In Nature's Temple: The Life and Art of William Wendt

November 9, 2008 - February 8, 2009


In Nature's Temple: The Life and Art of William Wendt will be the first full-scale retrospective on the art of William Wendt. In 1912 William Wendt was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design, the same year that he built a studio-home in Laguna Beach. In many ways, Wendt represented the essential nature of California Impressionism both stylistically and ideologically. No other California Impressionist so consistently essayed the sweeping, romantic grand landscape view as Wendt, and no other painter so strongly equated his work with the ideology of Nature as Creation, and Nature as a spiritual path. Dapper, distinguished, and much admired by his many followers, Wendt functioned as a very visible example of what an artist should aspire to, and his ongoing career summarized the idealism that was the foundation of California art in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (right: William Wendt, Head of Amarillo Canyon, c. 1897-1901, oil on canvas, 18 x 28 inches. Private Collection)

California Impressionism -- a hybrid style of painting that retained clarity of forms overlaid with the brilliant French Impressionist palette -- was once critically unquestioned and regionally preeminent. It nearly disappeared in the maze of 1950s California hard-edge painting and abstract expressionism, 1960s pop and funk art, and the deluge of kinetic and performance art forms of the 1970s. However, to fully engage and understand the evolution of American painting, we need to understand the nuances of this hybrid approach to image making, as California was, of all the States, perceived as the real land of opportunity and reinvention and was destined to become the nation's most populace and economically powerful member. And, to understand California Impressionism, we need to fully examine its central practitioner, William Wendt.

The resurgence of interest in California's early painters over the past two-plus decades has resulted in a number of academically rigorous studies. The Oakland Museum of California Art's landmark exhibition and catalogue, Impressionism: The California View (1981) was perhaps the first attempt to contextualize California art within the spectrum of American studies, followed by William H. Gerdts still seminal book, American Impressionism (1984), that recognized Wendt and a host of other American artists previously consigned to "regional" as opposed to "American" status. A torrent of regional studies of American art followed in its wake, the majority of these dealing with some aspect of California art history. One of these was a compendium of documents on Wendt's life privately published in 1992 that, although useful, is limited in interpretive scope and compromised by a narrow methodology. (left: William Wendt, The Grove, 1915, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Edenhurst Gallery)

To date, the most referred to work on Wendt is Laguna Art Museum's 1977 catalogue written by noted scholar, Nancy Moure, for an exhibition of that same year. While this was a careful and focused study of Wendt, it came before (indeed, helped to instigate) the era of intense scholarship noted above. Given Wendt's enormous contribution, the time has come to build on Moure's early work. Until an exhaustive study of Wendt exists, a major piece of California art history, and thus American art history, remains missing.

The most obvious reason no detailed monographic study of Wendt has been undertaken in recent years is the daunting lack of primary research material: the artist left no diary; no scrapbook; and precious few letters. He left no children, and thus not even the prospect of family oral histories. The challenge now is to reconstruct Wendt's biography taking advantage of all the recent relevant scholarship in the field as a whole and to reassess his art in the same light. The exhibition will address this challenge with a full-scale retrospective, accompanied by a book detailing to the fullest extent possible his life and achievement. Wendt died in Laguna Beach on December 29, 1946.

Organized by Laguna Art Museum, the exhibition will be guest curated by Dr. Will South, chief curator at the Dayton Art Institute, and will be accompanied by a color book featuring a 50 page essay by the curator. Dr. South's many publications include Guy Rose: American Impressionist (1995); California Impressionism (1998); Color Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism (2001); and In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists (2002).


(above: William Wendt, Lupine Patch, 1921, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Josh Hardy Galleries, Carmel)


To view the catalogue essay "William Wendt: Plein Air Painter of California,"by Will South please click here.

To view A Chronology on the Life of William Wendt, by Janet Blake please click here.

To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here.


Editor's note:

The Laguna Art Museum provided source material to Resource Library for the above article. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Laguna Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address: 949-494-6531;

Readers may also enjoy:


California Art History

California Artists: 19th-21st Century

California Impressionism

The book accompanying the exhibition has been published in partnership with The Irvine Museum.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Laguna Art Museum in Resource Library.


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