Masters of California Impressionism
By Richard Reitzell
Considered one of the most popular artistic styles even today, impressionism evolved throughout the late 19th century in France. At the time, Paris was the center of the western art world and was driven by the French Academy of Fine Arts’ prestigious Salon exhibitions. At the time, a group of artists with now-familiar names including Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and others, were experimenting with a radically different style of painting characterized by quick, spontaneous brushwork, brighter colors and thick, textured paint strokes. Painting quickly, they emphasized capturing the effect of light on their subjects and creating a visceral sense of the immediacy of the moment. Defying traditional academic standards that emphasized parables, historical or allegorical narratives, heroic images or staid portraits, their subject matter were scenes of the moments and activities around them – bustling city life, quiet cafés, lingering moments in the park, socializing groups of people – with an eye to capturing scenes of everyday life.
When the Salon submissions by these innovative artists were repeatedly rejected, they eventually organized and held their own competing exhibitions in the 1870s. Ridiculed and derisively labeled “the impressionists”, the movement initially struggled, but within a decade, impressionism had become the accepted standard for the late nineteenth century and has maintained its popularity to this day. Perhaps equally important, by breaking the academic norms of the time and broadening the range of artistic expression, the impressionist movement established the foundation for exploring new artistic interpretations and expressions of form, color, space, and perspective. This new foundation set the stage for future major art movements such as modernism, fauvism, cubism, expressionism, and later, the many forms of abstraction.
With its growing popularity, impressionism was introduced to America through exhibitions that traveled to Boston and New York and by the turn of the century, the impressionist style was widely adopted by many American artists including William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and others. Beyond the environs of the major eastern cities, several regional schools of impressionism arose in Old Lyme, Connecticut, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and perhaps most significantly, in California.
In the late 1800s, California stood on the verge of unprecedented growth. Newly connected to the rest of the country by the expansion of the railroads, first to San Francisco and later to Los Angeles, the Golden State became a destination for many searching for new opportunities, an enviable climate, economic prosperity, and scenic beauty.
The explosive population growth from less than 200,000 in 1900 to 2.2 million in 1930, made Southern California a dynamic and rapidly changing area in the early twentieth century. The influx of population, wealth, and economic opportunity created a metropolis in less than thirty years and brought people from all walks of life to the region. Among those who arrived were a number of artists who sought new artistic opportunities. These artists were already successful in the Midwest and east and were well-trained, often schooled in the art centers of Europe. They arrived as well-respected, established artists that were already recognized in their craft by their peers. Most of the artists quickly created a significant contribution to the identity of the region, made California their home, and shaped an enduring image for years to come.
While the emergence of California Impressionism appeared in both the northern and southern parts of the state, Southern California was most representative of the movement, for there the artists found an inviting and welcoming community. Artist colonies emerged in Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, Santa Barbara, and La Jolla. Exhibitions grew with significant support from the local newspapers and patrons. Artist organizations formed including the very successful and still thriving California Art Club and the Laguna Beach Art Association.
The Gardena High School Art Collection, featured in CMATO’s current exhibition, is a living example of the interactive and collaborative spirit that was evident between the artists and their communities. A strong patron base formed, both of local residents, as well as affluent wintering visitors from the Midwest and east. These visitors and part-time residents collected art and returned to their homes in other parts of the country, thus illuminating the unspoiled beauty of the region and shaping the allure of California. In addition, with the advent and promotion of tourism, scenic local paintings would be reproduced as tourism advertising in national publications and later with the emergence of the Hollywood film industry, the California Impressionism movement played a key role in producing the backdrops and sets for early films.
The high point of California Impressionism was likely the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, the very successful exposition served as both a coming out party for a rebuilt and revived San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake, as well as an international introduction to the vibrant California art scene. In the Palace of Fine Arts there was a heavy presence of most of the noted California artists, with William Keith and Alson Clark meriting entire rooms.
The development of the impressionist movement evolved differently within California than the iterations of the genre in Europe and the eastern seaboard. With less focus on city life and social activities, the California artists focused almost exclusively on capturing the natural scenery around them. Their representational landscapes rarely reflected the presence of man, whether structures, roads, or other evidence, but rather presented the beauty of the land, the ruggedness of the coast, and verdant valleys with an almost reverential passion. While collectively they shared a common landscape, the California Impressionists, often referred to as plein air artists (painted in open air), individually demonstrated a wide variety of unique styles in their artistic approaches.
William Wendt, often described as the dean of Southern California artists, painted loosely constructed landscapes with masses of bright springtime greens and rich, autumn golds. Hansen Puthuff frequently painted near his La Crescenta home capturing the vegetated hills and mountains of the area often reflecting the soft haze that is so familiar to area residents. Maurice Braun conveyed the muted, pastel tones of the inland hills of San Diego County, while Frank Cuprien captured warmly golden sunsets reflected on the coastal water. Jean Mannheim used a loaded brush and broad masculine strokes to paint a wide variety of subjects, though he specialized in portraits, often of notables like King Gillette, Albert Einstein, and John Burroughs. Edgar Payne and Jack Wilkinson Smith both painted wonderful yet distinctly different scenes of the Sierras and the rocky coastlines in Orange County.
Generally considered two of the top artists of the time, Guy Rose demonstrated a delicate, feathery and subtly nuanced approach to his landscapes and garden portraits, while Granville Redmond produced radiant works of tonal coloration, luminescent nocturnes, yet was mostly known for vivid landscapes of green rolling hills studded with live oaks and colorful fields of brilliant poppies and lupines. All of these artists and others produced unique interpretations of the world around them, yet collectively they left a lasting legacy of the natural beauty and unspoiled landscape of Southern California in the early twentieth century.
Richard Reitzell is an art enthusiast, author and frequent lecturer, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks.