Native Grandeur: Preserving California's Vanishing Landscapes

November 17, 2001 - April 14, 2002


"Native Grandeur: Preserving California's Vanishing Landscapes" celebrates the state's natural scenic and biological diversity, region by region. It illustrates each region with evocative 19th and early 20th century landscape paintings drawn from public and private collections throughout the state. The selection of artists and works is of the highest quality. The 45 to 50 paintings will include works by William Wendt, Granville Redmond, Maynard Dixon, William Keith, Thomas Hill, Paul Grimm and Guy Rose. The exhibition will include several works from the Museum's collection.

There will also be an effort to revisit some of the scenes depicted, recording their present day condition with photography. These photographs will add a compelling counterpoint to the undeveloped and pastoral scenes encountered by the painters from 70 to 150 years ago. Similar photographs in the Museum's exhibition After the Storm: Bob Walker and the Art of Environmental Photography have generated considerable positive comment from visitors.

California's natural landscapes are so diverse that they harbor more native species of plants and animals than any other state. They also host more native species at risk than any other state. Rapid population growth and associated development threaten many of the natural values that have long attracted people to California The exhibition points out the need for conservationists, environmental groups and the public to act quickly and on a large scale to prevent many of California's unique lands, rivers, coastal waters and native species from being lost forever.

The exhibition narrative will survey the accomplishments of the modern conservation movement and the challenges that still face it. The message is one of seeking "win-win" solutions, grounded in the belief that growth does not have to overwhelm our finest natural areas and that a robust economy and healthy natural landscapes can go hand in hand in the 21st century.

The exhibition is organized by The Nature Conservancy.

The following essay is excerpted from the book accompanying the exhibition, titled "Native Grandeur: Preserving California's Vanishing Landscapes," and published by The Nature Conservancy. The essay is reprinted with permission of the author and The Nature Conservancy.

Landscape Painting in California

by Jean Stern, Director, The Irvine Museum, Irvine, CA


Landscape Painting is an integral aspect of American art. Indeed, from the earliest times, American art has been determined by unique circumstances. Unlike in many European countries, art in America was nurtured in the absence of patronage by the church or the monarchy, both of which were powerful determinants in the progress of European art. Instead, American artists preferred to paint landscapes and genre scenes, that is to say, paintings that show the everyday character of American life.

Inevitably, landscape painting became the ideal vehicle for expressing the American spirit, as it created a metaphor of the American landscape as the fountainhead from which sprang the bounty and opportunity of rustic American life. Moreover, landscape painting afforded an avenue to express God and Nature as one, an understanding of spirituality that disavowed official religious patronage. When America emerged on the world stage in the mid-nineteenth century, it was with an art tradition that reflected what was paramount to American society: its people and its land.

In keeping with this sincere and honest approach to American art, the artist resolved to paint as realistically as possible. The desire for realistic portrayal of forms has continually been a forceful characteristic of American art. In America, the search for truth in art expressed itself in a carefully observed and highly detailed manner associated with the artistic style called Realism. The convention of painting in a direct and truthful manner has persisted throughout the history of American art up to the present day, with only a few stylistic modifications.

Perhaps the most important and lasting influence on American art came from French Impressionism, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Born in France in the late 1860s, Impressionism transformed French art. Reacting strongly against the artistic tenets of the French Academy, the Impressionists lamented the absence of spontaneity and the lack of natural light and color that often characterized an academic canvas, a consequence of painting exclusively in the studio and from posed models. They preferred instead to paint directly on primed canvas and to set the easel out-of-doors, to accurately capture light and atmospheric effects. Philosophically, they sought more relevance in subject matter, turning to everyday life for artistic motivation. They aspired for art that reflected the people as they were. Reluctant to pose a composition, Impressionists explored the fleeting moment or the "temporal fragment" of ordinary life.

Before the end of the decade, the persuasive energy of this new style was felt throughout Europe, and by the early 1890s, Impressionism was no longer uniquely French. Artists who had been art students in Paris in the 1880s, and who had seen firsthand what the style offered, were returning to their home countries. These young painters helped disseminate Impressionism to the rest of the world.

