Laguna Art Museum

Laguna Beach, California

949.494.8971

www.lagunaartmuseum.org



an essay in connection with...

Art Colonies and American Impressionism

January 9 through April 11, 1999

 

What Made Laguna Beach Special

by Deborah Epstein Solon

 

 

 

Hubbard Goff built the first hotel in the area in Arch Beach during the mid-1880s (Arch Beach and Laguna Beach were separate communities). By 1886 Henry Goff, Hubbard's brother, had opened a hotel in Laguna Beach. Nonetheless, the most popular spot for tourists was on the beach itself in "tent cities." Residents from as far away as Riverside and Santa Ana literally pitched tents by the shore to escape the summer heat in the cities, thereby obtaining free accommodations.44

An earlier watershed for Laguna Beach had been the arrival of Joseph Yoch, his wife, Kate Isch Yoch, and their family in 1888. Yoch, originally from Illinois, was one of the first wealthy individuals to settle in Laguna. Recognizing the need for reasonable lodging, Yoch financed the Brooks Hotel, built in downtown Laguna in 1893, but it was destroyed by fire almost immediately after opening.45 When the Goff brothers' establishments fell victim to economic decline in the 1880s, Yoch purchased them. Faced with the high cost and difficulty of obtaining lumber in Laguna, he literally brought both hotels together by cutting up one structure and joining it to the other, thus creating the Hotel Laguna in the late 1890s. To ensure the hotel's success, he invited the wealthy and famous to Laguna, even providing exclusive transportation for hotel visitors. Joseph Kleitsch's Hotel Laguna is a wonderful image of this Laguna landmark.

While the Yochs were great supporters of the town's artist population and opened their hotel to art exhibitions (for example, Norman St. Clair had an exhibition there in 1906), the Hotel Laguna was not a magnet for artists in the same way as the Holley House or Griswold House.46 Where artists stayed during these early years must be pieced together, since there are no extant records. By 1906 there was a boarding house in Laguna called the Breakers, which operated primarily during the summer. According to a newspaper account, William Swift Daniell held a one-person exhibition there in 1906, and he may have resided there as well, though another report states that he rented a cottage on the beach for himself and his family.47

Several artists rented cottages and rooms from local residents. William Lees Judson's summer students were "domiciled in the old Yoch cottages-picturesque landmarks of pioneer days."48 In addition to the hotel the Yoch family owned rental cottages at the beach. Frank Cuprien and others rented rooms from local residents before building their own studios. One woman recalled that in approximately 1914, she "stopped at a house with a lovely verandah overhanging the water. A hospitable woman came and took us in out of the rain, into a charming large room and then downstairs to the studio of one Cuprien, whose pictures of the sea and the cliffs of Arch Beach she showed us."49 J.N. (Nick) Isch, proprietor of the general store, post office, and livery stable, and brother-in-law to Joseph Yoch, owned the most famous cottage of the period, appropriately named the Paint Box. When it succumbed to fire in 1926, the notice stated:

"The Paint Box went up in flames last Monday night, and with it the aura of romance that has enveloped it since its building twenty-two years ago by Nick Isch. The place has been the home of more famous celebrities than any other house in Laguna Beach. It has always been the Mecca for the artistic and literary set because of the folks within its walls."50

The Paint Box housed many artists over the years, including Norman St. Clair, Emily White, Donna Schuster, Edgar Payne, Mabel Alvarez, and the photographer George Hurrell. James McBurney, who was teaching a group of eight women in Laguna during the summer of 1912, rented the cottage.51 In all probability, Isch bartered food and lodging for paintings, for his collection, according to a 1911 newspaper report, included works by "Elmer Wachtel, Gardner Symons, Hanson Puthuff, Edward [sic] Payne, Norman St. Clair, Nona White and William Griffith. . . ."52

The Yoch hotel and the Isch general store are often cited as Laguna's social gathering spots. Considering that two of the three phones in town were located in the hotel and general store, which was the only place to buy groceries and receive mail, it is not surprising that people congregated there. Nevertheless, neither the fraternity-like atmosphere of Cos Cob or Old Lyme, or the insularity of Shinnecock's Art Village existed in Laguna Beach during the early twentieth century.

