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:
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Another of Wendt's finest paintings done along the coast, some miles north of Laguna Beach, is CRYSTAL COVE (Private Collection), painted in 1912, three years earlier than THE SILENT SUMMER SEA. The site was also the setting for Jack Wilkinson Smith's CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK, a ravishing juxtaposition of cliffs, rocks, ocean, and cloud-filled sky, all tinged with myriad touches of alternating prismatic colors. Despite the ruggedness of the scenery, the painting exudes a sense of peace and harmony, in an unspoiled natural paradise; indeed, California itself was deemed "An Artist's Paradise" by the earlier California painter-sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. When Smith's picture was on view at Cannel and Chaffin Gallery in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1920, it was reproduced in California Southland with the caption: "Calm and serene, infinite in its power to solace, this picture speaks to us of Peace." Smith, too, had grown up in Chicago, where he studied at the Art Institute and was influenced by Wendt. He was first in California in 1906, later becoming active in the California Art Club as well as the Laguna Beach Art Association. In California, Smith specialized in two themes, both of which highlighted rocky masses - craggy sunlit coastal scenes and views in the high Sierras.
The artist who displayed singular devotion to the painting of the coast at Laguna was Frank Cuprien, whose AN EVENING SYMPHONY is characteristic of his stock theme - a quiet panorama of waves rolling into shore. "Shore" itself is almost absent, and the picture consists of two horizontal bands of water and sky, enlivened by the glint of sunlight on the water and a soft atmospheric haze in the distance. Cuprien's format is a very traditional one, depicting slow, incoming tides in opalescent colors, and recalls the eastern shore pictures painted by William Trost Richards in the 1870s and after, but Cuprien infused a gentle chromaticism into these compositions that allied them with Impressionism. Evening scenes appear to have held special attraction for the artist. Cuprien had studied in New York and Philadelphia - where he had received criticism from Richards, an artist whom he greatly admired - before studying in Munich and Paris. After returning to the United States, he was in Florida and Texas before moving to California around 1912, living in Santa Monica, on Catalina Island, and in 1914 building a studio in Laguna Beach on a bluff off of the Pacific Coast Highway, overlooking the ocean. A founder of that town's Art Association, Cuprien served as president in 1921.
Anna Althea Hills was one of the most active members of the Laguna Beach art colony and the Art Association. In 1912 Hills moved to California, having previously studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in New York at the Cooper Union and with Arthur Wesley Dow before going on to Paris. During those years she had been a figure painter, but once in California, she appears to have become totally devoted to landscape. She settled in Laguna Beach in 1913 and played a dominant role in the organization of the Art Association, of which she was president from 1922 to 1925 and again from 1927 to 1930. .Hills's paintings, both interior scenes of valleys and mountain formations, and coastal views such as THE SPELL OF THE SEA (LAGUNA BEACH NEAR MOSS POINT) of 1920, make use of the smaller, often broken brushwork and variegated coloration of orthodox Impressionism, reflecting, perhaps, some influence of Guy Rose. Like Rose, she delighted in the undulation of the eucalyptuses' sinuous trunks supporting their feathery foliage. Small figures of several women appear in the lower left, in beneficent Nature.
The sea appears only in the distance in Jean Mannheim's ARCH BEACH, LAGUNA BEACH (cat. 28) of 1920; the artist concentrated instead on the rolling hillside with lush green foliage and a patch of golden poppies, though some buildings appear through the grove of trees at the far right. At the time, Mannheim had three studios: a home studio and a garden studio in Pasadena and a summer studio at Arch Beach. Mannheim was not a painter of the sea, in particular; he was equally involved with the figure and the landscape, the former earlier in his career, but he increasingly painted the scenic beauty of California and figures out-of-doors in bright sunlight. Born in Germany, Mannheim began studying in Paris in 1882, and then came to the United States in 1885, settling in Chicago. In 1895 he moved to Decatur, Illinois for seven years, and then, after a brief trip to Europe, settled in Denver, where he remained and taught for five years. In 1907-08 he worked in London with Frank Brangwyn and then returned to the United States. Mannheim settled in the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena and taught at the Stickney Memorial School; he became active in the California Art Club and was equally involved with the Laguna Beach Art Association.
