Los Angeles, each working "in his own particular variation of the Impressionist style," by the turn of the century.[14] It may not be coincidental that these painters of the region formed part of Charles Lummis's circle in the Arroyo Seco. Unfortunately, few of Wachtel's pictures painted at this time can be securely identified, while Redmond's works of this period appear to be overwhelmingly tonal. In any case, it was William Wendt who emerged then, and remains recognized now, as the first outstanding figure in the development of California Impressionism; he was identified, ultimately, as both the "Painter Laureate" of California[15] and the "Dean of Southern California artists."[16]

At the turn of the century, Wendt was still a resident of Chicago; though he had begun visiting Southern California in 1896, he only moved permanently to Los Angeles a decade later. Even as late as 1916, John E. D.Trask opined of Wendt that his "recognition in the East has perhaps exceeded that which he has received in his own home."[17] Wendt began exhibiting depictions of the California landscape at the Art Institute of Chicago as early as 1897, and they were a component of what amounted to a one-artist invitational show there in 1899. To what degree these paintings from the end of the 19th century partook of Impressionist strategies is difficult to determine, but in these years Wendt appears to have adopted the coloration and scintillating brushwork of the movement, celebrating the brilliant light distinctive of the region. For instance, A POPPY FIELD, CALIFORNIA, lent to the Art Institute in 1897 by Dr. A.J. Ochsner, and THE SCARLET ROBE (also a poppy field painting) shown in 1899, must have utilized Impressionist chromaticism. What the exhibition records also establish is that Wendt, even before he settled in California in 1906, traveled throughout the state, for he exhibited scenes of Monterey, Montecito, Catalina Island, and Point Loma during these years.

Yet,Wendt increasingly abandoned specific place names in the titles of his pictures, favoring rather those that offered temporal and seasonal identification as well as recognition of natural variations of tree and topography - eucalyptus, oak, sycamore, and pine; pastures, woodlands, canyons, mountains, and foothills. The titles also began, by 1899 with THE EARTH YIELDS ITS GOLD, to suggest the moralistic, even spiritual implications of the goodness and bounty of Nature, and especially the "spirit of California."[18] Wendt himself suggested as early as 1898 that in such an environment, "One feels that he is on holy ground, in Nature's Temple."[19] Wendt has been identified, rightly, as the primary representative of the paysage moralisé in California, and I would go further and suggest that this may even be true for the Impressionist movement in general.[20]

A prime example of this is Wendt's ROLLING HILLS (cat. 57), painted in 1910, four years after Wendt had settled in Los Angeles. Geographic identification specifics are not the artist's concern; the ability to locate beauty and interest in the essentially commonplace was a hallmark of Impressionism. By this time, also, Wendt had begun to abandon those Impressionist strategies that allowed for the emphasis upon transience in favor of more structural and blocky forms, concentrating upon mass and solidity as he sought the true vitality of Nature. Antony Anderson even questioned a possible alliance between Wendt's work and the modern idiom of Cubism when he asked, "Has the lesson of the cubists been conned by William Wendt?... I saw-or thought I saw-cubic signs in the shape of his clouds and the modeling of his live oaks."[21] As his title indicates, Nature is very much alive here, resplendent in California light, with Wendt's favorite color contrasts of green and gold, joined by the blues and lavenders in the distance.

