The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra


Erle Loran: Berkeley Modernist

Coming to Elk, 1942, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches


The paintings of Erle Loran, artist, author, scholar, teacher and collector are featured at the California Heritage Gallery in San Francisco through June 12, 1999. A 60-year retrospective of his work, the show is a sampling of the evolution of Loran' s diverse styles from Post Impressionism, plein air landscape and scene painting through Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Loran is best known for his scene paintings from the 1930's and 40's and his book - Cezanne's Compositions - now in its tenth printing. Many of his watercolors of this period are featured in the exhibit. Loran came under the tutelage of early modernist Hans Hoffman at Berkeley in the 1930's and later taught Bay Area greats including Richard Dibenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Sam Francis.

Born in Minnesota, Loran's talent was recognized early when he won the Paris Prize in 1926 which entitled him to study in Paris for two years. The trip would prove a turning point in Loran's life. In Paris he saw the works of Picasso and other European modernists. But it was Cezanne's works that captured his heart. His fascination with that Post Impressionist master led him on a three-year odyssey through Cezanne country where Loran painted and photographed the countryside around Aix en Provence. So closely did he identify with Cezanne, that Loran arranged to live in his old house for three years. It was this experience that formed the basis for his later book Cezannes' Composition - a classic and still used in college classrooms today.

Shortly after the conclusion of his Provencal sojourn, the University of California asked Loran to join the faculty at Berkeley. This was a fertile period for Loran, beginning with his studies with Hoffman who brought European modernist philosophy and techniques to the United States. The seed money for the construction of the University Art Museum came out of this collaboration.

Watercolor was Loran's medium of choice because it dried fast and was lighter to transport to his often remote plein air locations. His landscapes of this period, often including a building or structure, are clean, fresh and spontaneous, using clear primary colors. Refined Oil Dock is a delightful period piece depicting an East Bay refinery in 1941. You see the modest brick buildings and shacks of the oil company silhouetted against the Golden Gate Bridge, a far cry from the behemoth metallic tanks and towers of today' s refineries.

Loran was intrigued with the ghost towns of California and Nevada and traveled many times to Virginia City and Bodie to paint on location. Louis Siegriest of the Society of Six lived and painted there after the War. Virginia City, 1931, is a playful view of a deserted street lined with dilapidated brick and wooden storefronts straight out of the Wild West, but with a distinctly Modernistic feel.

The accompanying catalogue tells the story of Loran' s transition from plein air painting to studio work. As the war in the Pacific intensified in the 1940's, domestic tensions mounted. Landscape painters were often seen as suspicious figures and occasionally mistaken for spies. Following one particularly tense instance when he was detained by an armed soldier, Loran exasperated, decided to stop painting directly en plein air and concentrate on abstraction.

A Midwesterner, schooled in Europe, and a leader in the Bay Area art scene for six decades, Loran was influential in most of the American art movements of the 20th Century. Now in his 94th year, he continues to live in the East Bay hills.

MALT Event Breaks Record

Wendy Schwartz, West County Barn, oil on wood

Landscape artists from Marin County and Santa Barbara's Oak Group succeeded in raising over $122,000 through the sale of their paintings to preserve farmlands in West Marin. Entitled Ranches and Rolling Hills, the show was held the weekend of May 8-9, 1999 at Druids Hall in the tiny West Marin hamlet of Nicasio.

MALT, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, sponsors of the event, held a $50 per head luncheon prior to the sale and by Sunday afternoon had sold over 150 paintings. A large landscape over 60" square by Marin County veteran painter Ralph Borge - Walker Creek Ouiflow - sold for a record price of $17,500.

Oak Group founder and veteran painter Ray Strong appeared at the two-day event along with other Oak Group members. Participating Marin County artists were: Ralph and Martba Borge, Willard Dixon, Bob Evans, Susan Hall, Kathryn LeMieux, Rick Lyttle, Zee Zee Mott, Jeri Quinn Ane Rovetta, Wendy Schwartz, Gary Smith and Tom Wood.

Ed: See a book on Oak Group members: Ranchos - Santa Barbara Land Grant Ranches.

"Artists for Action" Paint Mt. Diablo

Betty Boggess Lathrap, Fall Finery for the Mountain, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches

Seventeen plein air painters from Contra Costa County staged a paint out April 6, 1999 to support preservation of the Mt. Diablo Gatewood Parcel, a picturesque 36-acre property which is a favorite locale for plein air painters, hikers and bird watchers. A proposed development of 34 houses threatens the area's scenic quality and will damage the public's investment in nearby open space, according to painter and spokesperson Shirley Nootbaar. "Development here would spoil the visual corridor, a favorite landscape for local artists," she said.

The Mt. Diablo Gateway Alliance and Save Mt. Diablo, a group of Northgate neighbors, are negotiating with the Flood Control District to buy the property. Monies raised from the paintings will contribute to this effort.

Participating artists include, Ruth Breve, Betty Boggess Lathrap, Bob Chapla, Mary Lou Correia, Pam Della, Susan Dennis, Warren Dreher, John Finger, Pam Glover, JoAnn Hanna, Peg Humphreys, Jeanne Kapp, Eunice Kritscher, Cathy Moloney, Shirley Nootbaar, Charlotte Panton and Greg Platt. Ultimately, the fate of the Mt. Diablo Gateway parcel will be decided by the Flood Control District and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

© Sarah Beserra, 1999

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

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