The California Impressionist Style in Perspective

by Jean Stern


California has produced artists of tremendous ability whose experimentation in a broad range of styles and media has resulted in a distinctly regional style. From the turn of the century until the start of the Depression, painting in California was dominated by a remarkable artistic style that combined several distinctive aspects of American and European art. Commonly called California Impressionism or California plein-air painting, this movement was concerned with the colors and the splendid light of the Golden State.

The Impressionism adopted by American painters in the late 1880s was a modified and somewhat tempered revision of the prototypical, French movement that originated in the late 1860s and was later popularized in the early 1870s. The significant contributions of French Impressionism to American art were in the use of color and specialized brushwork. The scientific theories of color, most notably those of the influential French chemist Eugène Chevreul, who published Laws of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors in 1839, were an aspect of Impressionism. Artists readily adopted these theories, and the resulting paintings possessed brilliant and convincing effects of natural light. The loose, choppy brushstroke characteristic of Impressionist painting was the consequence of both the quick paint application and the desire to produce a painted surface covered with a multitude of daubs of bright color. This profusion of small strokes of color simulated the effects of varying light conditions - particularly of fluid, brilliant sunlight (Cat. No. 29).

American Impressionism, in general, differed from its French roots in two notable ways. First, Americans preferred to retain a solid sense of form, as opposed to the French penchant for dissolving forms. The propensity for realistic representation remains constant throughout American painting, so much so that the American Impressionist style could easily be described as "Impressionistic realism." Second, American artists of the period preferred landscape and rural settings (Cat. No. 23), while many of the French portrayed city life and drew much of their inspiration from the occupational and recreational activities of the working class.

Coinciding with the advent of Impressionism in America in the mid-1880s, California experienced a period of rapid population growth. The opening of the transcontinental railway in 1869 made passage to San Francisco safer and quicker than the horse-drawn vehicle route or the tedious voyage either around South America or across Panama prior to the construction of the canal. A railroad opened between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1876, and the Santa Fe Railway's all-weather route from Chicago to Los Angeles through the Southwest was completed in 1885. These led to the first of many successive land booms in Southern California. With the growth of population and commerce, Southern California began to attract and inspire professional artists in the 1880s.

Beginning in the Gold Rush era, residents of Northern California enjoyed a well-established art community within San Francisco's growing social and cultural community. Virgil Williams (1830-1886), William Keith (1839-1911), and Thomas Hill (1829-1908) were among its leaders. Williams was trained in New York and had studied in Rome before coming West. In 1874 he was hired as the director of the newly opened San Francisco Art Association School of Design. A well-loved and respected teacher, he trained a number of art students including the redoubtable Impressionist Guy Rose. Keith was a prolific painter, known as "California's Old Master" in his later years. He specialized in Barbizon-style pastorals and created dark and moody forest scenes. Hill is best known for his majestic views of Yosemite Valley, where he built a studio in 1883; he is credited with over 5,000 paintings of that locale. Like Williams, Keith and Hill were trained in academic, European styles and achieved maturity prior to the advent of Impressionism. These artists and others were entrenched in an artistic tradition that inhibited the establishment of the Impressionist aesthetic in San Francisco until well after the turn of the 20th century. As a result, many young artists who came to San Francisco looking for a place to settle turned their attention south.

The sunny Southern California climate has been offered as motivation for the advent of Impressionism in the South. The San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 was also a factor. However, the chief motivation was surely an economic one. Los Angeles did not have a substantial art establishment at the time, but became the alternative metropolitan center to which young artists flocked in California in the late 19th century. Those artists were essentially Impressionist painters.

In time a large group of artists settled in Southern California, and by 1915 the plein-air painters themselves had become the entrenched establishment with their coterie of dealers, patrons, and writers, who functioned as an impediment to the imminent generation of Modernist artists that followed World War I. The 1930s heralded change. The Great Depression created hardships for all artists in California. Regionalism and Modernism made inroads. 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. Moreover, by the start of World War II, most of the prominent California Impressionists had died or withdrawn from the public eye. After the economic recovery, the style had become a nostalgic souvenir of a bygone era.

During the 1940s and 1950s the art of California was defined by the formidable presence of Millard Sheets (1907-1989) and his associates. His activities in the fields of art instruction, architecture, mural work, and above all watercolor painting with the California Water Color Society, marked an entire artistic generation with his imprimatur.

