Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 2, 2007 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author at CaliforniaArt.com directly through this web address:




Loners, Mavericks & Dreamers: Art in Los Angeles Before 1900

exhibition description by Nancy Moure

 

Observing Los Angeles' current-day frenetic pace, the speed and confusion of the freeways carrying hurried people making deals on car phones, it is difficult to believe that only two hundred years ago, ox carts laboriously made their way along rutted dirt trails amidst adobe missions. The Native Americans, who first arrived 8,000 years ago, obviously chanced upon the Southland during their migrations and remained because of the presence of plentiful food and resources. They made baskets with native reeds, carved effigies and cooking utensils from locally mined steatite; and made pictographs and petroglyphs.

Subsequent settlement by Europeans introduced new cultural influences to the area. Southern California became diverse not only in terms of its scenery, but also in terms of its cultural make-up. Although the prospects in nineteenth-century Los Angeles may sound bleak, many artists were inspired to travel to the area as a result of its singularity -- here they were exposed to subject matter they would not find elsewhere in the United States.

The first Europeans did not come to Los Angeles as artists, but as explorers and conquerors of a new land. They did, however, produce the first images of the area as a byproduct of their business there. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese in the employ of the Spanish, mapped the coast in 1542, thereby creating the first image of areas now known as San Pedro harbor, Santa Catalina Island, and Santa Monica beach. Priests were among the first to arrive, charged with establishing missions that would secure Spanish ownership of the land (San Diego began in 1769 and San Gabriel Arcangel in 1771). Their commissions for architectural decoration and religious paintings and sculpture contributed to the region's artistic legacy.

During the period of Mexican control (1822 - 1846), the area's main commodity was cow hides. Those traders who had artistic capabilities first depicted the regional landscape, documenting the native inhabitants, the secularized missions, and the single-story adobe town of Los Angeles. Furthermore, illustrations of battle scenes were created by artistic soldiers and sailors who engaged in the war between Mexico and the United States, part of which was fought in Southern California from 1846 to 1847.

When California came into American hands, the United States government called for a survey to document the landscape and evaluate its possible commercial value. Artists were appointed to make detailed studies of the geology, flora and fauna, which later appeared as illustrations in the published reports of the expeditions.

As towns began to appear in the basin around Los Angeles, the first profit-seeking artists arrived. They documented the new towns with bird's-eye-view lithographs, which were sold to both the proud new residents and the Chamber of Commerce for tourist promotion. Most of the earliest work produced in Los Angeles was, therefore, practical: to decorate the adobe missions, record and promote a town's progress, or illustrate expedition reports.

Fine paintings of high artistic quality were produced only after 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed and the first professional East Coast landscapists arrived to investigate the beauties of Southern California. Like each successive wave of artists to follow them, they recorded the terrain according to their own aesthetic, in this case panoramic views of romantic scenery seen from high elevations. Many artists traveled to the Southland solely to view the crumbling missions. The first saw them as curiosities, lonely, deteriorating relics of a former civilization. Then, as appreciation and knowledge of California's heritage increased, artists dedicated themselves to documenting the missions by making "portraits" of them. Others tried to reconstruct how they might have originally looked, using historical documents and eye witness descriptions. Artists following the picturesque aesthetic focused on interesting sections of the constructions that had romantic overtones because of their dilapidated state.

The Southern Pacific linked Los Angeles to San Francisco by rail in 1876, and it was at this time that Southern California began to be actively promoted as a place to settle. People from the East Coast and Midwest became curious about the southwestern corner of the United States, and therefore a market for magazine articles and illustrations concentrating on California was created. After the Santa Fe entered Los Angeles in late 1885, Southern California became not only a winter resort that attracted many artists, including a great number from Boston, but also a fertile environment in which resident artists could develop their talents. These residents were lured by the same promotions that attracted other residents -- a healthy climate, inexpensive lifestyle, beautiful scenery, and freedom from East Coast social constraints.

George Gardner Symons' landscapes of Mount Lowe were used in nation-wide advertisements for the tourist attraction. For Southern California, paintings were an effective means of promotion, the most blatant example being a bird's-eye-view of Pasadena paid for by donations from Pasadena citizens. It was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 for the sole purpose of showing the beauty of the resort town to prospective settlers.