Whereas Impressionism made its debut amidst scorn and criticism in Paris, its arrival in the United States, sometime about 1885-1890, was relatively uneventful, and by the time it made its way to California, in the early 1890s, it had become an accepted part of American art. Clearly, it was a modified and toned-down rendering of the prototype French movement. Yet Impressionism changed American art in two ways: in the manner in which artists used color, and in the adoption of the distinct, loose brushwork that characterized the style. When one considers the resolute sense of realism that has always prevailed in American art, then perhaps the American experience with Impressionism would best be described as "Impressionistic Realism."

In America, artists of the mid-nineteenth century were keeping alive the tradition of realistic representation while, at the same time, scrutinizing all the influences from contemporary European art. A continent away, in California, artists were arriving in ever growing numbers to examine the aesthetic potential of this newly admitted state.

The Gold Rush had attracted large numbers of people to San Francisco, including many artists. They came for a variety of reasons: to profit from the economic boom, to find a new start, or simply to paint the scenic beauty of California. From the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the desolate splendor of the Mojave Desert; from the flower-covered coastal hills to the countless, secluded valleys; from the dazzling beaches of the south to the rocky coves of the north: the enthralling beauty of California is the principal reason that, from the middle of the 19th century on, painting in California has been characterized by a large number of light-filled landscape paintings.

Artists like Virgil Williams (1830-1886), William Keith (I839-1911) and Thomas Hill (1829-I908) were working in San Francisco as early as 1858. All three of these pivotal artists were trained in academic European styles and achieved maturity prior to the advent of Impressionism. They, and several other notable artists, who painted landscapes in a Romantic-Realist style closely associated with the French Barbizon school, came to characterize the art of northern California, and their students and followers continued in this style for many years. As such, they represented an entrenched artistic tradition that effectively inhibited the establishment of an Impressionist aesthetic in San Francisco until well after the turn of the 20th century. In consequence, young artists looking to settle in California in the late nineteenth century turned south,

Much has been offered about the desirability of the southern California climate, with its generous number of sunny days, as motivation for the advent of Impressionism in the south. Likewise, the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906, caused a significant number of people, artists included, to move out of the city. Many San Francisco artists simply moved to Monterey and started an artists' colony on the scenic peninsula, but others continued south to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Whereas both factors exerted considerable influence, the chief motivation was surely economic opportunity, and Los Angeles, at the time not having a substantial artistic community, became the alternative metropolitan center that absorbed the infusion of young artists in California in the late 19th century.

In southern California, landscape painting was by far the most popular subject among painters, with nearly a complete absence of artists who painted urban scenes. Where the French Impressionists yearned to capture the immediate moment, or the "temporal fragment" of societal activity, California's Impressionists instead sought to catch the fleeting moment of specific natural light, as it bathed the landscape. In fact, light is the true subject of California Impressionists.

The clear and intense light of California, which appears so often in these paintings, defined the landscape. The biblical analogy of light as the creative instrument is appropriate to the manner in which the California Impressionists addressed the landscape, for without that unique light, and the divine energy it represented, the land would not exist.

Thus, the goal was to capture this striking visual sensation on canvas quickly, before the light changed. The key to achieving this goal was to get out of the studio and to paint outdoors, or en plein air, and to accentuate the role of color to produce brilliant light effects.

By 1895, several artists in Los Angeles were calling themselves Impressionist painters and painting in the plein-air approach. Benjamin C. Brown (I865-1942) was the most notable and influential of these. In the next decade, Granville Redmond (1871-1935), Hanson D. Puthuff (1875-1972), Marion Kavanagh Wachtel (1876-1954), William Wendt (1865-1946), and Franz A. Bischoff (1864-I929) would be added to the growing list of professional plein-air painters in southern California. Masters such as Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949), Jean Mannheim (1863-1945), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), and Donna Schuster (1883-1953) moved to Los Angeles and became permanent residents by 1913. The following year, the illustrious Guy Rose (1867-1925) left France and returned to southern California, his homeland. Edgar Payne (1883-1947) and his wife, Elsie Palmer Payne (1884-197I) were making frequent visits to Los Angeles and Laguna Beach and settled permanently in 1917, and by the end of the decade, Alson S. Clark (1876-1949) and Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931) had come to live in southern California,

