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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In 1921, Fortune left for a six-year stay in Europe. In the works she painted in the artist's colony of St. Ives in England and at St.Tropez in France - equally as colorful and as Impressionist as her Monterey scenes - figures are even more prominent, and she emphasized the activities of the fishing fleets in both communities. On her return to California in 1927, Fortune reestablished her studio in Monterey and, the next year, as a devout Roman Catholic, founded the Monterey Guild, an organization committed to the revival of ecclesiastical art. Fortune turned increasingly to interior church decoration and liturgical work and gradually relinquished easel painting.[165]

It was during the early and middle years of the 1910s that Impressionism took a strong hold in Monterey, often with painters who concentrated on coastal themes. One of the finest of these, but also one of the least documented, is Ernest Bruce Nelson, another of the relatively few California Impressionists born in the state, in Santa Clara County. He enrolled in and studied art at Stanford University, with which he maintained connections even after he went on to New York for further training. He returned to San Francisco in 1912 and the following year established a studio at Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula. The year of his return to California, Nelson held two shows of his work at Stanford and another successful exhibition at Helgesen & Marshall Gallery in San Francisco; during the following four years Nelson continued to have major one-artist shows in the region, in Palo Alto and San Jose, as well as continuing representation at Helgesen's and also at the Merick Reynolds Gallery in Los Angeles. He was also exhibiting at the Del Monte Gallery in Monterey by 1914, while at the inauguration of the Oakland Art Gallery in 1916, an entire room was devoted to 30 of his pictures. Nelson won a Silver Medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition for THE SUMMER SEA (cat. 32), one of four works shown. The artist had thus become a force to be reckoned with in Northern California art circles, but in 1917 he began service with the Army Camouflage Corps. Though his work continued to be exhibited in both San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 1910s and early 1920s, after his Army discharge in 1918 Nelson went to Cooperstown, New York, where his close friend Dr. Henry S. F. Cooper, a great-grandson of James Fenimore Cooper, was living. Nelson painted murals in the breakfast room at Fynmere, the Cooper family homestead, and remained in that upstate New York town, painting the local scenery, and severing his California ties.[166]

When Nelson had begun to exhibit his paintings in 1912, he was concentrating on landscapes, often with seasonal emphases. Some were painted in the Catskills or around the village of Mayfield, further north in New York State, some on trips to Oregon, and many in and around Stanford University; titles suggest traditional themes of groves of eucalyptus, oaks, poplars, sycamores, hickory, and maple trees, as well as poppy paintings and blossoming trees. Then, in his Helgesen Gallery show held in November 1914, Nelson appeared with a large group of pictures of the Monterey coast, shore and sea, as well as depictions of the fishing fleet, and of the pines and meadows there, suggesting that it was during the previous summer that he had begun to produce the pictures now admired most: brilliantly colored coastal scenes in full sunlight, such as his 1915 THE SUMMER SEA (cat. 32). Some of Nelson's works suggest an affinity with the contemporaneous work of William Wendt, in the artist's concentration upon more blocky, geometric forms, especially in the representation of the coastal rocks, though the technique is pervasive throughout the water and foreground grass as well. Also somewhat related to the preferred strategies of Southern California artists is the panoramic sweep of the scene, whereas many of the paintings by his Monterey Peninsula colleagues were concentrated on a more restricted tract of rocks and sea.

One of the leading marine painters in the region, and one of the most distinguished and influential of all the artists in the Monterey colony, was Armin Hansen. He was born in San Francisco and studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute, but after the earthquake he went abroad, training in Stuttgart, Germany. In 1908 he settled for four years in the artists' colony of Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast, working as both painter and printmaker and specializing in scenes of the lives of North Sea fishermen along the Yser River and in neighboring Oostend. (Any possible connection with his fellow San Franciscan, Joseph Raphael, who moved to Uccie, outside of Brussels, during this time, has yet to be established.) Hansen returned to his native city in 1912, and the following year took the coast packet Eureka down to Monterey and painted there; he exhibited in 1914 at the Del Monte Gallery. Hansen moved his studio to Monterey in 1916 and settled there permanently in 1918. He was soon recognized as one of the leading and most distinctive artists of the colony, was active with the Carmel Art Association, and helped to found the Monterey History and Art Association. He also taught summer classes at Monterey for the California School of Fine Arts, beginning in 1918.[167]