Still, artists came to Laguna and actively sought out each other's company. Norman St. Clair urged Granville Redmond to visit Laguna, and the two painted there in 1903. Joining them that year were Elmer Wachtel and Gottardo Piazzoni. Gardner Symons purchased property in Arch Beach in 1903, and may have visited Laguna prior to this date.53 He enticed his friend William Wendt to visit, and, according to an article, they spent three months sketching and living in "an abandoned farmhouse in Laguna Canyon."54 The same article notes that Symons persuaded William Swift Daniell to come to Laguna which he did with his wife in 1905. Nona White, whose sister Emily White was a resident artist in Laguna, was known to have "wintered here" in 1907.55

In fact, by 1907 Antony Anderson, the critic for the Los Angeles Times (who became a part-time resident of Laguna Beach in 1921), claimed that artists such as William Lees Judson, Edith White, and Hanson Puthuff had also visited Laguna.56 In 1908 Conway Griffith was living in Arch Beach, and later established a studio on Glenneyre Street: "The quaint studio of Conway Griffith . . . is a much visited place during these summer days. Mr. Griffith keeps genial open house, and when there is no more room for guests in the studio proper the 'waiting list' occupy chairs in the attractive ramada."57

Benjamin Chambers Brown, The Jeweled Shore, oil on canvas, 34 x 36 inches, Private Collection

Frank Cuprien arrived in Laguna in 1912, where, according to his recollections, he had "come to spend a day in the village of which I had heard so much. Reports of its charm had not been exaggerated, I decided that day."58 Cuprien's first studio was on Catalina Island before he moved to Laguna and built a studio dubbed "The Viking."

The artists who visited and ultimately stayed in Laguna would have found communal living impractical for their pictorial agendas. Southern California Impressionist painters did not practice a "typical" Impressionism, either thematically or stylistically.59 William Gerdts has stated that "California Impressionists did not remain committed to a single aesthetic and some veered away from traditional Impressionist practice, though many of them reiterated certain landscape and figurative themes." 60 Certainly they did share points of affiliation with their Eastern counterparts, especially in their preoccupation with landscape painting, however, artists painting in Laguna Beach were not interested in the cultivated landscape of residences and home gardens that attracted Eastern painters.

Art historian Lisa Peters has stated that "American Impressionists portrayed a kind of accessible nature. . .[they] portrayed homes from close-up vantage points and depicted the world they found by looking out of their front and back doors and by standing in their gardens and in those of their neighbors. 61 Scenes such as George Burr's Old Lyme Garden , painted on the grounds of his home in Connecticut, or Edmund W. Greacen's The OId Garden, depicting Florence Griswold's garden in Old Lyme, substantiate that observation.

The old-fashioned "Grandmother's garden" a symbol of home and hearth, had become a pictorial metaphor for traditional values and family life in the early twentieth century, Many American Impressionists cultivated their own informal gardens, which were then used as models in their works.62

Domesticated gardens were at a premium in the Laguna area during this period; the terrain was rugged and uncultivated. The natural landscape offered a colorful alternative: poppies, lupines, bougainvillea, and wildflowers of all sorts populate California Impressionist painting. Works such as Granville Redmond's astounding landscapes of the poppies and lupines that blanket California hillsides in the spring, including Silver and Gold , were not executed in a domestic setting. William Griffith's In Laguna Canyon and William Wendt's Twilight were painted on treks into the canyons and foothills. Painters often spent days camping out, in less than favorable conditions, to accomplish these scenes:

"If you think the life of the successful landscape painter is one long paeon of joy, prepare to modify your opinion. . . .Every landscape painter must prepare to be a pack mule, strong, stubborn, unbreakable as to arms, legs and back. Consider the things he must carry under a broiling sun, three, six, or even nine miles up hill and down dale, through brush, over rattlesnakes and tarantulas. A huge stretched canvas, a big easel, a bigger umbrella and a heavy box of paints, many brushes, a palette. . . .The painter shoulders it without a murmur, and after three hours of tramping sits joyfully down. . .and proceeds to paint a masterpiece or something not quite so good. I tell you, our landscape painters are our heroes, men of iron! "63

The commitment to recording uncultivated locales, to examining grandiose vistas, required an independent and self-sufficient individual, more content with the company of nature than the company of others. Will South has noted that in many ways the mantle of the Hudson River School painters, in terms of recording grandiloquent landscapes replete with moral and religious underpinnings, was assumed by many California Impressionist painters.64 For Hudson River School painters, the majestic landscape, ancient and enduring, offered validation for a country that was politically and socially immature. The unspoiled Southern California landscape offered significance to a newly born state, with its nascent communities.

Although landscape was the dominant theme, not all artists working in Laguna were completely dedicated to it. Artists depicted various subjects, including seascapes, still lifes, and portraits. Joseph Kleitsch, for example, who arrived in Laguna in 1920, was a multifaceted artist. 65 Unlike the majority of California Impressionists, Kleitsch enthusiastically painted the town of Laguna in such works as The Green House, Laguna Beach, and The Old Post Office. His renditions of Laguna are decidedly unsentimental, and reveal ramshackle buildings and unpaved roads, set against the backdrop of the hills. These scenes do not reflect the political and social battles unfolding within the town that would soon impact on this unspoiled vision.

Almost concurrent with Kleitsch's arrival, Laguna began to enter a rapid period of growth. One of the most dedicated of pure landscape painters, William Wendt was drawn to Laguna's enduring charm. William Gerdts has characterized Wendt (along with Guy Rose) as one of the "two most significant and original painters in Southern California in the first three decades of the twentieth century."66 Wendt was at the epicenter of Impressionism's ascendancy in Southern California. He was the brightest star in the constellation of the California Art Club, Los Angeles's most powerful force promoting Impressionism during the early teens. In spite of his connection to Los Angeles, and to other major cities where his work was exhibited, Wendt preferred the quiet life of Laguna. He has been described as something of a recluse, but this may be a stilted characterization.67 His trademark became a thick, blocky Impressionist brush stroke that he used to construct and pattern his canvases.

The Overton Cottage and Old Highway and Seaside Cottages are two quite different views of Laguna Beach. Wendt created several images of the coast road before its incarnation as the Pacific Coast Boulevard in 1926. This gentle, serpentine stretch, punctuated by cottages and groves of eucalyptus trees, became a bone of contention during this period. The new road, which linked Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano, was built in sections throughout the 1920s. Its completion signaled a line of demarcation in Laguna's history. The following year the city incorporated (having waited until the road was finished so that the County would assume the financial burden),68 and the improved accessibility brought increased development, traffic, and commerce to the area.

Seaside Cottages was a departure for Wendt. Painting from above in his studio, Wendt looked down and chronicled the cottages and roads, using patterns and shifts in viewpoint to create a rich visual puzzle. That the artist could take.a pedestrian subject, cottage rooftops, and make it pictorially engaging was remarked by contemporary critics: "As far as life and letters go, it's an old story that it does not matter what you do but how you do it. And it is equally true about painting. Anyone who can take a group of nondescript, unlovely summer shacks perched on a steep hill in sight of the ocean and make a seaside epic, well that's painting." 69

While artists working in the Connecticut colonies and Shinnecock generally avoided painting pure seascapes, few painters in Laguna ignored the ocean's allure. Frank Cuprien, who achieved a sort of mythical status among Laguna painters, was among the early artists devoted to seascapes. Known as the "dean of the art colony," he played an active role in the community during his many years as a resident. Poeme du Soir, although a typical subject, was a departure stylistically for the artist. Cuprien's seascapes generally are tightly constructed and fairly traditional in their treatment of water and sky. This work is much more Impressionistic in its conception. Yellow, the dominant hue, is used to describe both the sea and sky in the background; shades of purple punctuate the horizon line and breaking waves. The color is applied in large sections, creating patterns and contrast.

