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December 25, 2007

Painting California

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Unless you live in or near California, it's quite possible that you never heard of a painting movement known as the California Impressionists.

California began to attract the attention of artists not long after Gold Rush days. But from the 1890s till the 1930s the California Impressionists flourished, almost in defiance of painting trends in France and the rest of the United States. Even now there are artists who paint in this style and their work can be seen in galleries in Carmel and the Los Angeles area.

The movement got its name because the artists borrowed color and light concepts from the French Impressionists of the 1870s for use in depicting California landscapes. Before World War 2 this was fairly easy to do. A satisfactory highway system was in place by the 1920s that allowed artists to head for remote areas for plein-air work. Also, because the state's population was less than 15 per cent of what it is today, plenty of unspoiled scenery was handy to the cities where the artists were based. Plus, artist colonies sprang up in places such as Carmel and Laguna Beach.

I wrote about Arthur Mathews, a borderline California Impressionist, here. And I plan to write about some of the better California Impressionists in the coming months. The present article is intended to briefly set the scene and pose an impotant question.

Here are some examples of California Impressionism along with two photographs of California scenery.


La Jolla Shores - Alson Clark, 1920

California Oaks - Granville Redmond, 1910

Goleta Point - John M. Gamble, n.d.

Saddleback Mountain, Mission Viejo - William Wendt, 1923

Photgraph of a California landscape

Photograph of section of California coast

And that question I said I'd pose? It's To what extent does California's natural beauty make painters "look good"? In other words, I'm wondering if California scenery can be so powerful and distinctive that it can be captured by even passingly-good artists -- or perhaps you don't have to be a great artist to do California Impressionism.

If that line of thinking is so (and I'm inclined to agree at this point), then it can be hard to evaluate the greatness of California Impressionists as artists in cases where all they painted was California scenes. This potential problem will reappear when I write about specific painters of that school.



posted by Donald at December 25, 2007


This is a really good question--whether its the clothes that make the man or the man that makes the clothes. I guess you could say that the extraordinary scenery of California (and the west, in general) has made the career of many an artist, mediocre and great, over the years. The scenery does sell itself awfully well.

My biggest beef with the California painters and western painters is their choice of subject matter. Its all too easy to do a mountain range scene, or a scene along the coastline. After a while it gets pretty humdrummy. In this regard, those who have to do more with less are lucky. I think they are just the smarter of the bunch anyway, for a couple of reasons. The first is that their work doesn't rely on the spectacular for appeal. The scale is smaller and more human. The second is that they have to work harder for a good composition, given the ordinariness of the landscape. They push the combinations to get something interesting. I've seen really great landscapes drawn from the most ordinary of places you can imagine.

Its the old line of thinking about how limits are really empowering and force imaginative solutions. So in my opinion, you are barking up the right tree.

Posted by: BTM on December 25, 2007 6:53 PM

Agreed that a beautiful subject makes for a more easily beautiful object.

My friend, Terry DeLapp, who lives and works on the Central Coast and has painted (mainly) California landscapes for a long while, still has an interesting take on things. Some searching turned up the term "neo-tonalist"--apparently, the use of a limited palette to explore a subject--which I think is an interesting way of getting at the subject's other truth (i.e., the less obvious one).

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm full of crap. It wouldn't be the first time, and I'm no expert on art...or anything else, for that matter.

Posted by: communicatrix on December 25, 2007 10:02 PM

Excellent series of questions and musings. Can there be such a thing as subject matter that's too easy to make a nice painting from? (On the other hand, what's wrong with a nice painting of a pretty scene?)

I dimly remember someone (D.H. Lawrence, maybe?) writing about the Taos NM painting scene ... Saying something like the American West made painting seem irrelevant. How could a painting live up to the glory of the actual landscape? I've often been struck, in my puny way, by how little my snapshots seem to capture of what it's like to be someplace glorious. Maybe that's because I'm such a lousy photographer. But maybe, as you hint, the better paintings and photographs are often made from less-promising material ...