Though he also created extremely beautiful studio interior still lifes, Hansen devoted himself - in both his oil paintings and his etchings - primarily to depictions of the maritime activities of the region.[168] These are not coastal landscapes but records of the sardine and salmon fishing boats and other vessels, along with the Portuguese and Sicilian fishermen who manned them, often almost engulfed by the swirling sea. MAKING PORT is typical of these, though the artist offers added interest in the contrast between the gleaming, white, full-rigged schooner and the dark, smoke-belching tug, much smaller but heroically attempting to reach the larger ship.[169] Hansen's tremendous facility with broad swaths of paint that represent the fury of the sea activates the scene, while the asymmetrical composition - both vessels pressed into the upper right corner - is a Modernist device ultimately harking back to Japanese aesthetic conventions. In general, California Impressionists avoided depicting labor activities, though when they did they usually concentrated on harbor scenes; Hansen is unique in making this his foremost concern.

In these paintings, Hansen abandons some of the rich chromaticism of Impressionism either for deeper and more contrasting hues or for a more neutral palette, in either case increasing the sense of dramatic tension. But more orthodox chromatics can be found in his still lifes and in some of his land-based scenes, such as THE FARMHOUSE (cat. 20) of about 1915-16. Traditionally Impressionist also is the softer, broken brushwork and the tremendous interest in patterns of light, with the trees casting purple shadows on both the white cottage and the light-colored roadway. Here, even though the canvas is without figures, Hansen emphasizes human habitation and activity by featuring the horse-drawn cart, which appears to await its occupants.

Hansen acknowledged that he received a major career boost when he was introduced in 1918 to William Ritschel, who immediately arranged for Hansen to show in a New York gallery.[170] German-born and -trained, Ritschel was, at the time, one of Northern California's and, indeed, one of the nation's most acclaimed painters of the sea. Ritschel had several years of experience as a sailor in Europe before he immigrated to New York in 1895; in 1911 he began working in Carmel. The following year he started to exhibit paintings of the coast at Monterey and Carmel in New York and Chicago while also showing his work in Monterey at the Del Monte Gallery. Ritschel built a great castle-like house overlooking the ocean in Carmel Highlands in 1918, his "Castel a Mare," though he maintained his New York connections and gave that city as his permanent address until 1929. In later years, Ritschel traveled the world over, painting marine subjects in the South Seas, Asia, and at Majorca and Capri.[171] Fittingly, Armin Hansen wrote a moving tribute to Ritschel for his Memorial Exhibition, held at the Carmel Art Association Galleries in October 1949. [172]

Ritschel's paintings, such as BOATS RETURNING HOME (cat. 45), are often much more in the tradition of Winslow Homer than are Hansen's, though the introduction here of a few small boats is actually somewhat unusual for Ritschel and more akin to the work of Hansen. Indeed, when Ritschel had a one-artist show at Knoedler's in New York in March 1911, he was ranked alongside Homer, only half a year after the latter's death.[173] Ritschel is a later artist than Homer, and one working with Impressionist strategies, so that colors are brighter and the atmosphere, as here, more hazy and diffused, with late afternoon glare off the ocean. Indeed, Ritschel's home and its surrounding gardens were said to reflect the Impressionist palette of his coastal paintings. John Frederick Harley, Jr. noted in 1946 that "the inexorable sea, piling stone upon stone, might well have inspired the Carmel Highlands home of the William Ritschels - the green, pinks, mauves, blues and purples of a capricious ocean have come to rest in a garden which might well have been fashioned of foam and spray."[174] Ritschel's paintings may be seen as parallels of the many coastal views painted by Southern California artists at Laguna Beach, but the latter tend toward more panoramic vistas while the Monterey paintings tend to zero in on a small segment of Nature.

Hansen and Ritschel were among the best-known artists of the Monterey colony in the 1910s; Fortune, who socialized very little with her colleagues there, maintained a friendly relationship with both painters and respected their work. In any case, by the second half of the decade, Impressionism was firmly entrenched on the Peninsula, especially in the delineation of the dramatic coastal scenery there. In 1918, the year after Bruce Nelson departed from Monterey, Guy Rose spent the first of three consecutive summers in Carmel, producing during a two-month vacation there some of his finest California paintings and among the most sought-after of his works today. He was back by late July 1919, and in 1920 stayed until early autumn, returning to Pasadena in early October.[175] Rose himself had the intention of producing works that differed from his previous California work painted in the South, though exactly what his objectives were beyond the change of scenery is difficult to determine.The majority of these pictures concentrated on the rugged coastal cliffs.[176]

