Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on October 14, 2008 with permission of the author and the Long Beach Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition brochure from which it is excerpted, please contact the Long Beach Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970

by Ronald C. Nelson

 

As the nineteenth century came to a close, European painting movements continued to hold sway over the Western art world. This was also largely true in Southern California where painters often emulated the Barbizon school in France, with its focus on realistic yet heroic depictions of people and their natural surroundings. Craving a more dynamic way to depict the stunning and sun-dappled landscapes of California, some of these artists traveled to Europe where they encountered the nascent Impressionist movement. Immediately sensing that this new style of painting en plein-air ("in the open air") was an ideal way to capture the vistas of Southern California, a number of leading California artists at the time studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, alongside their East Coast counterparts. Upon returning to Southern California, these artists produced a visually sublime record of the landscapes around them. Taking advantage of the natural California light, verdant hillsides and the beautiful uninterrupted coastline, their works rivaled those being created on the East Coast and in Europe.

As Southern California began to change in the first few decades of the twentieth century, so too, did the artists' subject matter. With urbanism expanding to accommodate a rapidly growing population, younger artists began to paint and document the results of human activity on the previously idyllic landscape. Artists became interested in painting not only the landscape, but also what was happening to the landscape. The California Scene movement was born.

The population of Southern California grew by leaps and bounds in the years between the Great Depression to just after World War II. With record migrations of people from the Midwest and East Coast, the region drew people with its beautiful climate, open spaces, stunning beaches and promises of a better life. The rapid and expansive growth of Southern California cities and the accompanying construction of homes, businesses and infrastructure provided appealing subjects for the California Scene painters whose resulting paintings are not only engaging works of art, but also documents of the physical and social changes that were taking place.

The California Scene movement is inextricably linked to the Chouinard Art Institute (the venerable Los Angeles-based art school that was later merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and renamed California Institute of the Arts or Cal Arts). A number of early California Scene painters, including Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Ben Messick, Charles Payzant and Emil Kosa, Jr. studied and later taught at Chouinard. A few of them shared boarding house rooms in downtown Los Angeles and remained colleagues and friends throughout their careers and lifetimes. Many of these Chouinard-educated artists worked in Hollywood painting sets and illustrating story boards while others, including Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Charles Payzant, and Ben Messick, all worked as animators for Disney Studios. (It is interesting to note that while working on these highly imaginative films of fantasy such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Snow White, this group of artists continued to explore social realism and urban life in their California Scene paintings.) Another artist included in the exhibition, Emil Kosa Jr., won an Oscar in 1963 for his visual effects work on Cleopatra. George Gibson, then Head of the MGM Scenic Department, contributed his expertise for the Arts of Southern California III: Art in Film produced and circulated by the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1958.

The majority of the works in California, Seen were executed in watercolor, an easily transportable and quick-drying medium that allowed artists to work outdoors in the radiant climate of Southern California. Their "scenes" were often painted at specific moments when the artist could take advantage of the natural light. Their use of watercolor as their medium of choice rather than as a preliminary sketch separated them from East Coast art traditions. The national media took notice in 1941 of the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art purchase of watercolors by nine California artists including Phil Dike and Emil Kosa Jr.

Although often depicting idyllic images of coastal scenes or rolling hills, many California Scene paintings delve into headier issues. Not unlike their East coast counterparts whose frequently brooding American Regionalist works were popularized around the time of the Great Depression, California Scene paintings embrace the social realities of the time, albeit with the optimism of California as the promised-land. To provide context and comparisons, California, Seen includes works by some of the most well-known American Regionalist artists: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Irwin Hoffman, and John Costigan.

Images of industry large and small and people at work abound in the paintings in this exhibition. From Joseph Weisman's Rolling Steel to Leon Amyx's Lettuce Weeders, American ingenuity and hard work are on full view. In addition, places of amusement and people at play were popular subjects for California Scene artists. The Pike in Long Beach drew the attention of many a painter as did visiting circuses and carnivals.

