The Californian Plein-air School

William Wendt. Cup of Gold. 30 x 40 inches, 1901

William Wendt. Cup of Gold. 30 x 40 inches, 1901

Having  just returned from California, I thought I’d do a post about the local 19th and early 20th century painting school. I’ve always preferred the term ‘Californian Impressionists’.

After talking with other Californians about these artists like no one else had ever held a brush to canvas, I arrived in New York and went painting with American artists from elsewhere in the U.S. and realized many painters have never heard of them outside of the Golden State.  As often happens with historic representational artists, their greatness is often only appreciated by those who live there and love the views they painted (even if, in the case of Southern California, very few of the views in their paintings exist any more).

What is more annoying is that some of the museums in California are in the process of ridding themselves of these paintings at the moment. This year the Orange County Museum sold 18 of its 20 Californian Impressionist paintings for a fraction of their market price to an unnamed private collector. The money they received was little more than what the museum intends on spending for an exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract drivel next year.

Guy Rose. Point Lobos, 1918

Guy Rose. Point Lobos, 1918

Hollywood supposedly started out as the center for film making because it never rains in Southern California and they could film outside all year long. You can imagine how well that worked for plein air painters as well.

Here are few of my favorites:

William Wendt (1865-1946)

"Where Nature's God Hath Wrought" 50 x 60 in., 1925

“Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought” 50 x 60 inches, 1925

You can still see this mountain north of Morro Bay. Already here he is developing into his later, more mannered style which I am less fond of. His earlier work has a wonderful naturalism (as in Cup of Gold above and A Clear Day below). The Irvine and Laguna museums have published a fantastic catalog of Wendt’s work with 320 pages of great color reproductions for only $30.

A Clear Day. 30 x 40 inches, 1903

A Clear Day. 30 x 40 inches, 1903

Guy Rose (1867 – 1925)

Most of Guy Rose’s paintings I’m not too fond of, but his seascapes are some of my all-time favorites. The Point Lobos above (a view which I painted while still a student many years ago) is superb and the view of the Carmel coast below captures the feel of the Monterey Bay so beautifully.  He has some of the most interesting brushwork of any plein air painter I’ve seen, and the paintings really need to be seen in person to be appreciated. In the meantime, you can see a lot of his work online here.

Carmel Seascape. 21 x 24 inches, 1918.

Carmel Seascape. 21 x 24 inches, 1918.

E. Charlton Fortune (1885 – 1969)

Euphemia Charlton Fortune was, like Guy Rose, another native Californian painter and she helped found the artist colony at Carmel, California. I know her work much better than the other painters as so much of it is regularly on display in Monterey area exhibits. She often has much more interesting compositions than her contemporaries and a boldness in her colors, while still managing to retain a wonderful naturalism. Unfortunately I could find very little online so I’ll have to get the scanner out when I have a free second.

Monterey Bay. 30 x 40 inches, 1916

Monterey Bay. 30 x 40 inches, 1916

Granville Redmond (1871 – 1935)

Granville Redmond’s best work is excellent, but he painted way too many of his ‘home run’ subject of the lupine and poppy fields of the Californian Spring for my taste. Apparently he (like other great landscape painters) suffered from depression throughout his life, which certainly doesn’t show in his high chroma subjects which are full of light, but does come through in his more melancholy sunset paintings. He told a critic in 1931 that he preferred to paint pictures of solitude and silence. “Alas,” he wrote, “people will not buy them. They all seem to want poppies.” Sounds familiar.

Poppies and Lupine. 1913

Poppies and Lupine. 1913

Twilight.

Twilight.

Other early Californian plein air painters to look at are Armin Hansen, William F. Ritschel, Percy Gray, and Edgar Payne.

The Californian Plein-air School was last modified: February 18th, 2013 by Marc Dalessio

10 comments

  1. I really like a lot of the California painters. That’s a shame about the museums getting rid of what is part of the states cultural heritage.

    Edgar Payne’s book “Composition of Outdoor Painting” is a highly recommended book.

    Payne also did a lot of work in Gloucester Massachusetts so I suppose is a bi-coastal painter.

  2. How cool to see CA impressionists in your blog! You are right about Wendt’s still-pristine view of Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought. It’s easily recognizable from Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, one of a series of rock formations known as The 9 Sisters, or morros (Spanish for pebble, rock, or crown depending on the source), the largest of which, Morro Rock, is surrounded by water. Technically, they are volcanic plugs dating from 25 million years ago! Hey. . .you should give Wendt’s morro a shot when you come back next time!

  3. Thanks so much for writing and posting this…I’ve mostly seen these painters in reproduction only, and it’s great to be reminded of their existence, and the work they did. I hope I can see some of the originals when I get to California sometime. I look forward to seeing some of Arthur Mathew’s paintings as well. Keep it coming!

  4. Museums are yesterday’s political technology, anyway. The best art (except for the Sacred) was always intended for private parties, not the commons. These modernist’ artists are all about playing to a common denominator, and use hype and fancy prose to cover for their lack of real talent and skill. At least now these grand works are going to hopefully go somewhere where they’ll be appreciated for their qualities, rather than simply as postcards from a different time.

  5. I have observed and studied many of the early Calif Impressionists for years since the Irvine Art Museum where Joan Irvine Smith keeps many of the paintings is only 20 minutes away. Also the Laguna Art Museum is the same distance from my home, so I attend all the exhibitions and lectures on specific artists there. Many of them came from back east, like Chicago, several studied in France while Monet was alive. They are incredibly inspiring paintings to study up close when on view at the museums. One can not be expected to love them all, but to be able to enjoy seeing my favorites is a privilege. I am looking forward to attending the reception of the latest exhibition at the Irvine Art Museum on Thursday October 8th. I have been greatly influenced by this group of painters as well as the French in my impressionist style. Any artist who wants to see this group of early California Impressionists will surely walk away with a new found understanding of how to paint the CA light and landscape. Someday they will all be in private collections and it will be much more difficult to find such a large collection of these talented visionaries.

  6. Thanks for this post! I went looking for the Wendt book through your link and find the museum is out of stock for the $30 softbound edition. So I looked it up on Amazon. It’s available for $325 hardbound! Just goes to show there is a market out there for museum show publications long after the show is over. I have learned to snap them up as soon as they are published. What a shame that this book will be out of so many people’s price range.

  7. Hi Carol, check the Irvine museum as well. They had lots of copies when I was there in August. Its one of the best monographs I’ve seen.

  8. Thank yoyu for posting these lovely pictures. If it wasn’t for a comment made on flickr of a sketch I’d made of some ruins near to where I live in the UK, I’d never have known about these very talented artists.
    Their use of colour and light is inspiring,

  9. Thanks for bringing these inspiring painters to light. It’s fascinating to think they were in turn inspired by the great founders of Impressionism – Turner and Monet, etc. The California movement is paralleled by the Australian Impressionists (known as the Heidelberg School) here in Australia – the circle turns.

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