Masters of Light

by Jean Stern


CALIFORNIA IS A VAST AND PICTURESQUE REGION with a great variety of ecosystems. 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 - all of these vistas were ideal subjects for the landscape painters who came to California over a hundred years ago. From the middle of the 19th century to the early decades of the 20th century, the enthralling beauty of California inspired a large number of light-filled landscape paintings.

In the early 19th century, California was still a distant and largely unknown land. The initial discovery of the New World, in 1492, and subsequent explorations by Spain in the early 1500s, revealed a diverse native population along the coast in California. These people formed peaceful societies, living in villages or nomadic groups and migrating with the seasons between the coast and the low mountains a few miles inland. Finding little gold or precious stones, the Spanish explorers lost interest and the region remained tranquil, with only occasional subsequent contact. For more than 200 years, California was essentially quiet and unexplored, until the latter part of the 18th century.

For decades, the Russian Empire had maintained settlements and trading posts in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. However, by the mid-I700s, Russia began extending its reach into the northern parts of California. Alarmed by this development, Spain decided to reestablish its presence in the region. Over the span of about 50 years, Spain built a series of 2I missions throughout California, the first of these in San Diego in 1769, and the last in Sonoma, in 1823.

The Mission Era marked the height of Spanish presence in California. Even though the period lasted only about 50 years, it ingrained a deep-rooted myth of a Golden Age, replete with haciendas of red-tiled roofs and adobe walls, courtyards, fountains, bougainvillea and even swallows, the legendary little birds that returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano every spring on St. Joseph's Day, March 19. This iconographic assemblage was embraced by popular culture throughout the 20th century and today remains very much an integral part of the state's image, depicting not only how the world visualizes California, but also how Californians see themselves.

By the early 1820s, Spanish power in North America had been replaced by the emerging nation of Mexico, and following the Mexican War of 1846-48, California, along with the rest of the American Southwest, became a possession of the United States. Had it not been for the discovery of gold in 1848-49, California might have remained a quiet and distant land for another 50 years. However, the Gold Rush made the area of paramount concern to American interests.Within a year, California became a part of the United States, with formal statehood in 1850.

With San Francisco's massive increase in residents - from about 300 people prior to the Gold Rush of 1849 to more than 30,000 in just the first year - the city emerged as the cultural and financial center of the West. The following decades led to vast population and economic expansion, due in part to the benefits of improved transportation. The first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific, was completed in 1869, with its western terminus at San Francisco. Prior to that, the only approaches to California were overland by horse and wagon - a perilous and often hostile journey - or by ship, around South America, a voyage that often took six months. Later, a pre-canal route through Panama shortened the trip by 8,000 miles. Passengers docked on the Atlantic side, crossed the Isthmus to the Pacific side, and boarded a ship to continue to California.

The railroads brought more and more people to California. With the growth of population in the early 1880s, Los Angeles began to attract professional artists. By the late 1880s, several artists were already permanent residents; most of them were landscape painters.

Landscape painting is integral to American art. Indeed, from the earliest times, American art was formed under unique circumstances. Unlike the art of many European countries, American art was nurtured in the absence of patronage by church or monarchy, both of which largely determined 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.

Landscape painting became the ideal vehicle for expressing the American spirit; 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 for expressing God and Nature as one, an understanding of spirituality that disavowed official religious patronage. When America emerged on the world stage in the mid-19th 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, artists resolved to paint as realistically as possible. The desire for a 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 19th 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 outdoors, to accurately capture light and atmospheric effects. Philosophically, they sought more relevance in subject matter, turning to everyday life for artistic motivation. They aspired to create art that reflected people as they were. Reluctant to create posed compositions, Impressionists explored the fleeting moment, or the "temporal fragment", of ordinary life.

The public emergence of Impressionism at a momentous exhibition in Paris in 1874 was greeted with scorn and belligerent criticism. In an artistic milieu that demanded paintings of the highest refinement, Impressionist paintings proved very resistant to popular tastes and were regarded by most art writers as an insult to the museum-going public. The Impressionists' penchant for breaking forms into small bits of color was particularly irritating. Since the artist worked quickly to capture the fleeting light effect, the completed work had a rude and unfinished appearance, especially when compared to the highly polished, nearly photographic forms and figures of an academic painting.The strong and often intense color scheme offended the tastes of a public accustomed to subtle tones. Impressionism's preference for the contemporary urban genre and its fixation on the working class endowed it with implications of social activism and political radicalism. Many paintings showed ordinary people relaxing on their day off or walking about the boulevards, themes that were considered base and unworthy of attention as fine art.