A number of California Scene artists, Ben Messick among them, choose to live and paint near the coast. Messick's studio was located on St. Joseph Avenue in nearby Belmont Shore and the Long Beach Museum of Art presented an exhibition of his works in 1957. Phil Dike's classic watercolor Newport Jetty painted in 1950 and his small but beautifully rendered Newport Cove capture the exhilaration of seaside activities along the California coast.

Perhaps the most prolific and influential artist of the California Scene movement, Millard Sheets, was a popular New Deal artist and a director of the Public Works of Art Project. This experience and his lifelong interest in civic planning and architecture revealed itself in his work. Sheets' 1927 painting depicting the construction of the 7th Street Bridge in downtown Los Angeles is an early example of his civic leanings. His keen observations and interest in public art lead to the creation of 45 painted murals and 38 large scale mosaic murals for Home Savings and Loan buildings across Southern California.

As a state and a state of mind, California is in constant flux and reinvention. New buildings, roads and ideas sprout up in a seemingly endless supply. For a century, people have streamed into the state chasing dreams of stardom, a better life or a new beginning. And while many works in this exhibition hearken back to a different time with their confident images of new construction, robust laborers or people enjoying the newfound bounty of the state's outdoor offerings, there is also a timeless quality to the images, only betrayed by fashion and style, that invites the viewer to not only consider California's past but also its future.

Special thanks to the generous lenders to this exhibition: Sandy Hunter, Craig and GiGi Barto, Mike and Ania Sullivan, Don and Madeline Heimark, Dr. Jeffery Mitchell, Rabbi Karen Fox, Jean Gibson-Gorrindo, Steve Holmes, Ken Davis and Luis Morente. I'd also like to thank George and Millie Griffith for their generous donation of eight remarkable American Regionalist works to the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation's permanent collection.

California, Seen would not have been possible without the generous support of American Express, the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Gordon and Ruth Dougherty Foundation, the Port of Long Beach, Farmers & Merchants Bank, Bess J. Hodges Foundation, the B.C. McCabe Foundation, Bud and Mary Ellen Kilsby, Sandy Hunter and others. Special thanks to S. Baba and J. Cummins Keck.

 

About the author

Ronald C. Nelson is Executive Director of the Long Beach Museum of Art.

 

About California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970

The Long Beach Museum of Art is presenting California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970 from September 26, 2008 to April 5, 2009. The exhibit examines the important California Scene Painting movement through paintings and prints depicting the rural, urban, and changing landscape of southern California by such featured artists as Loren Roberta Barton, Emil Kosa, Phil Dike, Leon Amyx and Charles Keck -- some of the most well-known California Scene practitioners.

As opposed to the often dark and brooding realist styles from other parts of the country, many of the works in California, Seen were painted in vibrant watercolor. The medium, owing its popularity to the radiant climate of southern California, allowed artists to work outdoors and capture their "scenes" at specific moments when the natural light was ideal. (Oil paints being generally too messy and unwieldy to transport and use away from the studio). Although often dealing with heady issues of social realism, urbanism and industrialization, California Scene painters generally portrayed their environments as fresh, energetic bastions of natural beauty and American ingenuity. To provide context, the exhibition begins with works representing the regionalist movements that were popular in the Midwest and New York, including works by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and others.

California, Seen will be enjoyed by approximately 20,000 visitors, and roughly 2,500 Long Beach Unified School District students. The Museum is planning a full spectrum of free educational activities for children and adults that will explore the themes, historical background and artistic techniques presented in the exhibition. Activities include lectures, artist discussions and tours, as well as artmaking activities for both children and adults, including opportunities to paint outdoors as did many of the artists in the exhibition. Additionally, the Museum will provide students and their teachers with California, Seen programming through the Museum's KidsVisions program that targets all of the District's fifth-grade classes, and the Transitional Art Program that provides all 200 students at Bethune Transitional School for Homeless Students with visual arts lessons and hands-on activities at their school site and at the Museum.

