Art in California: 1880 to 1930

by Jean Stern



The tradition of American landscape painting is inseparable from the American spirit. Indeed from Colonial times, American had been governed by two dominant factors: the absence of religious patronage and a penchant for portraying the everyday character of American life. Landscape painting was an ideal vehicle in both cases, as it afforded an avenue to express God and Nature as one, an understanding of spirituality that disavowed religious patronage; and it created a metaphor of the American landscape as the fountainhead from which sprang the bounty and opportunity of rustic American life.

In both circumstances, the artist's objective was for careful and accurate observation; thus Realism and its associated variants was the style of choice. The desire for realistic portrayal of forms has always been associated with American art.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, a widespread and forceful artistic movement swept across Europe. That movement was Realism. Realism's purpose was to give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world based on meticulous observation of contemporary life.

The French were quick to adopt and popularize Realism. As practiced by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875), it became associated with social activism and thus met with considerable resistance among the French art community.

In France, a prominent aspect of Realism was directed towards nature and embraced its social mission by emphasizing life in the rustic settings of France. Coming at the height of the adverse consequences of the Industrial Revolution with its attendant mass urbanization, environmental pollution and social transformations, Realism repudiated the urban environment and harkened to the idyllic life of the immediate past, to a time, real or imagined, when people were in harmony with nature and its bounty. It was a movement to democratize art, affiliated with other mid-century demands for social and political democracy.

Declaring that art must have relevance to contemporary society, the Realists refused to paint moralistic or heroic models from the past and instead directed their attention to themes that acclaimed people and events in more commonplace circumstances and in their own time. In that vein, Millet, who painted the daily life of the French farmer, promoted an idealistic and romantic model emphasizing the dignity of peasant life. While Millet favored figural scenes over pure landscapes and chose the farm as his subjects, he nonetheless worked in a studio and painted from posed models.

Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878) were among a group of Romantic-Realist painters who specialized in landscape painting. They imbued their works with a dramatic sense of light, most often energizing their compositions with vivid end-of-the-day sky effects. These plein-air artists lived and painted in the village of Barbizon, thus giving name to this aspect of Realism, a romantic model of people and nature, handled with a broader stroke and coupled with dramatic lighting. The Barbizon style found a quick and willing group of followers in late nineteenth-century Europe and America.

The art of painting underwent a revolution starting in the 1860s. The cumulative result of a systematic study of light and color, coupled to a rising interest in scientific observation and the preference by artists for on-site plein-air painting, modified the age-old effort of trying to capture or duplicate the true, natural representation of light to that of representing the effect of light in terms of an optical stimulus/response sensation.

This revolution in art was spurred by numerous scientific color theories that were circulated in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This trend was manifested by newly published scientific investigations of physiological optics and, most importantly, in the active involvement of the artists in these fields. The artistic inheritors of this revolution were the Impressionists in the early 1870s and, more so, the Neo-Impressionists in the 1880s.


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