The Northern and Southern halves of California differ greatly in climate, geography, attitude and lifestyle; and at several times in the state's history there were suggestions that the two regions should be divided. The gold rush of 1849 that attracted hoards of people to San Francisco and Sacramento provided spontaneous wealth that soon supported a sophisticated resident art community. As a result, Southern California was looked upon as the poor step-sister -- dry, and poverty-stricken -- continuing the Mexican cattle-ranching lifestyle until the mid-1860s with no artistic community. Northerners painted lush and moist spectacular geography like Yosemite valley, while artists in Southern California depended on tourists, almost more than residents, to buy their art. The colder, northern city had a greater proportion of genre and figure painters who worked in studios, whereas Southern California's benign climate and tourist market encouraged landscapes, often painted out-of-doors. Los Angeles area paintings not only encouraged tourism by illustrating the natural beauty of the region, but they also served as proof of native talent for all those who doubted its existence.

Until the early 1870s, only one tenacious artist, the Daguerre photographer and portrait painter Henri Penelon, was able to support himself in the dusty town. As more artists arrived, however, drawn by the railroad and real estate salesmen, they banded together to organize special exhibitions of their work in rented halls. Art began to be taught in the public schools, in the newly established universities, and in private art schools, such as the late-1880s Los Angeles School of Art and Design (active until 1919). Clubs for artists were formed, although the first were short-lived. Los Angeles women, propelled by the nation-wide women's movement and its desire for female education outside the home, started the Ruskin Art Club for the study of printmaking. And, even though the town was only a few years old, by 1887 local artist Joseph H. Von Keith had organized business leaders with the intention of establishing a museum.

During the first half of the 1890s the museum movement swelled -- favorable editorials in the Herald were encouraging the idea of a local museum as an educational institution, as a place of amusement for the winter visitors, and as a repository for California curios that tourists would otherwise carry out of the state. The Chamber of Commerce, which had a large display hall for local products, had served as a form of museum, and went so far as to allocate space to the fine arts from the fall of 1894 to the summer of 1895. But a separate movement in support of a museum that would incorporate history, science and art began to gain strength in February 1895. Although nothing seems to have resulted from several citizen meetings, aspirations for a center of fine arts continued to simmer until the spring of 1899. At this time, a private citizen, Frederick Blanchard, opened a Fine Arts Building, the top floor of which served as an exhibition hall until 1913 when the Museum of History, Science and Art was finally opened.

Pasadena, a popular wintering place for tourists only eight miles away from Los Angeles, developed an artist colony. In 1896 the town's artists organized an Art Union that held several exhibitions, including an art lottery that gave away eight paintings as prizes. An Art Hall was built onto the Shakespeare Clubhouse in 1898, which gave permanent display space for fine arts and prompted the local artists to organize a Pasadena Artists Guild.

Of the outlying farming towns, the most artistically active was Riverside, center of a citrus growing area, that had at least one artist working between 1885 and 1900. Laguna Beach, which later turned into an artist's colony, had a few artist visitors before 1900.

Most of the artists who formed the permanent art community of the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century came not for specific subject matter, but to find a place of residence. However, the standard works of art they produced -- landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, figure paintings, genre pieces, and etchings -- used themes specifically associated with Southern California.

The newly settled artists came from a variety of geographical locations and brought with them a wide spectrum of styles and experience, ranging from the Romantic to the Barbizon and the Impressionist.

Still-life paintings most often featured local produce, such as citrus fruit and grapes, and local flowers grown either in private gardens, commercially, or wild on the hillsides. William and Alberta McCloskey painted table-top arrangements of flowers or fruit reminiscent of the compositions of James Peale, but they added a new dimension to the genre through their unique tissue-paper-wrapped oranges. Paul DeLongpre created delicate watercolor studies of flowers that had popular appeal and led to mass reproduction by Prang of Boston. His works were unique nationally, however, because of their technical excellence, their delicate and exquisite shading, and the fact that most of his subjects were grown in the garden of his own home in Hollywood.