Nancy Moure has denied the suggestion of any stylistic influence of Wendt on other artists of his time, and it is true that his own strategies seem nearly unique.[22] Likewise, the spiritual essence that Wendt sought and revealed in Nature appears more fully realized in his art than in the paintings of any of his contemporaries except, perhaps, for Maurice Braun, but Braun's metaphysical underpinnings were derived from a very different source, that of theosophy. Yet, I believe one can discern a similar pantheistic celebration of Nature in the work of some of the other California painters often categorized as "Impressionists," particularly when they exalted the soaring mountain forms of the state. This seems especially true of the work of Hanson Puthuff, not coincidentally another figure in Charles Lummis's Arroyo Seco set, and a frequent companion of Wendt's on his painting trips into the California landscape. In his painting MONARCH OF THE MALIBU (cat. 37), which was exhibited in Los Angeles at the annual exhibition of the Painters and Sculptors of Southern California in 1924, Puthuff presents a darkened valley foreground from which arises the lofty mountain form in the brilliant light that scholars then and now have found unique to California.[23] The rugged mountain form also seems particularly suitable for the stronger brushwork that Puthuff utilized here, closer than that of many of his contemporaries to the blocky, cubic strategies employed by Wendt, though still more delicate, more "Impressionist." Puthuff, a decade younger than Wendt, had settled in Los Angeles in 1903, but like his older colleague had Chicago connections; Puthuff is said to have studied there in the 1890s at the Academy of Fine Arts, and he returned to live in Chicago for a year or two, beginning in 1906. Puthuff was a true plein air painter, usually completing his work outdoors. He excelled in the depiction of soaring mountain forms, from the Malibu range and the Verdugo Mountains just beyond his Los Angeles home in La Crescenta, to the Sierras in the north; in 1915 he painted the Sierras in a series often decorative murals commemorating THE SPIRIT OF CALIFORNIA for the Laughlin Theater in Long Beach.[24]

Perhaps the other California Impressionist most noted for his depictions of mountain grandeur is Edgar Alwin Payne, though Payne's overall oeuvre is far more extensive, encompassing not only many coastal scenes, especially at Laguna Beach, and a large production of pictures painted in Arizona, but also harbor views in Brittany and Venice, as well as Swiss Alpine landscapes. Payne's HOME PORT (cat. 33) probably records a scene in the Breton fishing villages of Douarnenez or Concarneau, where Edgar and his wife, artist Elsie Payne, sketched in the summer of 1924, though many of these fishing boat pictures were actually painted later in his California studio, based on photographs and sketches taken in Brittany.[25] Payne was yet another artist who studied in Chicago at the Art Institute before making his first trip to California in 1909, visiting Laguna Beach; he was back in Laguna Beach in 1911, painting there with Hanson Puthuff. Though maintaining a Chicago address through 1923, Payne settled in California in 1917, first in Glendale, and then in Laguna Beach.[26]

Whereas Wendt and Puthuff favored the California mountain ranges closer to the coastal regions, Payne concentrated on the Sierras, such as in his magnificent picture of THE SIERRA DIVIDE, painted in 1921. Indeed, he was christened "The God of the Mountains" in 1927 in a review of his show at the Stendahl Art Galleries.[27] Using somewhat slab-like pictorial strategies not totally unrelated to those introduced by Wendt, Payne offers the viewer less of an inviting foreground than does Puthuff. The great peaks rise immediately above the lake in the lower left, while the eye is directed diagonally up at the right by the row of ascending trees and then swiftly back toward the mountain peak, along the flat contrasting diagonal of stone. Payne eschewed the brilliant California light exploited by Puthuff, preferring instead the coloristic contrast of the verdant bit of ground in the lower right and the pure white of the snow filling the mountain crevasses. This was a favorite compositional form of Payne's, and can be seen again in such pictures as the magnificent RUGGED SLOPES AND TAMARACK (Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II Collection).

While Payne stressed majesty rather than poetry in his paeans to California mountain scenery, he shared Wendt's awe before the grandeur of Nature and attempted to reveal his spiritual response. Many Californians detected the spiritual resonance in the great mountains - the "Mother Mountains" as the Sierra Madre were named, with their great peaks rearing up from the flat-breasted earth, as noted by Charles Lummis.[28] The artist also expressed clearly his preference for the Sierras over the Alps. Payne told Fred Hogue:

When one goes into the Swiss Alps he does not get the feeling of communion with nature that one experiences here in California. Even on the peaks, one finds there shelter huts.The slopes are cultivated to the snow line.The hotels follow you everywhere. Here it is different.The California Sierras are not yet fully explored. I have stood on the banks of fifty mountain lakes that are neither charted nor named. I have sketched in the shadow of mountains that would be famous in Europe, but that are known here only as units of the Sierra range .... There is more color in the high Sierras than in the Alps, and more atmosphere. The rocks of the Alps are granite, of a uniform gray. In the Sierras one finds mineral ledges everywhere. There is a diversity of color. There are reds and greens not to be found anywhere in Europe. One finds here the mountains of Switzerland under the skies of Italy.[29]

