Impressionism in California, 1890-1930

by Jean Stern

Executive Director, The Irvine Museum


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 these vistas were ideal subjects for the landscape painters who came to California over a hundred years ago. The enthralling beauty of California is the principal reason that, from the middle of the 19th century to the early decades of the 20th century, painting in California was characterized by a large number of light-filled landscape paintings.

In the early 19th century, California was 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 were peaceful societies, living in villages or nomadic groups, 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 California remained a tranquil region, with only occasional subsequent contact. For over two hundred 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 1700s, Russia was extending its reach into the northern parts of California. Alarmed at this development, Spain decided to re-establish its presence in California. Over the span of about fifty years, Spain built a series of twenty-three 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 and even though the period lasted only about fifty 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 who returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano every spring on St. Joseph's Day, March 17. This iconographic assemblage was embraced by popular culture over the past 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 perhaps another fifty years. However, the Gold Rush made it of paramount concern to American interests, and within a year, California became a part of the United States with formal statehood in 1850.

With a massive increase in residents, from about 300 people prior to the Gold Rush of 1849 to over 15,000 in just the first year, San Francisco 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, by docking on the Atlantic side, crossing the isthmus to the Pacific side and boarding 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 and most of them were landscape painters.

Landscape painting is an integral aspect of American art. Indeed, from the earliest times, American art had been determined by unique circumstances. Unlike 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-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, 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 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 artists used color and in the adoption of the distinct, loose brushwork. 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 to the scenic beauty of California. Artists like Virgil Williams (1830-1886), William Keith (1839-1911) and Thomas Hill (1829-1908) 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, that appears so often in these paintings, defined the landscape. The biblical analogy of light as the creative instrument is appropriate to the manner 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 (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), 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 (1863-1945) and Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Donna Schuster (1883-1953) moved to Los Angeles and became a 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, 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 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 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 Impresionists, 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. 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 essay previously appeared in The California Art Club Newsletter, Summer, 2003. The essay is reprinted with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact Mr. Stern through The Irvine Museum at 949-476-256. The California Art Club, Pasadena, CA, may be reached at 626-583-9009 or Read more articles and essays concerning the California Art Club by visiting the sub-index page for the California Art Club in Resource Library Magazine. Read more articles and essays concerning The Irvine Museum 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.

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

Also see these articles and essays: California Art History, California Artists: 19th-21st Century, California Impressionism and California Regionalism and California School of Painters.

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

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: Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Sunset Clouds, 1904, Google Books. 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: Benjamin Chambers Brown, Grand Canyon, before 1942, 30 x 22 inches, Private collection. Source: The Athenaeum. 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: William Wendt (1865-1946), Inyo County, 1926. 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: Jean Mannheim (1863-1945), Sunny Portrait, before 1945, 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: 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*)


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


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