Portraits in the pre-1870 era had preserved the faces of Californios, possessors of massive cattle ranches. After 1870, however, they depicted Anglo-Americans who had prospered in real estate, petroleum, and transportation; or who had been successful as lawyers, judges, soldiers or statesmen. Certain equestrian portraits of Californios by primitive artists such as Penelon are charming and unique in American portraiture because of the attention given to rendering elaborately decorated saddles and Californio clothing.

The area's few genre pictures add scenes of Southern California's romantic past to the national heritage. Few look upon Los Angeles as being a frontier Western town, but indeed it was. San Francisco artists traveled south to view the remnants of the Spanish/Mexican days that had survived in Southern California, and they produced some fine genre pictures of cattle ranching and rancho social life. Tiburcio Vasquez, forced into banditry when Anglo-Americans began to push out the Mexicans, was painted as a romantic outlaw by Gutzon Borglum and others. The romanticized image of California persists in Borglum's paintings of stage coaches traversing the rugged back country.

Indeed, it was the landscape that ultimately dominated the Southern California art scene. Pure landscapes, unencumbered by the need for religious or moral overtones, had been growing in acceptance in European art centers since the 1850s. Pastoral vistas became increasingly important as a psychological escape for the new generation of city dwellers caught up in the fast pace of late-nineteenth-century life. Landscape and climate were undoubtedly two of Southern California's strongest attributes.

The region was geographically unique in its configuration -- the character of the terrain ranged from snow-capped mountains to deserts, and included pastoral agricultural lands, canyons and arroyos filled with river boulders, sandy beaches, tide pools, and dramatic sandstone cliffs. All these sites were accessible to artists by the public transportation system, which had been successfully developed before most of them had settled. The temperate climate, as well as the Barbizon/Impressionist tendency to work en plein air, fostered the local practice of on-site painting that persists to the present day.

One of the most unique of local geographical features is certainly the arroyos. In the arid land, the gorges cut by seasonal rivers became oases for sycamore trees and other plant life. The painter Elmer Wachtel developed a favorite view using a shadowy arroyo in the foreground which looks across plains to lavender mountains. William Lees Judson, Dean of the University of Southern California School of Art, located his school in the Arroyo Seco, which ran between Los Angeles and Pasadena, and used the area's picturesque qualities to lure new art students.

The inclusion of trees such as the riverside sycamores, the native live oak, the imported eucalyptus, and the pepper tree, increased the appeal of landscape paintings for tourists who wished to identify the unique scenery. The shoreline offered dramatic sandstone cliffs, sometimes intermingled with prehistoric, exposed lava flows or vast marshes. Combined with the bright sunshine and the subtle local coloration and an occasional cactus, these features became basin-specific.

A high proportion of Southern California's few artists produced at least one Impressionist landscape before 1900. Although an accurate rendition of the sunshine and the colors of the region could almost automatically classify a painter as Impressionist, local artists did consciously seek to create Impressionist works. Recognizing flowers as a favorite French Impressionist subject, they turned to the abundant local flora and painted patches of wild, golden poppies, women gardening amid fields of commercially-cultivated chrysanthemums and calla lilies (Fanny Duvall), or simply posing for their portrait in a rose garden (Benjamin Brown). The paintings were often rendered with broken brush strokes which departed from the styles popularly taught.

A combination of Southern California's varied terrain, warm climate, and colorful history proved an effective lure both to artists and prospective settlers. Artistic activity in the region prior to 1900 has provided a rich body of work documenting the geology, history and cultural development of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Loners, Mavericks, and Dreamers: Art in Los Angeles Before 1900 not only stresses the uniqueness of the paintings produced during this period, but their notable contribution to the pool of national artworks.

About the author:

Nancy Dustin Wall Moure received her B.A. in Art from San Diego State College and her M.A. in Art History from UCLA. From 1968 to 1983 she was Assistant Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is author of the Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California Before 1930. Ms. Moure is a consultant to corporations and individuals interested in buying and selling art. She has guest curated several southern California exhibitions and written numerous articles for magazines and catalogues.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 2, 2007 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on August 2, 2007. Ms. Moure's article pertains to a special exhibition that was on view at the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, November 26, 1993, through February 20, 1994.

This text was also published in the February-March 1994 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

 

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History. Individual pages in this catalogue will be amended as TFAO adds content, corrects errors and reorganizes sections for improved readability. Refreshing or reloading pages enables readers to view the latest updates.


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.