This same period denotes the "Babylonian Exile" of the plein-air mode, with only the smallest suggestion of public interest in the style. The major artists of the period, Guy Rose, Elmer Wachtel, Franz A. Bischoff (Cat. No. 3), Joseph Kleitsch, and Granville Redmond, died prior to the beginning of World War II. William Wendt (Cat. No. 57) and Alson S. Clark were largely inactive after 1941, Wendt having retired to his home in Laguna Beach, and Clark concentrating on murals, lithographs, and watercolors not in the Impressionist style.

Those paintings that had been sold during these masters' lifetimes remained on the walls of the original purchasers until the 1960s and 1970s, when indifferent heirs sold works which eventually found their way to local antique and art shops. Other works were sold by the artists' families. For example, promotion of Edgar Payne's legacy became the mission of his widow, Elsie Palmer Payne (1984-1971), who was a distinguished painter of the post-Depression American Scene. Mrs. Payne put aside her own work to memorialize her husband's art by holding many receptions, lectures, and exhibitions in her studio-home and other locations throughout Southern California (Cat. No. 37).

Public collections, too, reached the resale market. In 1977 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at the time the greatest repository of works of this style, decided to sell the vast majority of its plein-air holdings at public auction. The museum's interests lay elsewhere, and the rationale for the sale was that these works were "no longer shown." The sale took place at Sotheby Parke Bernet, Los Angeles, November 7, 8, and 9, 1977. The auction's catalogue lists and illustrates a large variety of paintings, and, to this day, the sale remains the single most important group of California Impressionist paintings ever sold at auction. When the Pasadena Art Museum became the Norton Simon Museum, Sotheby Parke Bernet, Los Angeles, held another significant sale of California Impressionist paintings on March 17 and 18, 1980. That collection, assembled by Josephine P. Everett and others, represented a cross-section of many important artists that had been the pride of the Pasadena art community.

Although both of these important sales were disasters for public collections, they contributed to the renewal of interest in these artists. The immediate infusion of important works from these two museums, as well as others from private collections, into the art market of Los Angeles was directly responsible for the formation of important, new private collections of this style.

Fortunately, many public and semi-private collections compiled earlier in the century survived the 1970s. Notable among the public collections are those of the Museum of California/Oakland Museum, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, and the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach. Semi-private collections, like those of the California Club, the Jonathan Club, and the Los Angeles Athletic Club also have provided important venues for California Impressionism.

In 1972 Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, then assistant curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curated the first significant post-war exhibition devoted solely to California artists of the plein-air period. Held at the Pomona College Gallery in Claremont, California, Los Angeles Painters of the Nineteen-Twenties marked the first serious re-evaluation of these artists and their work in over 50 years.

The bibliography of California Impressionism also had lain dormant for about 50 years, with the last significant publications on these artists being the small-format exhibition books on Guy Rose, William Wendt, and Edgar Payne published by the Stendahl Galleries of Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, and the homage to Elmer Wachtel published by Los Angeles Times art critic Antony Anderson in 1930. In 1975 Nancy Moure privately published a three-volume set of her research on Southern Californian art: The California Water Color Society: Prize Winners, 1931-1954; Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954, Artists' Clubs and Exhibitions in Los Angeles before 1930; and Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California before 1930. The last volume, the dictionary, became an indispensable guide to the forgotten artists of this lively movement. With these books in hand, museums, art dealers, and private collectors finally had a concise source for biographical and exhibition information and thus an aid in determining the relative merits of these artists and their works.

The Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art mounted a noteworthy retrospective of the vigorous school of plein-air artists in their area in 1976, Yesterday's Artists on the Monterey Peninsula (Cat. No. 36). A concise and informative catalogue by Helen Spangenberg documented the show.

Fittingly, the first museum to mount a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of this period was the Laguna Beach Museum of Art (now called the Laguna Art Museum). The museum was founded in 1918 when artists of the Laguna Beach Art Association needed a site to exhibit their works. The members of the group pooled their efforts and completed a building which became the museum in 1929. In the summer of 1979, the Laguna Museum opened Southern California Artists: 1890-1940, organized by its director, Thomas K. Enman, and accompanied by a catalogue written by Nancy Moure.

