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California Impressions Featuring Landscapes from the Wendy Willrich Collection
November 18 - January 28, 2006
Californians' perceptions of their natural environment will be examined in the exhibition California Impressions Featuring Landscapes from the Wendy Willrich Collection at the de Young Museum. The exhibition shows 33, turn-of-the century paintings and watercolors from the collection of Bay Area art patron Wendy Willrich and selections from the permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museums.
These works trace an evolution of early Californian thinking. Works from the late 1800s depict California as a wilderness "Garden of Eden", while later works depict the state as a pastoral paradise of bucolic gardens. These images shaped the way that Americans perceived California, and played a major part in the state's promotion and growth.
"The landscape, real and experienced, or imagined and projected, was a dominant and defining element of life in California," says Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums. "In this state, both the built environment and culture were constructed upon a foundation deeply rooted in evolving perceptions of the landscape."
In the mid 19th century, many artists were inspired by the enhanced realism of the Hudson River School aesthetic, in which paintings of actual American scenes were endowed with spiritual qualities. Many Americans felt that viewing images of sublime mountain ranges and serene lake settings was therapeutic for the soul.
Among the many intrepid artists who headed to California in search of scenic areas were two noted painters of the period: Thomas Hill and William Keith. Following the lead of one of the Hudson River School founders, Albert Bierstadt, they both found inspiration in the wilds of Yosemite. At the time, Yosemite was still a novel sight for many Americans, and one that compared favorably with the more familiar landscapes of Europe. Paintings of Yosemite and similar environs became an instant hit with many of the newly-minted millionaires in the state. Soon, San Francisco flourished as a center for art collecting and patronage.
In the 1890s the influence of French Impressionism started to show itself in California landscape painting, with artists such as John Gamble and Percy Gray emulating the painterly brush strokes and bright palette of Impressionism. After the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco, the art center shifted from Northern to Southern California -- especially Los Angeles. Here, the natural beauty and mild climate was perfect for plein air painting. Artists such as Elmer Wachtel, Guy Rose and Granville Redmond embraced Impressionism to record the region's beauty.
The shift towards viewing California as a cultivated garden took place around the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement. The movement stressed the blending of indoor and outdoor living and the importance of the home garden. Houses designed in this style featured large windows and doors that embraced the land around the home. Paintings by Gamble and Redmond depicted the lush flowering of garden-like landscapes and enjoyed great popularity.
Ironically, the idealized paintings contributed to a real estate boom and the growth of the tourism industry, both of which strained the natural resources in the state. However, they have recorded -- and in many cases, embellished -- an idyllic era before growth and suburban sprawl. "In this context, it is possible to view many garden-like California landscape paintings as nostalgic, aesthetic antidotes to the prevailing realities of American life," says Mr. Burgard. "Their timeless vision of the California landscape reaffirms our perennial ties to nature."
About Wendy Willrich
Wendy Willrich saw the beauty in California landscape painting in the 1960s, a time when they were not fashionable among art collectors. Driven by a love of the state's art history and a respect for the quality of the paintings, she started collecting landscapes when the popularity of Modernism had all but overshadowed them. "I was touched by their beauty," says Mrs. Willrich. "They reminded me of an earlier time in the state."
Today, the art world has come full circle. Museums and galleries have organized major exhibitions of California landscapes and many of the paintings in the Willrich Collection are an important part of American art history.
Organization and Credit
California Impressions Featuring Landscapes from the Wendy Willrich Collection is organized and curated by Timothy Anglin Burgard. It is accompanied by a scholarly publication that reproduces the entire Willrich Collection. It includes essays by Mr. Burgard and independent scholar Alfred C. Harrison, Jr. The exhibition is made possible by the Union Bank of California.
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