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