Even after many younger painters had begun to investigate other aesthetic approaches that began to appear more relevant to contemporary concerns, some later artists continued to reside on the Monterey Peninsula practicing more traditional forms. One of the finest of these was Paul Dougherty, though he had already painted there earlier, exhibiting paintings of the Monterey coast as early as 1919. By the time he established his home and studio in the Carmel Highlands in 1931, near to that of his colleague William Ritschel, Dougherty was nationally recognized as one of the country's leading marine painters, and, even more than Ritschel, designated and honored as the heir to Winslow Homer. Ameen Rihani wrote in 1921 in International Studio, "There is no doubt that the mantle of Winslow Homer has fallen upon Paul Dougherty."[177] Born in Brooklyn, Dougherty is said to have studied in New York with Henry Ward Ranger in the late 1890s before going abroad. He had returned to New York by 1904, and it was then that he began to specialize in marine subjects, generally just dramatic depictions of surf crashing upon rocks. In 1905 Dougherty honed his interests by spending three months sketching on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. This became his favorite painting ground, the results of which were annually on view at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, with which he became associated in 1907. His friend and colleague Leon Kroll recalled that by then "he was supposed to be almost as good as Homer."[178] Dougherty also painted in a number of other coastal areas favored by painters, such as Brittany in France and St. Ives in Cornwall, and traveled to Asia, where he painted in Japan and the Philippines. Arthritis sent him to Arizona and New Mexico in 1928, and then to California; he divided his time between Palm Springs, where he spent the winters, and Carmel, where he was active with the Art Association.[179]

Given the length of Dougherty's established career before he settled in Northern California and the nature of his sea and rock paintings, and since the artist did not always date his pictures, it is difficult to determine which paintings were created on the Monterey Peninsula. However, when he exhibited in New York at the Macbeth Gallery in 1931, one critic noted that his recent works were "brilliantly executed on a much looser technique and higher key than formerly Several of the earlier seascapes are here, but they are hardly to be mentioned in the same breath with the new western canvases."[180] Apparently this is a vast oversimplification; although THE TWISTED LEDGE (cat. 13) certainly incorporates the looser technique and higher key the critic discerned in Dougherty's western pictures, as well as the brilliant sunlight that had become a hallmark of California Impressionism, the painting is actually an early one that had been exhibited in the winter 1907 exhibition of the National Academy of Design and illustrated and mentioned in an article on Dougherty published in 1908.[181] A reviewer of the Academy show, in fact, compared Dougherty's painting to the work of French Impressionist Maxime Maufra, also known for his pictures of waves crashing upon the rocks.[182]

Frank Myers was another painter to join the art colony on the Monterey Peninsula, but only late in his career. Ohio-born, Myers studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, joining the faculty there at the youthful age of 22 in 1921. He continued to teach at the Art Academy, even after he had made Pacific Grove his permanent home in 1940, having first visited and painted on the Monterey Peninsula in 1926; he was probably the most renowned painter to reside in that community. A landscape specialist early in his career, some of his work, such as LAGUNA BEACH (cat. 31), is comparable to that of Rose and his disciple, John Frost, though Myers rarely painted in Southern California. Rather, most of his California painting was done on the Monterey Peninsula, especially after 1937, when he made the decision to specialize in seascape painting, following the lead of Hansen, Ritschel, and Dougherty there, though Myers's work was more often compared to that of Eastern seascapist Frederick Waugh rather than to that of Winslow Homer.[183] On the Peninsula, Myers was an active exhibitor with the Carmel Art Association and taught in nearby Salinas.[184]

By the early 1930s, when Dougherty and Myers joined the art world of California, a new climate had settled over the state and indeed the entire nation. Landscape, though still practiced of course, was no longer the dominant theme. As Arthur Millier noted in 1934: "Until a decade ago, painting in Southern California produced innumerable landscapes, seventy per cent of which were bought by tourists as souvenirs."[185] The Great Depression blew an ill wind upon the cultural scene, and many artists responded by reflecting the banalities, and occasionally the grim realities, of urban life, as well as the nature, both positive and negative, of agrarian existence. Few of the California Impressionists changed their modus operandi, and while many certainly experienced a decline in both critical favor as well as in available patronage, most continued to offer up their impressions of the paradisiacal landscape. After all, the land itself had changed little, though even here, residential, commercial, and industrial sprawl was taking its toll upon their beloved scenery. But the sunshine may have, by then, seemed somewhat shallow, filtering down upon what may have seemed the mundane bleakness of a new era. Yet, for four decades, that sun had shone brightly in California as it had nowhere else, and answered affirmatively the question posed in 1921 by Mabel Seares, "Has California a school of painting peculiar to herself?"[186]


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