At the end of the I920s, the southern California art community experienced a series of dramatic transformations. A new generation of artists turned to new styles, characterized by a move away from the perceptual toward more conceptual approaches to painting. Furthermore, in 1929, the American economy suffered a terrible blow with the onset of the Great Depression. Almost overnight, the dynamic artist-dealer-patron relationship ground to a halt as much of America's disposable income vanished. The Depression was an indiscriminate misfortune to all artists. Modernists as well as plein-air artists joined in the Works Progress Administration programs, such as the Federal Arts Project, which allotted mural commissions in public buildings. Additionally, the American character turned inward and began a prolonged, restless period of self-examination. The arts followed suit and artists applied themselves to exploring the American experience in this time of solemnity. The bright, buoyant landscape paintings of the plein-air style were replaced with somber, comfortless views of the cities and the farms.

With economic recovery in the late 1930s, Modernism made its inroads, and by the outbreak of World War II, most of the prominent names of California Impressionism had died or had withdrawn from the public eye, and the style itself became a nostalgic souvenir of a bygone era.

Today, California plein-air painting has found a resurgence among landscape painters. From about 1980, the number of artists who choose to paint outdoors in the manner of their predecessors has increased dramatically. Under the leadership of Peter Adams, a nationally known plein-air painter, the California Art Club, an organization founded in 1909 by the original California Impressionists, is experiencing greater popularity than ever before in its long history. This Renaissance of the California Impressionist style coincides with society's growing awareness and concern for the natural environment. The Oak Group, founded in I986 by landscape painters in the Santa Barbara area, partners with environmental organizations to donate half the proceeds from group plein-air shows to the defense of endangered lands. In northern California, a smaller group called the Baywood Artists has followed the same path, helping to preserve open space in the Bay Area.

It has been said that art is the most faithful statement that society can make about itself and that the mood and spiritual temperament of a people at a specific time and place is manifested in their art. If that is true, then the renewed artistic interest in praise of nature is good news for all of us.

Resource Library editor's notes

The above 2001 essay was written by Jean Stern, Director of The Irvine Museum. The essay is re-keyed and reprinted with permission of the author and the Oakland Museum of California, and without illustrations. Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Oakland Museum of California. This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

The accompanying article's text was provided by Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA. 510-238-2200 or toll free at 888-625-6873. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the museum directly.

See these essays by Jean Stern in Resource Library:

Art in California: 1880 to 1930 by Jean Stern

Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945 by Jean Stern

The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930 by Jean Stern

The Development of Southern California Impressionism by Jean Stern

Franz A. Bischoff, 1864-1929 essay by Jean Stern

Impressionist Style in Perspective by Jean Stern

Impressionism in California, 1890-1930 by Jean Stern

The Irvine Museum in Perspective by Jean Stern

Landscape of Light: Impressionism in California by Jean Stern

Landscape Painting in California by Jean Stern

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, 1870-1954 by Jean Stern

Masters of Light by Jean Stern

"The Outsiders" -- Modernism in California, 1920-1940 by Jean Stern

The Paintings of Sam Hyde Harris by Jean Stern (2001)

Robert Henri and the 1915 San Diego Exposition by Jean Stern

Also see these articles and essays: California Art History, California Artists: 19th-21st Century, California Impressionism and California Regionalism and California School of Painters. Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum in Resource Library.

We also suggest an excellent one hour video from the Gilcrease Musuem that featiures Jean Stern's May 3, 2015 lecture titled "The California Impressionist Style, 1895 - 1930." (Accessed 11/22)

For further biographical information on artists mentioned in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Following are examples of representational artworks created by artists, or photographs of artists, referenced in the above article or essay. Images may not be specific to this article or essay and are likely not cited in it. Images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images.


(above: William Wendt (1865-1946), Inyo County, 1926. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Granville Richard Seymor Redmond, Talk On the Beach, 1931, Laguna Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Maynard Dixon, Home of the Desert Rat, c. 1944-1945, oil on canvas, Phoenix Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: William Keith, California Ranch, 1908, oil on canvas, 50.3 x 87.2 inches, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Thomas Hill, Resting by a Stream,1866, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 in., Private collection. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Guy Rose (1867-1925), Monterey Cypress, circa 1918, oil on canvas,  21 1/8 x 24 inches, Crocker Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


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