What may appear strange is that the California Impressionists appear to have deliberately avoided those natural monuments with which the state had hitherto been distinctly and pictorially associated, Mt. Shasta and Mt. Tamalpias, and especially Yosemite and the Big Trees. There were exceptions, of course, but these appear to have been few.[30] In 1916, Colin Campbell Cooper painted Yosemite after visiting the Panama-Pacific and Panama-California International Expositions in San Francisco and San Diego, respectively; see his ice-cold and blue YOSEMITE IN WINTER (cat. 10), though this was prior to his taking up permanent residence in Santa Barbara in 1921. HALF DOME,YOSEMITE VALLEY was Cooper's earliest exhibition of a Yosemite picture, shown in Wilmington, Delaware in February 1917. [31]

This general lack of engagement with Yosemite by the California Impressionists may be, in part, because the artists considered such motifs hackneyed by the early 20th century. They may have felt that the Yosemite environment had been compromised by the intrusion of tourism, and they found their mountain motifs rather in the Sierra Nevada, which was also, of course, closer to home for many of them. In addition, they may have believed that a new, more modern aesthetic required a different set of motifs-in this case, one that generally faced west toward the limitless expanse of ocean, the better to express the paradisiacal metaphor intrinsic to their conceptions. Interestingly, the previously popular Yosemite region would find new appeal to selected early Modernists of the next artistic generation, such as Marguerite and William Zorach, and later, Joseph Raphael, subsequent to his return to San Francisco in 1939 after almost 40 years of expatriation in the Low Countries. [32]

Of course, all of the California Impressionists also painted more intimate landscapes. Elmer Wachtel was another California Impressionist whom Moure has posited as one of the region's earliest painters involved with the strategies of Impressionism, but the chronology and development of his work is extremely difficult to chart. Wachtel, born a year earlier than Wendt, was part of the first generation of California Impressionists; he was also one of the earliest to settle in the state, moving to Los Angeles in 1882. He was among the earliest professional painters in the city and became involved in the founding of the Los Angeles Art Association in 1890. In 1894 Wachtel sought training in New York City, and in 1896-97 he was in Europe before settling permanently in Los Angeles, where he worked as an illustrator while pursuing his calling of landscape painting. In 1904 Wachtel had his house and studio in the Arroyo Seco and was part of the circle of Charles Lummis. Basically independent, Wachtel was one of the few major painters in the region who did not Join the California Art Club when it was founded in Los Angeles in 1909, though he was an exhibitor in the early shows of the Del Monte Art Gallery in Monterey in 1907-09; in Los Angeles he held exhibitions of his work in his studio and at commercial galleries.[33]

Wachtel was noted in 1914 as "the first exponent of the landscape of California."[34] His paintings, almost always undated, reflect the idyllicism to which many California artists resorted. He traveled widely throughout California as well as to Arizona and New Mexico for his subject matter. It would probably be correct to assume that his more tonal and Barbizon-related paintings are earlier than his lighter and more colorful Impressionist pictures. The breadth and freedom of GOLDEN AUTUMN, CAJON PASS (cat. 55) is typical of the latter. Unlike Puthuff, who utilized a flat foreground plane as a preliminary to his exaltation of the Malibu Mountains, Wachtel emphasizes the sinuous trees and the underbrush sparkling in the light of California, while presenting the distant mountain range as a backdrop. Canyons and valleys were his preferred subject matter - Santa Anita Canyon, Topanga Canyon, Monrovia Canyon, San Fernando Valley, Santa Paula Valley, Ojai Valley, Montecito Valley - harmonized with Wachtel's emphasis on the foreground. Edgar Hunt noted that Wachtel did not use broken brushstrokes, but rather tended to paint "in large flat colors, the gauze of atmosphere superimposed upon the primary colors. In this he is an Impressionist."[35] Cajon Pass, between San Bernardino and Barstow, is formidable territory, but here the overlapping purple-hued mountain ranges seem inviting and easily traversed, although there is no human presence to roam through this landscape, no desecration of pristine Nature.