Moure curated another significant exhibition the following year, Painting and Sculpture in Los Angeles, 1900-1945, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Because the museum had sold much of its collection at auction only three years before, the majority of the pieces on display were borrowed from a growing list of private collectors in Southern California.

With the availability of a substantial number of paintings to the "secondary market" and the renewed scholarly interest in California Impressionists came a resurgence of commercial galleries dealing in the genre. In the 1920s there had been a large number of art galleries selling the works of the California Impressionists. Earl Stendahi, who founded the venerable Stendahi Galleries in 1921, was the principal dealer to most of the significant artists of the period. Faced with the continual decline in patronage for plein-air paintings, Stendahi changed the focus of the gallery in 1945 to pre-Columbian art. In 1923 a group of artists founded a cooperative gallery called the Biltmore Salon in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Over the years, the gallery changed names and ownership several times, finally becoming the Biltmore Gallery, selling contemporary paintings as well as occasional plein-air and Western masters until it moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in the 1980s, when it turned exclusively to selling Western paintings (Cat. No. 4). The Poulsen Galleries, founded in Pasadena in 1927, continued to operate as a dealer in paintings through the post-war era and into the present with a large inventory of Californian paintings.

By the 1970s only a few commercial art galleries were actively selling California Impressionists' works. Two of the most prominent dealers from Los Angeles in the mid-1970s were Frank Leonard and Marian Bowater. Bowater handled several artists' estates, including a remarkable selection of paintings by Jean Mannheim (1862-1945); regrettably, her gallery did not document the estate with a catalogue. Specializing in contemporary paintings and graphics, the Redfern Gallery in the San Fernando Valley also featured a large group of paintings by Donna Schuster (Cat. No. 52), whose estate it acquired in 1975. In recent years the Redfern Gallery has actively promoted plein-air paintings from its location in Laguna Beach. While in law school in the mid 1970s, George Stern began his career as a private dealer specializing in Californian art. In 1980, he opened George Stern Fine Arts in Encino, and in 1994 the gallery moved to Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. In the early 1970s DeWitt McCall opened a gallery in Bellflower that offered art restoration, framing, and paintings by California artists. Petersen Galleries, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, changed its emphasis to California Impressionist paintings in 1979. The first gallery to adopt a national image as a dealer in California plein-air art, it purchased several estates of California artists, held retrospective exhibitions, and published a series of catalogues and books to document the exhibitions. Among these are: The Paintings of Franz A. Bischoff (1980), The Paintings of Sam Hyde Harris (1980), Alson S. Clark (1983), Christian Von Schneidau (1986), and Elsie Palmer Payne ('990). In Santa Barbara, Gary Breitweiser, with Studio 2 Gallery, was an "early" proponent of California plein-air painting. In Northern California, Maxwell Galleries in San Francisco was the most prominent in the field. Each of these dealers has had a lasting effect on the genre, and all but Petersen Galleries are still active.

The Los Angeles County Museum auction in 1977 drew the avid attention of Dr. Irwin Schoen, one of the earliest private collectors who had renewed interest in California paintings. At its height, his collection included some of the most important works of the period, among them several paintings by Guy Rose, the best of which he purchased at the museum auction. Having no books to guide him, Schoen relied on his eye and his long experience in judging paintings.

Carl S. Dentzel, California cultural historian and director of the Southwest Museum in Highland Park, just north of Los Angeles, was another collector of paintings by California artists before the resurgence in their popularity began. Because the Southwest Museum's collections center on superb examples of cultural and ethnic artifacts relating to the American Southwest, California paintings were not often displayed there. Yet Dentzel's private collection was one of the strongest of its day. After his death his private collections, which also included many superb Asian and Southwestern artifacts, were divided among several museums, with the Laguna Art Museum receiving many of the paintings. Others remain with his widow, Elizabeth Waldo Dentzel.

The 1980s saw a growing interest in California plein-air paintings and the formation of many private collections, some of which are represented by paintings in this book. In 1982 Morton H. Fleischer, president of Franchise Finance Corporation of America in Scottsdale, began collecting California Impressionist paintings. First shown in the corporate offices, the Morton H. Fleischer F.F.C.A. Collection made its national debut in a major exhibition in 1988 at the Gilcrease Museum, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The collections acquired by Fleischer and his wife formed the basis for the Fleischer Museum, an institution dedicated solely to California Impressionism in the new F.F.C.A. Building in Scottsdale in 1990.