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 between 1885 and 1890, was relatively uneventful. 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 that artists used color and in the adoption of distinct, loose brushwork.

The new color theories that characterized this movement were well received by Americans, and the outcome showed in paintings with brilliant and convincing effects of natural light. The loose, choppy brushstroke distinctive of Impressionist paintings reflected the quick manner of paint application and the desire to produce a brilliant surface covered with a multitude of small daubs of bright color.

However, unlike their French counterparts, few American artists showed a penchant for urban settings, and the socio-political quality of many French Impressionist paintings is rarely seen in America. French Impressionism is often characterized by dissolved forms -- the visual elements of the painting seem to soften away into the background in a maze of lively brushstrokes and color daubs. In contrast, American Impressionism retained a solid sense of form, in keeping with its tradition of directness. When one considers the resolute sense of realism that has always prevailed in American art, perhaps the American experience with Impressionism would best be described as "Impressionistic Realism."

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.While 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 creative instrument speaks 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 paint outdoors, or en plein air, and to accentuate the role of color in producing brilliant light effects.

By 1895, several artists in Los Angeles were calling themselves Impressionist painters and using the plein air approach. Benjamin C. Brown (1865-1942) 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 (1864-1929) 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 (1862-1945), 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 (1884-1971), were making frequent visits to Los Angeles and Laguna Beach and settled permanently in 1917. By the end of the decade, Alson S. Clark (1876-1949) and Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931) had also come to live in Southern California.

Guy Rose was the only one of these accomplished artists who was born in Southern California. In 1861, his father, L.J. Rose, had led a wagon train to California and established Sunny Slope, a large ranch in the San Gabriel Valley, where Guy was born in 1867. As a child, Guy was a prodigious artist, and as a young man he attended the California School of Design in San Francisco. In 1888, he went to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julian. An accomplished student, he soon found his paintings accepted for the annual Paris Salon exhibitions.

In 1894, Rose experienced a bout of lead poisoning, which forced him to avoid oil painting for about eight years. He returned to the United States in the winter of 1895 and began a career as an illustrator. He also taught drawing and portraiture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 1899, he and his wife, Ethel, also an artist and illustrator, returned to Paris and continued to do illustration work for Harper's Bazaar and other American magazines. Rose was greatly influenced by Claude Monet, and in 1904 he settled in Giverny, becoming a member of the American art colony there. He developed a serial style of painting like that of Monet, in which the same scene would be depicted at different times of day and in different seasons.

After eight years in Giverny, Rose and his wife returned permanently to the United States in 1912, settling for a time in New York. They moved to Pasadena at the end of 1914 and became active in local art circles. This marks the start of Guy Rose's brief but glorious period as a California Impressionist. Rose painted primarily in the southern part of the state until about 1918, at which time he went to Carmel and Monterey. Generally regarded as California's premier Impressionist, he was held in the highest esteem by his peers and patrons. He was disabled by a stroke in 1921, leaving him unable to paint for the last four years of his life.

Born in Germany in 1865,William Wendt immigrated to the United States in 1880 and settled in Chicago, where he worked in a commercial art firm. Essentially self-taught, he attended evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago for only a brief period. Dissatisfied with figure studies, he preferred painting landscapes and quickly became an active exhibitor in various Chicago art shows, winning the Second Yerkes Prize at the Chicago Society of Artists exhibition in 1893.

Along with his friend, artist George Gardner Symons (1862-1930),Wendt made a number of trips to California between 1896 and 1904.The works from these trips were then exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1906, Wendt settled in Los Angeles with his wife, sculptor Julia Bracken.

Already a successful painter,Wendt soon became a leading member in the art community and was a founding member of the California Art Club in 1909. He moved his home and studio to the art colony at Laguna Beach in 1912, the same year that he was elected to the National Academy of Design. He was a founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918. Although he was somewhat shy and reclusive,Wendt nevertheless earned the affection and respect of his peers and became Laguna Beach's most important resident artist.