 

Images of selected artworks for California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970

 

(above: Dana Bartlett, California Coast, Laguna, 1936, Watercolor on paper, 14 1/2 x 19 1/4 inches. Federal Art Project, Collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art 85-6.17. Long Beach Museum of Art)

 

(above: Leonard Cutrow, Transition, 1947, Watercolor on paper, 20 x 28 inches. Gift of Allan Cutrow and Robert Cutrow 2004.85. Long Beach Museum of Art)

To view five additional images for the exhibition please click here.

 

Checklist for California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970

Working Checklist as of Thursday, August 28, 2008

 
1.
Charles Keck
The Evangelist, 1939
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 23 inches
Frame: 27 1/2 x 33 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
2.
Ed Reep
Pergolas at Venice, ca. 1945
Watercolor on paper
Image: 12 x 19 1/2 inches
Frame: 24 x 32 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
3.
Charles Keck
Full Service, ca. 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 23 inches
Frame: 27 x 35 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
4.
Charles Keck
The Shoe Shiners on Santa Monica Blvd., 1936
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 23 inches
Frame: 27 x 35 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
5.
Leon Amyx
Lettuce Weeders, 1939
Watercolor on paper
Image: 20 x 15 inches
Frame: 30 x 25 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
6.
Joseph Weisman
Rolling Steel, ca. 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 12 1/2 x 16 inches
Frame: 20 x 23 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
7.
Robert Caples
Soldier in the Barracks, 1943
Watercolor on paper
Image: 10 x 12 inches
Frame: 21 x 23 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
8.
Joseph Weisman
Backyards of North Broadway, 1940
Oil on board
Image: 15 x 20 1/2 inches
Frame: 21 x 27 inches
Courtesy of California Art Gallery
 
9.
Hugh Duncan
Dockside, San Pedro, ca. 1950
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 21 1/2 inches
Frame: 27 x 34 inches
Courtesy of California Art Gallery
 
10.
Joseph Weisman
Hollenbeck Park (Rabbis on Park benches), ca 1930s
Watercolor on paper
Image: 10 1/2 x 15 inches
Frame: 18 x 22 inches
Collection of Sandy Hunter
 
11.
Dave Fox
Figueroa Interchange, ca. 1950
Watercolor on paper
Sheet: 14 3/4 x 22 inches
Dave Fox and Family Collection
 
12.
George Post
San Francisco Homes, 1950
Watercolor on paper
Image: 24 x 18 inches
Private Collection
 
13.
Phil Dike
Newport Jetty, 1950
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 x 22 inches
Private Collection
 
14.
Charles Keck
At Dusk, 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches
Private Collection
 
15.
Emil Kosa Jr.
Port Hueneme, 1937
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 x 22 inches
Private Collection
 
16.
Emil Kosa Jr.
Fish Harbor, 1949
Watercolor on paper
Image: 21 x 28 inches
Private Collection
 
17.
Leon Amyx
Hill Country Near Chino, 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 23 inches
Private Collection
 
18.
Charles Keck
Big Sky and Red Roof, 1941
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 1/2 x 22 inches
Private Collection
 
19.
Emil Kosa Jr.
The Wonder of it All, 1939
Oil on masonite
Image: 23 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches
Private Collection
 