Other artists responded to the proximity of the sea. In Gardner Symons's Under a Blue Sky, the artist.interpreted the kinetic forces of the ocean with broad painterly strokes, forcefully applied, to imply the power of the waves breaking against the rocks. A more subdued vision is presented by Guy Rose in Laguna Rocks, Low Tide and Laguna Shores. A frequent visitor, although never a resident, Rose loved Laguna's coastal weather and haunting landscape.

Given the steady increase in the number of artists working in separate studios by the end of the teens, it is not surprising that establishing an art association in Laguna with an exhibition gallery became a priority'. Many precedents existed for this. Members of the colony at Old Lyme began to exhibit together as a group as early as 1902. In 1914 the Lyme Art Association was founded and the Lyme Art Gallery opened seven years later.70 At Cos Cob, the Greenwich Society of Artists was established in January 1912, and the society's first annual exhibition of painting and sculpture was held in September of that year.71 Although Shinnecock had no actual association, there were exhibitions of students' work during the summer, and occasionally those shows traveled to cities such as New York of Philadelphia. In many ways, art associations were natural outgrowths of colonies and the need for artists to have convenient exhibition venues.

Guy Rose, Laguna Rocks, Low Tide, oil on canvas, 21 x 24 inches

The Laguna Beach Art Association was officially established in 1918. The drive was spearheaded by Edgar Payne, who moved to Laguna Beach in 1917 with his wife, Elsie.72 Payne galvanized the community of established artists, including Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Gardner Symons, and William Wendt, along with others, to form an alliance. Payne sought to create a nucleus for the colony. The first step was to establish an art gallery. The abandoned community house was judged an appropriate site, and with monies collected from artists and local individuals, repairs were made to the building. Frank Cuprien recounted:

"In the summer of 1918 we fixed up the ramshackle old building with the assistance of Nick Isch. First we drove the bats out of the building and built a skylight in the roof. We whitewashed the walls and oiled the old floors. Later on we had a sewing bee, with all the ladies of the town present, and covered the walls with burlap. Everybody worked like Trojans.73

The gallery opened on July 27, 1918. Twenty-five artists contributed nearly a hundred pieces for the exhibition and attendance records for the first three weeks show that nearly two thousand people came to the gallery.74 On the heels of this success, the Laguna Beach Art Association was founded on August 22, 1918, with one hundred and fifty charter members, thirty-five of whom were artists. By the following year the number of members had grown to three hundred, and attendance had skyrocketed to nearly fifteen thousand visitors during the year.

The importance and success of the art gallery and association in Laguna cannot be overestimated. Looking to Los Angeles, for example, its Museum of History, Science and Art was not founded until 1913, despite earlier efforts to organize an arts institution. The Oakland Art Gallery [now The Oakland Museum] opened in 1916. The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego [now the San Diego Museum of Art] was not opened until 1926. Within the context of these developments, Laguna Beach played a seminal role in the burgeoning artistic atmosphere in California. However, the resources available to those who pioneered the gallery and association in Laguna were so limited in comparison to those of these cities, that the inception and realization of their project was quite remarkable.

