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"The Outsiders"

Modernism in California, 1920-1940

by Jean Stern


From 1895 to about 1925, the plein-air style was the most popular art style among landscape painters in the southern California art community. As a regional variant of American Impressionism, these landscape paintings exhibited the two basic influences from the French style: the California paintings displayed the quick, choppy and expressive brushstroke that typically covered the surface of the work, and American painters were more than open to using the bright, pure colors so characteristic of French Impressionism.

In California, the largest and most powerful artists' organization was the California Art Club, founded in 1909. The club was made up entirely of artists who worked in visually representative approaches. There were to be no modern artists in this club.

By 1915, the California Art Club had reached dominance over the exhibition and sales network in Southern California. Through negotiated agreements, the club worked out two major exhibitions per year at the Los Angeles Museum of Art and History. The outcome of this arrangement meant that these popular art shows would only accept works in traditional representational styles for exhibition. So strong was the domination of the landscape painters on early twentieth century art that anyone not painting in that manner was, in effect, considered an "Outsider".

However, by the late 1920's, American art experienced a series of dramatic transformations that would reach all the way to California. Although many younger artists had been devoted students of the Impressionist, most turned away from their heritage. The new generation of artists turned to newer styles, characterized by a move toward more progressive approaches to painting. European-inspired Modernism, first shown in New York in 1913 at the momentous Armory Show, found ready converts among this new generation of artists.

By circumstance, a good number of the progressive artists in the 1910s to 1930s were women. Far from being conservatives, the women of this period were the cutting edge of art in California. Perhaps in reaction to the societal restrictions put on women artists at the time, women were relatively free to experiment and dabble in European Modernism. Where some of the successful male artists were restricted to paintings works within their commercially expected style, women had little to lose by initiating major modifications to their art styles.

Canadian-born Henrietta Shore (1880-1963) was one of the leaders in establishing progressive art in California. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1913 in a milieu of landscape painters, Shore found an identity as a modernist artist. With a few other artists, she founded the Modern Art Society in 1916. Among her fellow members, she counted Meta Cressey (1882-1964) and her husband Bert Cressey (1883-1944), Helena Dunlap (1876-1955), Edgar Keller (1868-1932) and Karl Yens (1868-1945).

In addition, there were a good number of young artists who worked independently. Among these were Hamilton Wolf (1883-1967), and Maurice Askenazy (1888-1961) in Los Angeles, Elanor Colburn (1866-1939) and her daughter Ruth Peabody (1893-1966) in Laguna Beach, and Belle Baranceanu (1902-1988) in San Diego.

All through the 1910s and 1920s, progressive artists were shut out from most art exhibitions and thus found it difficult to make a living without the dedicated patronage that was restricted to landscape painters. In time, art tastes change and by the onset of the Great Depression, progressive artists found an easing of opposition to their painting style. The strong concern for the plight of society during difficult economic times found its most direct manner of expression in the dramatic forms and colors of the Progressive Style. This new and lasting symbiosis is seen today under the epithet Regionalism and, more locally, the California Scene painters.

About the author

Jean Stern is Executive Director of The Irvine Museum.


Images from the exhibition


(above: Paul Lauritz (1889-1975), Autumn Near Big Bear Lake, 28x34 inches, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum)


(above: Frank Myers (1899-1956), Football Players, 24x36 inches, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum)


(above: Phil Paradise (1905-1997), The Corral, c. 1941, 23x28 inches, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum)


Additional images from the exhibition

To view additional images from the exhibition please click here


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