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on December 25, 2007 10:41 PM

I think it depends what you're looking for. If you're content with just a "pretty" or a "colorful" California scene, you may well have a point; anybody can do it, heck, I've even done it myself. However, as a viewer, I pass over many California Impressionist paintings that are merely "pretty" quite quickly; they simply don't hold my attention. Certain California Impressionists (and here William Wendt comes to mind) hold my attention with their paint handling, or their compositional skill, or their skill as a colorist, or some special sensitivity to mood, or all four. Also, while Wendt was up to handling grandeur, he did some very impressive work on some fairly quotidian passages of California scenery.

Also, I've got to disagree with BTM; to do truly remarkable scenery in a way that does it justice ain't as easy as it looks; it is one of the big time tests of a major landscape painter. (Check out the paintings of Frederic Church in this post

I agree with Thomas Moran on this point:

...I have always held that the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful in nature would, in capable hands, make the grandest and most beautiful or wonderful pictures; & that the business of a great painter, should be the representation of great scenes in nature. All the above characteristics attach to the Yellowstone region, & if I fail to prove this, I fail to prove myself worthy of the name of painter.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 26, 2007 12:56 AM

Keep in mind that the two photographs in the posting were probably taken by highly skilled photographers. Clearly, photography is easier than painting, but it's still hard to get photographs as spectacular as the scenery.

The two leading photographers of California scenery of the 20th Century -- Ansel Andams and Galen Rowell -- had lots of heroic stories to tell about how they got their famous pictures (see Rowell's book "Mountain Light" for detailed explanations of the mechanics behind his best known pictures, such as running for a mile at 12,000 feet altitude to get the rainbow to come out of the Potola in Lhasa, Tibet.) Indeed, Rowell's career of wild country photography eventually killed him -- he died in a small plane crash early in this decade coming back to Bishop, CA from Siberia.

So, maybe a good question is how the best California landscape painters compare to the best California landscape photographers. I would think Ansel Adams is more famous than any of the California Impressionists, and there may be a good reason for that.

Another question might be to compare the California Impressionists to the best-known painters of California landscapes who weren't part of the movement -- notably Bierstadt and Hockney. I like how Hockney noticed that the Southern California sky -- even without smog -- isn't all that attractive. The lack of cumulus clouds makes it rather featureless (the sky in the lower photograph is typical). All the sunshine makes the landscape look fine, but the sky itself tends to be rather blank, a look that Hockney caught well, although I'm not sure it takes a vast amount of skill to paint it.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 26, 2007 3:54 AM

Well, at least in the examples provided, I have to say the real thing outdid the paintings of it. It seems the California impressionists did not use unusual color quite like the French impressionists did. Remember, as breathtaking as California is, France and Paris are quite pretty, too, and I think the French school seems to have done more with it. It's the pinks and blues, I think. And the fact that they weren't just paintng landscapes, but people, too.

Posted by: annette on December 26, 2007 9:16 AM

Last February I was visiting the area between Genoa and Rapallo with a friend who is native to the area. It's a stunning-looking place, sort of a cross between the San Francisco area and that around Santa Barbara. I asked my friend whether any painters had immortalized it on canvas (thinking of van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles). She said, "Oh, no. How could you paint this stuff without being kitsch?" I would think that beautiful scenery might be as much a liability as an asset.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 26, 2007 9:20 AM

Judging from the four examples you've given I'd say the answer is no: no matter how spectacular the scene, it won't sell itself unless it's painted convincingly. The Clark is not painted convincingly, it just lays there, saying, I'm a beautiful scene so admire me, but no part of it is realized enough to be admired. The other three are: realized that is, enough to be admired.

Posted by: ricpic on December 26, 2007 10:47 AM

I think that the iconic "grandest and most beautiful" scenes in the United States say a lot about our penchant for popular fame than absolute beauty. When I found that almost all of our local photographers left Sacramento to go to required 'beautiful' spots to punch their American beauty landscape cards, I decided to stay home and haunt the tiny parkway/floodplain that protects the city wringing those moments of light and position (com'position') that define beauty. If I could figure out how to post photos I would enclose a few.

Largely the aesthetics that I admire are the structural aesthetics of the Hudson River school. I believe that they can be applied to or seen in the common landscapes and even adapted to city scapes. Perhaps the natural beauty of California is more important than I as a little-traveled native in my 60s deem it.

I do think that we Americans cling to an accepted collection of beautiful spots established by the 19th century Beautiful America lithographic cavalcades and extended by classic calendar scenes from our national park system.