Cultivated garden paintings are not unknown among the California Impressionists, but they are not nearly as common as they were among their counterparts on the East Coast, perhaps because the Westerners favored the unconfined expansiveness of the wildflower fields. As Charles Howard Shinn wrote in 1888, "When our wild flowers are almost gone, I suppose that people will begin to want them to plant in gardens." As we have seen, Frederick Frieseke painted garden scenes in Los Angeles during his visit to his parents in 1911, and it is possible that these provided inspiration for local artists to undertake this theme. One of the closest equivalents to the garden pictures favored by Childe Hassam and many of the painters working in such eastern art colonies as Old Lyme and Cragsmoor is THE JOYOUS GARDEN (cat. 4) by Benjamin Brown, who was also one of the many painters of fields of poppies and other wildflowers. This picture is of a rare, formal garden, the alternating red, pink, and white flowers fronting a well-manicured lawn, bordered by box hedges, before the white walls of a substantial house. Brown, who first studied in St. Louis and then in Paris, was one of the earliest of the Impressionists to reside in the state, settling in Pasadena in 1895. His early landscapes were painted in a more tonal mode, but shortly after the turn of the century he began to adopt the high-keyed color of Impressionism, which he applied to all the subjects favored by the California Impressionists - both coastal and mountain scenes, blossoming trees, and floral subjects. Given Brown's preference for saturated color, it is interesting to note that he was also one of the California Impressionists most inclined toward the depiction of snow scenes. Brown's approach to Impressionism is, in fact, perhaps the closest to that of Childe Hassam among the artists of Southern California. Brown was also the most active printmaker among the artists discussed here, and with his brother, Howell, organized The Print Makers of Los Angeles in 1914.
In the East, artists depicted both formal gardens and the increasingly popular informal cultivation of flowers - the "grandmother's gardens" popularized in the late 19th century - as more truly American, reflecting earlier, sounder cultural values. The creation of such gardens found favor in California, fueled both by the climate and by the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement, which promoted outdoor life and the use of indigenous materials. However, artists in the state do not seem to have responded strongly to this potential subject, though it did attract several painters in Northern California. A number of colorful pictures by Theodore Wores, one of San Francisco's leading painters and teachers, depict the old adobe church in Saratoga, California, which the artist had remodeled into a Mission Revival house with a patio garden. One of the finest paintings by Anne Bremer, another respected San Francisco painter of the early 20th century, is entitled AN OLD FASHIONED GARDEN (Mills College, Oakland).
Colin Campbell Cooper rendered some of the most beautiful paintings of gardens in Southern California. Cooper had established his artistic identity at the turn of the century with pictorial homages to European Gothic architecture, but on his return to America in 1902 he transferred his interests to modern city life and especially the skyscraper, which he painted in Chicago, Philadelphia, and particularly New York, while the somewhat low-keyed tones of his earlier work exploded into Impressionist light and color. In 1915, Cooper painted some fine architectural images at San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where he received a Gold Medal for his six oil paintings shown there.The following winter of 1915-16, Cooper visited and painted in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, and six years later he moved to Santa Barbara, becoming dean of the School of Painting at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. While he maintained his formal strategies, Cooper abandoned the urban theme when he moved to Santa Barbara, where he became, with John Gamble, one of the two most prominent Impressionist painters in the quite distinct and well-recognized art colony there. His new architectural images, ranging from his own modest bungalow on Anacapa Street to the Kimberly Crest mansion in Redlands and including the San Juan Capistrano Mission, were all accompanied by garden plantings and colorful surroundings of flowering vines and trees. Some of Cooper's most exuberant settings are views painted at Santa Barbara's elegant hostelries, the El Encanto and Samarkand hotels, for example, PERGOLA AT THE SAMARKAND HOTEL, a fully Impressionist, sun-dappled scene.