In 1983, Gerald and Bente Buck, of Laguna Hills, began their extensive collection of California art. Building on the theme of California art of the 20th century, the Buck Collection includes works on paper, sculpture, and decorative arts as well as paintings.

One of the most important collections of California plein-air art belongs to Thomas Stiles and his wife, Barbara Alexander, of New York City. Starting in 1984, Stiles, a Wall Street money manager, and his wife, an investment banker, have continually sought to refine their collection, which contains some of the best-known examples of the major artists of the period.

The Fieldstone Collection, which comprises a large selection of works dating from the turn of the century to the present, was begun in 1985 by Peter Ochs, founder of the Fieldstone Company, and is administered by Mary MacIntyre; this substantial corporate collection is housed in its corporate offices.

That same year, Jack and Suzie Kenefick started their small and highly personalized collection. Numbering fewer than 30 paintings, the Kenefick collection has shared exhibition venues with much larger collections throughout the country. Women artists of the period figure prominently in this collection.

In 1982 Ruth Westphal published Plein-Air Painters of California: The Southland, the first nationally distributed book that featured California plein-air artists. The success of this volume prompted the publication of Plein-Air Painters of California:: The North, in 1986 (Cat. No. 6).

The bibliography of California artists was greatly augmented in 1986 with the publication of Artists in California 1786-1940, by Edan M. Hughes. This useful book supplemented Moure's pioneering Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California before 1930 by including over 150 artists from the entire state.

In 1986 the Laguna Art Museum (formerly the Laguna Beach Art Museum) mounted the noteworthy exhibition Early Artists in Laguna Beach: The Impressionists, curated by Janet Blake Dominik. The exhibition was accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue with a large number of color plates. Arguably the finest catalogue produced at the time, it quickly sold out. Four years later, Laguna presented another significant show, California Light, 1900-1930, curated by Patricia Trenton; again, the catalogue quickly sold out its initial printing.

By the start of the 1990s, California Impressionism had reached a level of general acceptance by museums, collectors, and art dealers throughout California. Important exhibitions of American art in other parts of the country also began to include a few examples of California plein-air painting as part of their offerings. In his seminal work published in 1990, Art Across America, William H. Gerdts devoted extensive sections to both Northern and Southern California.

The renaissance of the California plein-air style coincides with the revitalization of contemporary artistic interest in outdoor painting. Under the leadership of the California Art Club, founded in 1909 by the original plein-air painters, a growing number of artists are pursuing the same goals and approaches that motivated their predecessors nearly a hundred years ago.

The Irvine Museum was founded in 1992 by Joan Irvine Smith and her late mother, Athalie R. Clarke, and opened to the public on January 15, 1993. Since then, the museum has sponsored six traveling exhibitions, published as many catalogues, and joined in the production of two multi-part documentaries for public television. Simply stated, the mission of The Irvine Museum calls for the preservation and display of California Impressionist paintings. Their intrinsic, aesthetic beauty documents the beauty of California in a bygone era. They inspire a reverence and concern for our environment, and they call for the responsible development and use of our natural resources.


Resource Library editor's notes

The above1996 essay was written by Jean Stern, Director of The Irvine Museum, for the illustrated catalogue California Impressionists, ISBN 0-915977-22-2 (cloth), which accompanied the exhibition, California Impressionists, an exhibition held in Atlanta at the time of the Olympic Games. The essay is re-keyed and 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;

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. This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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

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

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 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 Keith, Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, c. 1908, oil on canvas, 22 x 27.9 inches, De Young Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


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


(above: Millard Owen Sheets (1907-1989), San Dimas Train Station, 1933, Watercolor on paper, 15" x 22." The Hilbert Collection)


above: Elmer Wachtel, California Spring Landscape, c. 1020,  watercolor, 9 3/4 x 14 1/2 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bequest of Mrs. James S. Harlan (Adeline M. Noble Collection). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931), Madonna of the apples,1927, oil on canvas, 27.9 x 36.2 in. Source: Bonhams. 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: 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*)


Return to California Art History

Return to Individual States Art History Project


Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

*Tag for expired US copyright of object image:


Search Resource Library

Copyright 2003-2023 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.