20.
Leon Amyx
Watermelon Vendor, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Sheet: 15 x 22 inches
Gift of the Leon Amyx Estate 2007.119
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
21.
Leon Amyx
Mystery Houses, 1940
Watercolor on paper
Sheet: 22 x 28 inches
Gift of the Estate of Leon Amyx 2005.59
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
22.
Phil Dike
The Fleet, 1931
Oil on canvas
Image: 26 x 30 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by the 2005 Long Beach Museum of Art Collectors Circle 2005.54
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
23.
Charles Keck
Bean Hopper, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 22 inches
Purchased by the 2007 Long Beach Museum of Art Collectors Circle with additional funds provided by Long Beach BMW 2007.25
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
24.
Leon Amyx
Farm in the Pomona Hills, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Sheet: 15 x 23 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by Earl and Margaret Leake 2005.57
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
25.
George Gibson
Near Gorman, 1966
Oil on canvas
Image: 24 x 36 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by Charles and Jean Lane 2005.58
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
26.
Dorothy Sklar
Carnival, 1945
Watercolor on paper
Image: 26 1/4 x 32 1/4 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by Dennis and Suzanne Poulsen and Luther and Ginger Nussbaum 2007.24
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
27.
Charles Keck
San Pedro, 1937
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 x 23 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by Charles and Margaret Durnin and Luther and Ginger Nussbaum 2005.55
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
28.
Leonard Cutrow
The Gravel Pit, ca. 1950
Watercolor on paper
Image: 20 x 28 inches
Gift of Allan Cutrow and Robert Cutrow 2004.83
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
29.
Leonard Cutrow
Transition, 1947
Watercolor on paper
Image: 20 x 28 inches
Gift of Allan Cutrow and Robert Cutrow 2004.85
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
30.
Leonard Cutrow
The Plaza, 1948
Watercolor on paper
Image: 20 x 26 inches
Gift of Allan Cutrow and Robert Cutrow 2004.84
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
31.
Gladys Gray
Give Us This Day, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Image: 21 x 28 1/2 inches
Gift of the artist 57-8.3
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
32.
Loren Roberta Barton
San Pedro, ca. 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 17 1/2 x 22 5/8 inches
Purchased with funds contributed by Lewis Shiro and Andrew Maldonado 2007.22
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
33.
Jack Laycox
The Pike, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Image: 22 1/4 x 30 inches
Gift of Sandy Hunter 2007.18
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
34.
Emil Kosa, Jr.
Cove, 1930s
Charcoal on paper
Image: 10 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches
Gift of Wilfred Davis Fletcher 2007.16
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
35.
Dana Bartlett
California Coast, Laguna, 1936
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 1/2 x 19 1/4 inches
Federal Art Project, Collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art 85-6.17
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
36.
Dana Bartlett
A Laguna Hill Top, 1936
Watercolor on paper
Image: 14 x 19 inches
Federal Art Project, Collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art 85-6.18
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
37.
Greta Lindroth
Los Trabajores
Watercolor on paper
Sheet: 14 3/4 x 19 5/8 inches
Gift of the artist 57-8.30
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
38.
Leon Amyx
Road along Salinas river bottom, 1941
Watercolor on paper
Image: 22 5/8 x 29 3/8 inches
Collection of Dr. Jeffery Mitchell D.H.M.
 
39.
Leon Amyx
Laborers in Claremont,
Watercolor on paper
Image: 35 x 42 1/4 inches
Collection of Dr. Jeffery Mitchell D.H.M.
 
40.
Charles Keck
Untitled, ca. 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 28 1/4 x 35 1/4 inches
Collection of Dr. Jeffery Mitchell D.H.M.
 
41.
Orpha Klinker
Boats at Fish Harbor, 1930s
Oil on canvas
Frame: 24 x 28 x 1 1/2 inches
Collection of Don and Madeline Heimark
 
42.
Orpha Klinker
Untitled, 1930s
Oil on canvas
Frame: 24 x 25 7/8 x 1 1/2 inches
Collection of Don and Madeline Heimark
 
43.
Millard Sheets
7th Street Bridge Construction, 1927
Watercolor on paper
Frame: 18 x 19 inches
Collection of Ken Davis and Luis Morente
 