To Wendt, Nature was a manifestation of God, and he viewed himself as Nature's faithful interpreter. Only rarely did he include people or animals in his landscapes. He worked outdoors, sometimes sketching and sometimes making large, finished works. Arthur Millier, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, called Wendt "the man who has most truthfully pictured Southern California." Wendt died December 29, 1946 in Laguna Beach, California.

Alson Skinner Clark was born in Chicago in 1876. In 1895, he took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago for one year, and then continued his art studies in New York with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) for an additional three years. Late in 1898, Clark went to Paris, where he enrolled in the Académie Carmen, the atelier of James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Although he studied with Whistler for only about six months, Clark would carry Whistler's influence for the remainder of his life. He continued his studies in Paris at the Académie Delecluse and with Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). In 1901, his painting THE VIOLINIST was accepted at the Paris Salon.

From 1902 to 1914, Clark and his wife, Medora, divided their time between France and the United States, until the outbreak of World War I caused them to return home. In Europe, Clark traveled widely, painting throughout France as well as visiting Italy, England, Dalmatia, and Spain. In October and November of 1910, he visited Giverny, where he painted with Lawton Parker, an old classmate, Frederick Frieseke, and Guy Rose.

In 1913, he visited Panama and decided to undertake the project of recording the construction of the Panama Canal. Eighteen of those paintings were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, earning him a Bronze Medal.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Clark enlisted in the Navy and was sent to France to work as an aerial photographer. After the war, Clark was advised to spend time in California for health reasons.The couple found Southern California captivating and, in January 1920, decided to remain, acquiring a home and studio along the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. He renewed his acquaintance with Guy Rose, who had returned to California in 1914. Attracted to the Southwest landscape, Clark went on numerous painting trips in California and Mexico.

Joseph Kleitsch was born in Hungary in 1882; around 1901, he immigrated to Germany and then to the United States, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. Around 1905, he moved to Denver, Colorado, where he did portraits of prominent businessmen. From 1907 to 1909, he lived in Mexico City, to paint the portraits of Francisco Madero and his wife, and soon thereafter moved to Chicago.

Kleitsch achieved great recognition as a portrait painter. By 1914, he was participating in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago. His interior scenes with figures received high praise, and Kleitsch was compared favorably to Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) as well as Rembrandt.

In 1920, Kleitsch moved to Southern California, establishing residency in Laguna Beach. Although he continued to earn his living as a portrait painter, he turned to landscapes and views of the charming village of Laguna Beach.

In 1925, Kleitsch traveled to Europe, visiting Spain and France, where he spent time in Giverny. He returned to California in 1927 and continued to paint in Laguna Beach until his untimely death at age 49 on November 16, 1931.

At the end of the 1920s, 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 from 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 had 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 for 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 cities and 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 withdrawn from the public eye. The style itself had become a nostalgic souvenir of a bygone era.

Today, California plein air painting is undergoing a resurgence among landscape painters. Since about 1980, the number of artists who choose to paint outdoors in the manner of their predecessors has increased dramatically.


Resource Library editor's notes

The above 2002 essay was written by Jean Stern, Director of The Irvine Museum, for the illustrated catalogue Masters of Light: Plein-Air Painting in California 1890-1930, ISBN 0-971-4092-3-4 (cloth), which accompanied the exhibition, Masters of Light, the first ever international exhibition of California plein air paintings to tour Europe.

The essay is reprinted with permission of The Irvine Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact The Irvine Museum directly through either this phone number or web address: 949-476-2565; Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum. This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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. 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)

Following is an example of artwork created by the artist referenced in the above article or essay. The image shown may not be specific to this article or essay and is likely not cited in it. The image was obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the image to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images. 


(above: Benjamin Chambers Brown, Grand Canyon, before 1942, 30 x 22 inches, Private collection. Source: The Athenaeum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Sunset Clouds, 1904, Google Books. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Granville Richard Seymor Redmond, A Field of California Poppies, 1911, oil on canvas, 26 x 36 inches, Private Collection, Northern California (by family descent to present owner), Bonhams. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Three vases painted by Franz Bischoff in 1901, 1903 and 1908. Collection of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. Photo by Jim Heaphy, 28 February 2015. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons**)


(above: Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931), The Oriental Shop, 1922, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in., Crocker Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


(above: Maurice Braun, Crashing Surf Near Point Loma, California, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, American Eagle Fine Arts, Benicia, California. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Edgar Alwin Payne, High Sierra, 1921, Steven Stern Fine Arts. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


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