According to the Laguna Beach City Directory for 1918, only twelve artists were full-time residents of the town, out of a population of over two hundred and twenty-five. Eight others artists were paying taxes on homes or lots.75 Several artists spent significant time in Laguna, but were not year-round residents. That these few determined individuals could engineer this project, and then engage the town's participation, bespeaks its importance. In Cuprien's words:

"Everybody realized that the Gallery was the cultural center of the community and that it must be supported. Everybody worked for it without animosity or argument. Each resident took his turn as a volunteer curator. Every Saturday night was Open House at the Gallery. Lagunans groped their way down the narrow dark streets, lighted lanterns in their hands. On cold nights they brought their own oil stoves. Even on the stormiest of nights a few of us plowed through the mud, stoves and lanterns in our hands, and kept the Gallery going in case anyone should wander in. We were determined to keep it going; we knew what it would mean to the future of the town."76

Keeping the gallery alive allowed for the even greater achievement that was to come in 1929. During the 1920s, as the Art Association grew, the need for another building, a fireproof structure, was apparent. Private funding efforts were made to secure a new building. On February 16, 1929, the Laguna Beach Art Association became the first venue in Southern California built solely for exhibiting painting and sculpture.

As the bastion of California Impressionism, Laguna Beach stood alone as a colony in Southern California in the early twentieth century. Its closest analogues were in Monterey and Carmel, the two art colonies just outside the Bay Area that flourished in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. Although the dominant aesthetic in the Bay Area was Tonalist, several Impressionist painters, such as Evelyn McCormick, John Gamble, Mary De Neale Morgan, and E. Charlton Fortune, were active on the Monterey Peninsula. In fact, it was Fortune who invited William Merritt Chase to Carmel in 1914, where he taught summer classes.77 In spite of shared interests, however, there was little exchange between artists in Laguna and Monterey and Carmel, with the exception of Donna Schuster, who studied with Chase during the summer of 1914 and maintained a studio in Laguna, and the ubiquitous Guy Rose.

Geographic distances were a contributing factor, but even artists who lived in colonies geographically nearby, such as Old Lyme, Cos Cob, Shinnecock, and elsewhere, tended to maintain a strong allegiance to one particular place (Childe Hassam notwithstanding). There was even a certain rivalry between camps, for example, among the summer students of Twachtman in Cos Cob and Chase's group in Shinnecock.78 Although' several artists also painted in East Coast colonies--Charles Reiffel at Silvermine, Connecticut; Alson Clark at Old Lyme; and Guy Rose in Connecticut--with the exception of Rose, there was little movement between artists in Laguna Beach and the East Coast.79

Laguna Beach remained significant as a colony far longer into the century than others. That was due, in part, to the fact that Impressionism ran its course longer in Southern California than in the East: it was still the dominant aesthetic in Laguna even into the 1930s. Although Impressionism was firmly ensconced in Los Angeles with the birth of the California Art Club in 1909, the roster of artists who were active in the club reads like a "who's who" of those who either lived or worked in Laguna Beach, including Benjamin Brown, Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills, Clarence Hinkle, Edgar Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, Guy Rose, Donna Schuster, Jack Wilkinson Smith, Karl Yens, and William Wendt (the club's president). Los Angeles, with its many galleries and dealers may have been the financial heart of Impressionism, but Laguna Beach was its soul.

By the 1920s the importance of both Cos Cob and Old Lyme as art colonies had diminished; Shinnecock's significance ran concurrent with the school's longevity. Artists in Laguna Beach, however, remained committed to keeping the colony viable. It remained significant as a colony in spite of the explosive aesthetic changes that have characterized the art of the twentieth century. Although conditions in Southern California were ripe in the beginning of the century for the practice of Impressionism, its overall development and success would have been dramatically altered without the community of artists who lived and worked in the seaside haven of Laguna Beach.

Return to Art Colonies and American Impressionists (9/1/98)

Footnotes: 1 -9, 10-25, 26-38, 39-54, 55-72, 73-79

Please Note: RLM does not endorse sites behind external links. We offer them for your additional research; external links were chosen on the basis of being the most informative online source at the time of our search.

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

rev. 7/23/10


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