The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra

Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches


A Leap from the Pedestal


"Women painters" or painters who happen to be of the female persuasion, historically have not shared in the fame and fortune which has accrued to male artists of equal and sometimes lesser talent. Quel surpris! The current film, Pollack, based on the life of "drip painter" Jackson Pollack, gives us a perfect example of how women's art has often been treated as second-class, something to be dabbled at in spare time. Upon first viewing her paintings, Pollack compliments Lee Krasner on being a "good woman painter". Once they became a couple, she subsequently all but abandons her art to promote his. She did not become a painter in her own right until well after his death.

The story remains the same, with some exceptions. Throughout art history from Rodin and Camille Claudel to Frieda and Diego, artist couples have unevenly weighed in on the side of the male partner. Berthe Morisot, although her paintings were great, was never accepted as "one of the boys" by the French Impressionists, nor by the public, for that matter. Mary Cassatt's paintings were, but they were of "safe" domestic subjects such as women and children.

In the 20th Century in California, Lucia and Arthur Mathews and Edgar and Elsie Palmer Payne perpetuated the tradition of artist's wife as helpmate. In an effort to balance the equation, women would sign their paintings with their first initials, so they would be presumed to be men. Euphemia Charlton Fortune of the Monterey Colony saw that signing her canvases with her full name would be a red flag to her gender. She signed them "E. Charlton Fortune" Anna Hills of the Laguna Beach Art Association became "A. Hills." An inability to get the proper training exacerbated the women's situation. Art clubs often kept women out, at least at first. Women were not allowed to paint from the nude in this country until well into the 20th Century, although they were often painted nude. Not surprisingly, San Francisco was one of the first cities to give women equal footing in the art schools. A photo from the book, Independent Spirits : Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 by Patricia Trenton (Editor), et al, has as its frontispiece, a large photograph of a turn-of-the Century painting class. A dozen or so women formally dressed in their stiff Victorian shirts and long skirts are at their easels staring at a nude male model, who sits demurely on a pedestal, his legs crossed modestly.

The current show at the Irvine Museum - A Woman's View: Paintings by Women Artists - takes a look at a number of the best-known women painters in California during the early 20th Century. The Museum, owned by Joan Irvine Smith, acknowledges the important roll these women played in California art history. A Woman's View takes the viewer from the golden years of Early California Impressionism with favorites such as Anna Hills and Marion Wachtel to the beginnings of Modernism with Mabel Alvarez, Donna Schuster and Elsie Palmer Payne.

Anna Hills is represented by two very different works. "When the Desert Blooms" encompasses a gigantic panorama of the Southern California desert, probably near Palm Springs. The lavender peaks of the San Gorgonio mountains loom in tile distance, while a riot of spring blooms litter the foreground. Her "Mission San Juan Capistrano" is a small plein air gem - the golden walls of the crumbling basilica broken only by a slash of turquoise sky peeking through a bell tower. Hills was President of the Laguna Beach Art Association for a number of years and co-founder of the Laguna Art Museum, along with Edgar Payne.

Elsie Palmer Payne, the long-suffering wife of painter Edgar Payne, is represented with "Morning Sunshine." A huge bouquet of zinnias explode from the canvas in a riot of color. The flat picture plane and decorative surface are a nod to Modernism that was making its way West from Europe. Donna Schuster was extremely independent and out-spoken for her time. She, too, broke with the traditional landscapes that were the mainstay of California art in the 1910's and 1920's. "Girl in the Mirror" painted early in her career in 1916, reflects the influence of American Impressionists such as William Merritt Chase. However, the "boudoir" setting cannot hide the frankness of her stare nor the determination in her pose. This is an independent women, not a prop, who may be bored with the "boudoir". Schuster often used herself as a model. Perhaps this is she, ready to scrap the traditional role of woman as decorative object and leap off of the pedestal. Or maybe she is just tired. Either way it is a great painting. There are also lovely watercolors by Marion Wachtel, who was married to painter Elmer Wachtel. They had an unusually egalitarian relationship, painting together and sharing the limelight. However, even she waited until Elmer's death to begin painting in oils. The show runs through the middle of May, 2001.

© Sarah Beserra, 2001

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Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. You may contact Sarah at or (707) 645-7361

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