Distinguished Artist Series

 

Edgar and Elsie Payne

by Rena Neumann Coen

(Introduction to the book The Paynes, Edgar and Elsie: American Artists)

 

Among California artists, Edgar Alwin Payne and his wife, Elsie Palmer Payne, have been accorded unequal recognition. Each created a body of work that is distinct, original, and thoroughly professional, yet Edgar earned for himself an established place as a leader of the California landscape painters while his wife's work has been largely ignored. The reason for this may be that Elsie, throughout her life, was far more active in promoting her husband's work than her own. But even more important is the fact that while Edgar's paintings fitted right into the mainstream of the Southern California plein air landscape tradition, rising indeed to the very height of that genre, Elsie's work, by contrast, was not focused primarily on nature, but rather on the people around her, and thus lay outside the dominant style of the region.

While her husband was celebrating California's sunny groves and rugged mountains, Elsie was turning out drawings and paintings that had less to do with dramatic landscapes than with local neighborhood or genre themes. This difference prevailed even when the Paynes travelled together in Europe, where Edgar concentrated on the snowy peaks of the Alps or the colorful fishing boats in the harbors of Italy and France, while Elsie directed her attention to the human element in the Old World towns they visited. And even when Elsie did paint landscapes, they were drawn in a flat, decorative style that was quite different from Edgar's, and in fact typical of northern California rather than the south. For, unlike Edgar, who came from the central states and was largely self-taught, Elsie grew up and went to school in the San Francisco Bay area where, though there were Impressionist painters there too, the decorative, linear style of Arthur and Lucia Mathews was more pervasive.

Moreover, Elsie had worked successfully as a commercial artist in the years prior to her marriage, and she retained throughout her life a feeling for strong pattern and expressive line that set her apart from the Impressionist landscapists with whom she and Edgar associated. And though both of them had reservations about the modernist art of the twentieth century and its denial of the visual experience as a basis for the artist's work, Elsie nevertheless was closer to them than to the Impressionists with her insistence that pictorial reality was a function of the artists personal vision which need not strive to capture on canvas the visual truth of nature even in all its vibrant and light-filled moods.

Indeed, while Edgar was using the broken color technique and broad brushwork of the Impressionists to achieve his vivid suggestions of nature's transient moments, it is to the Post-Impressionist painters that we must look for a parallel to Elsie's intuitive imagination. Closer to home some of the painters of the Taos, New Mexico school, especially Emest L. Blumenschein (whom the Paynes knew) provide a similar correspondence to her work. Like them, Elsie gently, but insistently, reminds us that the picture is a flat, two-dimensional surface upon which an arrangement of color and form, developed through an expressive line, shapes the patterns of the composition and defines its subject.

Though references to Edgar Payne's paintings are found in numerous reviews, newspaper articles and exhibition catalogues, reports of Elsie's work are scattered and meager. This is so in spite of the fact that she was active as a California artist for six decades, and lived for many years in Beverly Hills where, during her separation from Edgar Payne, she taught art and maintained a studio and gallery. Both before that separation and after it, notices of Elsie's work, if found at all, appear as off-hand references in the many articles devoted to Edgar's career. "His wife was also an artist," we read, with no further elaboration.

Or more fulsomely, in another account, "Elsie exhibited her tempera drawings winning warm praise from the critics." Just what attracted that praise is not disclosed, nor are there many mentions, much less listings, of Elsie's paintings in specific identified exhibitions and catalogues. Nevertheless, one perceptive observer, Arthur Millier, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, noted of Elsie's work that "although she has painted side by side with her artist husband, no trace of his style invades hers -- she shows a very definite viewpoint of her own."

The close relationship between creative talents who are married to each other has never been adequately studied, though such an examination offers a unique opportunity for investigating the influences of proximity of the most intimate kind on the style of two separate artists.

Though a psychological analysis of the Paynes relationship would undoubtedly reveal much that is paradigmatic of creative individuals working together yet essentially competing with each other, such an inquiry is outside the scope of this book.

From an art historical point of view, however, by contrasting their artistic output, particularly in the same or very similar subject, it is possible to discover and illuminate that which is special to each artist. It is for that purpose, therefore, that this examination of Edgar and Elsie Payne's work is undertaken in an attempt to remove Elsie's achievements from the powerful shadow of her husband's and to accord to both Edgar and Elsie their due in the history of art in California.

The Paynes - Edgar and Elsie: American Artists is available through DeRus Fine Art Books.

 

From top to bottom: EAP, Vista through Sycamores, Ojai Vallery, oil on canvas, 28 x 34 inches, Edgar and Elsie Payne, 1912 photo; EAP, The Restless Sea, 43.3 x 31 inches, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. James V. Sweetser. All Rights Reserved; EAP, Marco Polo Relic, Adriatic ( Thus Did We Sail for the Doge)42 x 42 inches, oil on canvas; EAP, Sunset, Canyon de Chelley, 26 x 32 inches, oil on canvas; EPP, A Decent Burial, 17 x 21 inches, watercolor; courtesy of Laguna Art Museum; EPP, Thrifty Drug Store in the '30s, 28 x 34 inches, oil on canvas; EPP, Bus Stop, 30 x 25 inches, oil on canvas; EAP, Santa Barbara; Sketch for American Theater mural: Spanish Exploration, 14.4 x 9.5 inches, gouache, courtesy of Ann-Marie Boyce Collection; EAP, Canyon Portals, 25 x 30 inches, oil on canvas, The Paynes, 1913 photo.

For biographical information on artists referenced above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 6/30/10


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