Elmer Wachtel was as proficient in watercolor as in oils, and in his early years in Los Angeles he was probably better known for his work in the former medium.[36] He was one of the earliest professional watercolor painters in Los Angeles, and probably the first to devote himself to landscape painting in that medium. He was joined in this preference by his wife, Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (she dropped the "u" after her marriage, and was recognized as Marion Kavanagh Wachtel). Elmer never abandoned watercolor, but appears to have emphasized oils in his later years. In contrast, Marion became renowned for her work in watercolor, becoming a member of the New York Water Color Club in 1911. She also exhibited watercolors at the Chicago Art Institute in 1911-14, and throughout the 1920s with the California Water Color Society, which had been founded in 1921; she resumed oil painting after Elmer's death. She had been a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and of William Merritt Chase in New York, and was briefly in San Francisco in 1903 as a pupil of William Keith, who advised her to go south and contact Elmer Wachtel; the following year they were married. [37]

Marion Wachtel's emphasis was on tree-filled landscapes, concentrating upon oaks and eucalyptus, such as her SANTA MONICA (cat. 56) of ca. 1914. This watercolor embodies Marion Wachtel's soft, painterly methodology as well as her favorite motifs, which led to the disparaging and controversial designation by Merle Armitage in 1928 of many of the California Impressionists as "the eucalyptus school," at a time when the Impressionist movement had begun to lose its vitality.[38] This approach was defended and championed by Arthur Millier, the leading Los Angeles art critic of the time;[39] both Marion and Elmer Wachtel were credited by Millier for developing "a type of decorative composition from which many a younger painter has borrowed the framework."[40] As in Elmer's paintings, Marion here emphasizes the foreground, with the foliage of a range of eucalyptus silhouetted against the sky. This is a "plateau landscape," with the middle and far distance falling far below toward the sea and distant mountains, while a roadway leads to a few small buildings at the left, man's habitation comfortably set within the natural grandeur of the Santa Monica landscape.

Granville Redmond has also been identified as one of Southern California's earliest artists to investigate Impressionist strategies, but Redmond's pictures from the first decade of the century appear overwhelmingly tonal, with little vibrancy or chromatic brilliance, though he appears to have worked with more vivid colors between 1903 and 1905.[41] Subsequently, Antony Anderson, in reviewing Redmond's one-artist show at Steckel's Gallery in Los Angeles in July 1907, noted that his "color, however, is seldom rich and suave-often, indeed, it is rather thin and dry. His bent is very much toward tonal pictures, so called, by which is meant, it would seem, the partial negation of color. Some of these pictures are very pleasing, though they are seldom alive or vibrant."[42]

Redmond, a deaf mute, was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Northern California, studying at the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Berkeley. He subsequently studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco, where Arthur Mathews was one of his teachers, but he also worked in 1893 with Ernest Peixotto, who had been in Giverny; at the end of that year, Redmond himself was studying in Paris. By 1898 he had returned to California and opened a studio in Los Angeles. Subsequently Redmond divided his time between Southern California, where he painted at Laguna Beach and Catalina Island, and the North, working around Monterey, where he lived for two years beginning in 1908, before moving to San Mateo. In 1918, Redmond was back permanently in Los Angeles.[43]

Redmond's overall artistic drive is fairly complex, for unlike many other American painters, he appears not to have moved from a Tonalist to an Impressionist manner but rather to have varied the two, according to his subject matter, his own temperament, and the marketable qualities of the works themselves. It would appear that his personal preference may have been for the more muted, quite lyrical aesthetics generally identified with Arthur Mathews and Northern California landscape painting, while the heightened colorism of Impressionism was preferred by collectors. In 1931 Arthur Millier stated that "Redmond likes best of all to paint pictures of solitude and silence. 'Alas,' he wrote, 'people will not buy them. They all seem to want poppies!' "[44] Yet, the explanation for the diversity of his art may not be that simple. His beautiful dark blue NOCTURNE (cat. 40) certainly partakes of a dominant single hue, a hallmark of Tonalism, but the brilliance of the coloration with its shining reflections of moonlight suggests rather an Impressionist nocturne, however much that might appear to be an oxymoron. Such an identification is strengthened through consideration of other nocturnes Redmond painted, such as his 1920 MOONLIGHT SEASCAPE (CATALINA ISLAND) (California School for the Deaf, Fremont).

 

RLM page 1 2 3 4 5 6

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum in Resource Library Magazine.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.