Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945

by Jean Stern


California's artistic heritage is a comparatively young one. Indeed, the state itself was not created until 1850, when it was admitted as the 31st state in the Union. The population of California prior to 1848 is estimated to have been 15,000 people. The Gold Rush, which reached its peak in 1849, attracted large numbers of people to San Francisco, the jumping-off port for the gold fields, and the overall population of the state grew to more than 100,000 by 1850. Some of these immigrants were artists who went there for a variety of reasons: to profit from the economic boom, to make a new start, or simply to paint 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. These three pivotal artists were trained in academic European styles, which stressed extensive, richly detailed work that could only be accomplished in a studio. All three of these important California painters achieved maturity prior to the advent of Impressionism.

They and several other notable artists painted landscapes in a Romantic-Realist style closely associated with the French Barbizon school. Their works were imbued with dark tones, an active brushstroke, and a dramatic sense of light, most often showing vivid end-of-the-day sky effects. The Barbizon style found a quick and willing group of followers in mid-19th-century Europe and America, particularly among America's landscape painters, and it came to characterize the art of northern California in the 1870s and 1880s. These artists and their students and followers 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 19th century turned south, to the sparsely populated town of Los Angeles.

It was not until the railroads connected Los Angeles to San Francisco, and later to other parts of the country, that the region sustained its first massive population increase. This led to the great Land Boom of the 1880s, when many of the suburbs around Los Angeles, including Avalon, were first developed.

By the 1890s, southern California began to benefit from an influx of artists. Most of them were trained in the Impressionist manner, a popular style that favored the use of bright colors and a quick, choppy brushstroke. The Impressionists painted outdoors, directly on site, or as the French call it, en plein air.

Unlike the French Impressionists of the 1870s, who loved to paint urban scenes of ordinary people in everyday life, California's plein air painters were intent on painting landscapes. In that pursuit, they took advantage of the bright light, beautiful land, and warm climate, which allowed them to paint out of doors. Landscape painting was by far the most popular subject among California's Impressionist-inspired painters.

Whereas the French Impressionists yearned to capture the immediate moment, or temporal fragment of societal activity, California's Impressionists sought to catch the fleeting moment of specific natural light as it bathed the landscape. The clear and intense light of California, which appears 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 objective 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 en plein air, and to accentuate the role of color in order to produce brilliant light effects.

With its growth of population during the early 1880s, Los Angeles began to attract professional artists. By the late 1880s, several artists were already permanent residents. Among the most prominent were John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) and his wife, Elizabeth Putnam Borglum (1848-1922), Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929), and John Bond Francisco (1863-1931).

At this time, Santa Catalina Island was beginning to experience its own boom. In the late 1880s, George Shatto was developing the town of Avalon and the steamer Ferndale was carrying out regular excursions from the mainland across to Avalon. In 1888, Shatto built his superb two-story hotel, the Metropole, which, like the venerable Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego, was attracting a number of well-to-do tourists who demanded luxurious surroundings.


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