44.
William Wallett
The Picnic, 1960s
Watercolor on paper
Frame: 21 x 25 inches
Collection of Ken Davis and Luis Morente
 
45.
George Gibson
Malibu Winter, 1956
Watercolor on paper
Image: 22 x 30 inches
Private Collection of Jean Gibson- Gorrindo and Keith Gorrindo
 
46.
Charles Payzant
Circus Tent Interior, 1940
Watercolor on paper
Image: 17 1/2 x 26 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
47.
Mary Blair
Chicken Coops, 1935
Watercolor on paper
Image: 20 x 13 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
48.
Don David
Point Magu, 1940s
Watercolor on paper
Image: 22 x 15 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
49.
Don David
Old Farm, Sacramento Valley, 1939
Watercolor on paper
Image: 12 1/2 x 20 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
50.
Edward Reep
Catalina Island, California, 1930s
Watercolor on paper
Image: 24 x 18 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
51.
Charles Payzant
The Fisherman, 1939
Watercolor on paper
Image: 13 1/2 x 17 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
52.
Millard Sheets
Incoming Soldiers on Arrival, 1944
Watercolor on paper
Image: 15 1/2 x 23 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
53.
Art Riley
Pan Am Clipper, 1935
Watercolor on paper
Image: 22 x 15 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
54.
Emil Kosa, Jr.
Lighthouse
Watercolor on paper
Image: 29 x 21 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
55.
Emil Kosa, Jr.
Marine Supplies
Watercolor on paper
Image: 21 x 29 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
56.
Phil Dike
Pirates Cove, Corona del Mar, late 1940s
Oil on canvas
Approx. size: 9 x 12 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
57.
Ben Messick
Barnes Circus
Oil on canvas
Image: 10 x 12 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
58.
Ben Messick
At the Santa Monica Pier
Pastel on paper
Image: 18 x 23 inches
Collection of Craig Barto
 
59.
John Steuart Curry
Sanctuary, 1944
Lithograph on paper
Sheet: 11 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches
Gift of Mr. & Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.9
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
60.
Thomas Hart Benton
Edge of Town, 1938
Lithograph on paper
Image: 9 x 10 3/4 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Fadiman 58-9.68
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
61.
Thomas Hart Benton
Rainy Day, 1938
Lithograph on paper
Sheet: 8 3/4 x 13 15/16 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Fadiman 58-9.69
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
62.
Irwin Hoffman
Puerto Rican Folk Song
Etching on paper
Image: 11 x 13 7/8 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.15
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
63.
John Costigan
Workers of the Soil, 1947
Etching
Image: 12 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.14
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
64.
Thomas Hart Benton
Loading Corn, 1945
Lithograph
Image: 11 1/2 x 16 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.10
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
65.
Harry Sternberg
Blast Furnace, 1946
Etching on paper
Image: 15 x 12 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.12
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
66.
Lawrence Beall Smith
Windy Hill, 1948
Lithograph
Image: 12 x 16 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Griffith 90.11
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
67.
Ben Messick
Circus Parade, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Image: 18 15/16 x 24 7/8 inches
Gift of the artist 57-8.15
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
68.
Boris Deutsch
Untitled, 1944
Pastel on paper
Image: 20 x 14 inches
Gift of the Estate of Boris Deutsch 83-4.02
Long Beach Museum of Art
 
69.
Ben Messick
Belmont Pier, 1945
Oil on board
Image: 34 x 26 inches
Collection of Steve Holmes
 
70.
Ben Messick
Midway, 1938
Oil on canvas
Image: 19 x 25 inches
Collection of Steve Holmes
 
71.
Ben Messick
Spit and Argue (Juvenile Regatta), 1932
Oil on canvas
Image: 30 x 34 1/2 inches
Collection of Steve Holmes

Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mr. Ed Fosmire, Director of Development and Marketing, Long Beach Museum of Art, for his assistance concerning permission granted to Resource Library on October 8, 2008 for republishing of Ronald C. Nelson's brochure essay.

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