It may be a landscape variation of the canon of great American literary work, artists, artworks, movies, stars, etc. Maybe collecting and commenting on collections is a natural way of sharing a common culture. But at some point, doesn't it all devolve into the bewildering 15 minuteses of People magazine and the tabloids?

Allan Jones

Posted by: Allan on December 26, 2007 11:04 AM

Maybe I'm being pointlessly sensitive on behalf of a group of painters who are long past criticism, but--with all due respect to Donald for doing the heavy lifting of getting together this posting--I also wouldn't make up my mind on California Impressionism based strictly on the examples he chose here. Frankly, all these guys have done better work elsewhere (sometimes in very different styles, sometimes just with happier results) There are also artists like Edgar Payne and Maurice Braun not pictured who have done some remarkable painting.

As an inhabitant of Southern California, I guess I'm sensitive--after all, these guys are the founding fathers and mothers of the local art scene. They're the home team here. I mean, I could easily pick examples of the French Impressionists that would leave you thinking they were a bunch of kitschy daubers as well, to say nothing of American Impressionists like Childe Hassan. Of course, at other times they were visual tigers. I almost wonder if there's something to the whole notion of plein air painting that leads to a very high degree of inconsistency--a whole bunch of stuff (motif, light, weather, taste, etc.) has to come together in a fairly short window of time to make it come off.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 26, 2007 4:54 PM

Dude, don't blow a gasket! I'm not saying that the CA impressionists aren't all they are cracked up to be. I'm just saying that as a personal preference, I like more ordinary scenes--mainly because that's the kind of thing I see every day and identify with.

Posted by: BTM on December 27, 2007 12:08 AM

Friedrich, -- Aside from the Wendt painting, I held back from presenting the best of the California Impressionists because I'm saving that stuff for future posts. What I wanted to do here was raise that question of subject-matter and so I just offered some so-so examples to provide the flavor of the school.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 27, 2007 12:34 AM

I'm a philistine, but I think those paintings are pretty. I'd hang one in my living room over Mondrian or Pollock any day.

Posted by: SFG on December 27, 2007 6:28 PM

To make matters worse, there is a filter on Photoshop that allows you to make ersatz watercolors of your favorite photos. All you need is a pretty photo, and you're done. These phony watercolors (and other computerized artistic filters) are pretty darned good.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 27, 2007 11:28 PM

Interesting. A friend of mine sent me this link, I am amazed there are discussions going on about art.
I am a painter, I was born and raised in California.
The thing is, yes you can take a photograph and try to capture the amazing beauty of the states varied landscapes. Some of you have realized these photographs don't really do the actual scene justice.
You don't get the feeling of the grandeur of the place.
On the other hand, if the scene is painted well, the artist can accentuate, with color and composition,
the feeling of the place, that would have been ordinarily missed, by a simple photograph.
To try translate these incredible scenes begins as act of reverence, and inspiration for the artist.It is also a way to take YOU the viewer there, in a way you might never observe on your own. An artist learns to see the subtleties of light, form and color.
This is a lengthy study, and by the way once trained for paint and canvas, spills into other areas of life, as critical thinking.The artist is always analyzing, breaking down the element, then reconstructing them for the viewer. Which by the way in itself is the one very good reason the arts should be a part of a complete education.
In Monterey for example at dusk the light bathes
the pines with gold and orange making the shadows appear violet. A painter would see this and accentuate it for you, then you could perhaps observe this yourself.
What California Plein air artists and the French impressionists have toiled for hours with paint to find out, and master, is how colors react to each other. How the color wheel works, complementary colors create a reaction for the eye,when used well
this method infuses the subject with life. This is the
vibratory effect of placing complements next to each other.This make a painting LIVE, as opposed.
This method conveys the feeling of light and life to the subject.
I have to get back to my painting now. Before you judge this I suggest you try it, it is a rabbit hole that you can fall into for life. A very interesting study. If you would like to see some of my art visit
My motto "support living artists."

Posted by: Cheryl Whitestone on December 29, 2007 2:33 PM

Have you ever heard of a California Impressionist painter named Nina A. Fleming?

Posted by: Laura Sherman on January 10, 2008 3:43 PM

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