Since the mid-19th century, American landscape painters have been drawn to painting the occasional still life, since so much of that theme is drawn from Nature.This is understandable of California artists, since their celebration of the lush floral output of the region coincides with their exaltation of the land itself, though a few of the state's painters opted, alternatively, for recording man-made still-life forms (the most notable of which are Armin Hansen's figureless studio interiors). One such still-life painting landscapist is Paul Lauritz, here represented by his gorgeously colored POINSETTIAS (cat. 27) of about 1925, the flower's spiky petals casting purplish shadows in rhythmic patterns against a light wall. The Norwegian-born Lauritz was influenced by Norwegian Impressionist Fritz Thaulow and was encouraged by Christian Krogh, the dean of his native country's artists.  Lauritz immigrated to Canada and worked in commercial art in Vancouver, British Columbia, before migrating to Portland, Oregon, where he began to create easel paintings. He was active in Alaska before arriving in Los Angeles in 1919. Lauritz is otherwise known as a significant teacher as well as an important regional landscape painter, working in a mode not unlike that of Puthuff. Whatever Lauritz's subject matter, POINSETTIAS substantiates Arthur Millier's assertion that "color has always been his forte."
A notable distinction between the work of the California Impressionists and that of their eastern counterparts is the dearth of imagery of the man-made environment among the Western artists. Excepting the paintings of Los Angeles by Frank Coburn, Southern California painters generally avoided the urban subjects that occupied such painters as Childe Hassam, Colin Campbell Cooper, and William Merritt Chase in New York and which were painted occasionally by other artists of the movement, such as Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson. But it was not only the large cities that the California painters generally avoided; they seldom dealt, at least obviously, with their own environmental construct - the suburbs and towns in which they lived; the resort hotels that populated the beaches they otherwise depicted as empty expanses. (those at Santa Barbara painted by Colin Campbell Cooper excepted); and their homes and studios vis-â-vis the landscape that they so glorified, themes that preoccupied many eastern artists, John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, for example. The principal exceptions are the colorful paintings by Joseph Kleitsch and Clarence Hinkle of the town and buildings of Laguna Beach, and those by Franz Bischoff and John Christopher Smith of the small coastal town of Cambria, located between Santa Barbara and Monterey, near William Randolph Hearst's castle at San Simeon. Close friends, Bischoff and Smith painted there together, perhaps on their way to Monterey in 1924-27, finding special charm in that small coastal community.
Of all the artists at Laguna Beach, Hungarian-born Joseph Kleitsch appears to have been the painter who most often documented the community itself. Kleitsch had studied in Munich before immigrating to the United States in late 1901 or early 1902, when he settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1906 he was painting in Denver at the same time Jean Mannheim was there, and in 1907-09 he was in Mexico City; much of the following decade was spent in Chicago. In 1920 he went to California, wintering in Laguna Beach where he maintained a home for his final decade, though he was abroad for two years beginning late in 1925. Kleitsch had earlier been known primarily as a portraitist, and this continued to function as his main source of income in Southern California, though he painted both studio models and outdoor scenery there, in addition to his views of Laguna Beach itself. While he utilized dramatic tonal contrasts in his indoor scenes, Kleitsch's outdoor works at Laguna Beach clearly reflect Impressionism.
These last appear in two forms. Some are more distant, panoramic scenes such as OLD LAGUNA, painted around 1925 - with the low-slung buildings of the town spread out within the warm, sunlit landscape, the village and its environment in total communion - man and Nature, completely integrated. Others, such as THE OLD POST OFFICE, LAGUNA BEACH, painted in 1922 and one of Kleitsch's best-known pictures, take the viewer into the town itself.There is no attempt to monumentalize or aggrandize the village; rather, Kleitsch enjoys the ramshackle nature of the structures, "humanizing" them in both their scale and their endearingly homely appearance. Nancy Moure notes that "Older residents still remember him seated before his easel in the very center of one of Laguna's dirt streets painting away." The painting also offers retrospective nostalgia, for within a year, the old structure pictured, Nick Isch's grocery store, located at Laguna Avenue and Coast Highway, which also housed the post office, was replaced in late April 1923 by modern cottages.
Franz Bischoff was the preeminent flower painter among the Southern California Impressionists, but he was equally adept and renowned for his landscapes of California. Born in Bohemia, he came to New York in 1885, first working as a decorator in a china factory, a vocation he subsequently pursued in Detroit. Bischoff visited Los Angeles in 1900 and five years later purchased land in the Arroyo Seco, moving to California the following year and completing his studio-home in 1908. It was about the time of his move to California that he turned to easel painting, broadening his artistic horizons to include landscapes in addition to his floral work. Bischoff's view of CAMBRIA, A PEACEFUL CALIFORNIA VILLAGE (cat. 2), exhibited in the annual exhibition of the California Art Club in Los Angeles in 1927, offers a tribute, not only to the loveliness of this small, unspoiled community, but also to the environmental coexistence of community and landscape.
Similarly, the majority of California Impressionists gave short shrift to scenes of industry and manual toil. Though Charles Reiffel not infrequently depicted working ranches and even distant mines in his landscapes, he appears exceptional in this regard. Otherwise, perhaps understandably, given the pictorial attraction of the Pacific Coast, paintings of shipyards, fishing boats, and canneries were occasionally undertaken by local artists, though they were never a specialty. Serious commercial activity was depicted by Charles Reiffel at San Diego Harbor, while San Pedro Bay, the harbor for Los Angeles, was explored by Thomas Hunt and Sam Hyde Harris. But the human figure rarely intrudes. People do appear in some such works by Bischoff, painted around 1914, and in later pictures by Donna Schuster. The Canadian-born Hunt was in the Los Angeles area in 1924, living in Hollywood and San Bernardino; in 1927 he established himself in Laguna Beach. Hunt displays no sense of toil in his untitled painting (cat. 24) that probably depicts the old cannery on Newport Harbor, across the channel from downtown Newport, a subject also painted by George Brandriff. The fishing boats, Hunt's favorite subject, are docked next to sheds and commercial buildings of the single old cannery in Newport, but any implication of labor is counteracted by the sparkling Impressionist color and brilliant California light. Hunt exhibited boat pictures regularly during the early 1930s.
Sam Hyde Harris's picture of the TODD SHIPYARDS, SAN PEDRO (cat. 21), of about 1925, is more gritty in its neutral tonalities, barren and dreary in the almost empty waters of the fore- and middle grounds backed by smoke-belching factories. The artist was captivated with the effects of color-reducing atmosphere, influenced by the art of the great English landscapist Joseph Turner. Nevertheless, the artist's vision here is one of pollution and desolation, rare among the California Impressionists; other paintings by Harris depict such industrial subjects as gas tanks, mills, and cargo boats, while titles such as FLOTSAM AND JETSAM and SHACKVILLE suggest an underlying pessimism. The English-born Harris was primarily a commercial artist who came to Los Angeles in 1904. A fine artist, he studied with Hanson Puthuff, and painted with Mannheim and Payne, preferring the rural environs of Pasadena and San Gabriel; he painted his harbor scenes in the 1930s, and later in his career specialized in desert landscapes.
The one group of man-made structures that attracted almost all the California Impressionists was the missions; the first of these was founded in San Diego by the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra in 1769. These were the most notable structures remaining from California's early colonial period and, as such, their depictions may be considered historical imagery as well as the romantic equivalents of paintings of the European monuments so revered by earlier American artists and patrons. But of course, these pictures contained more specific and relevant currency also, for it was under the leadership of Charles Lummis, who founded the Association for the Preservation of the Missions and became President of The Landmarks Club in 1895, that their historical significance was undergoing reevaluation and they were being preserved and restored from the decrepitude into which they had fallen. Nor was the plight of and the concern for the missions confined to California; a good many articles appeared in eastern journals, contemporaneous with Lummis's efforts. Today the missions stand again, some restored and many replaced by replications.
The missions had earlier been painted in their ruinous state by many artists, and whole series of the 21 structures had been created by San Francisco's Edwin Deakin in 1878-98 and at much the same time by Santa Barbara's Henry Chapman Ford, in etching and watercolor, as well as by others. In the Impressionist era, Guy Rose and Alson Clark painted the Mission San Gabriel; Benjamin Brown the Mission San Luis Rey as well as the branch mission at Pala, north of San Diego; and Euphemia Charlton Fortune painted the Santa Barbara Mission. Fortune also exhibited a painting of the Carmel Mission at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
It was the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776, that drew the greatest attention, its restoration having become a personal project of Charles Lummis. Guy Rose appears to have been almost alone in ignoring this subject. We have already noted the activity of Joseph Kleitsch and Colin Campbell Cooper at the mission. Alson Clark not only painted the mission as soon as he arrived in Southern California in 1919; he exhibited one of his pictures of it at the Art Institute of Chicago that year, and another in 1923. Clark's RUINS OF SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO carries the gold and blue tints of the wildflower fields into the realm of massive architecture. The poignancy of the seemingly abandoned and roofless structure is alleviated by the rich coloration and brilliant California sunlight, offering the redemption that was, indeed, occurring under the guidance of Father St.John O'Sullivan. In his SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO MISSION YARD of about 1922, Franz Bischoff offers not only a restored building but, as expected of a painter of flowers, a colorful garden of geraniums and hollyhocks, complete with a lily pad pool. A Spanish Colonial Revival garden was cultivated at the mission at the turn of the century, planted with old-fashioned perennials and vines. The mission housed the best-known gardens in the state, and not surprisingly attracted many painters. It was noted that "the gardens about the Missions as we see them today must be accepted as of comparatively recent planting, though an old-time flavor is given by the setting." The peeling plaster affirms the building's venerable state, but the campanario, the wall of bells in their niches along with the cross at top, silhouetted against the cloud-filled heavens, suggest a functioning religious structure.
Southern California Impressionists did not completely ignore the figure, but it was not a primary concern for most of the painters associated with the movement, especially during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Even when these painters chose to paint long sandy beaches, they are almost always devoid of the bathers who would normally be enjoying the warm sunshine and sparkling surf. Only Joseph Kleitsch, in the 1920s, developed a significant body of paintings of bathers at Laguna Beach, while a few others, Alfred Mitchell and Alson Clark at La Jolla, along with Jean Mannheim, occasionally populated their scenes with beachgoers. A review, for instance, of the Second Annual Exhibition of the California Art Club, held in Los Angeles in December 1911 (no catalogue of the first exhibition has been located), suggests that, in addition to one sculpture by Julia Bracken Wendt, among the 44 works, 37 pictures were landscapes, two were interiors, one was a still life (ROSES by Franz Bischoff), and only three were figures - and these were portraits of Native Americans by Joseph Sharp, the Taos, New Mexico painter. In contrast, at the Seventh Annual Exhibition five years later in October 1916, judging by the titles of the 72 works shown, 40 were landscapes and garden scenes, three were urban views, seven were sculptures or studies for sculptures, one was a still life and one an interior, and 20 were portraits and figure pieces. At the same time, the illustrations of California paintings that appeared in California's Magazine, the sumptuous two-volume publication commemorating the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which appeared in 1916, were divided just about equally between figure and landscape work.
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