An essay in connection with...

Art Colonies and American Impressionism

January 9 through April 11, 1999


What Made Laguna Beach Special

by Deborah Epstein Solon


France has the imperishable glory of her Barbizon; the Eastern United States has its Gloucester; and the Southwest has its Laguna Beach. 1

By the end of the nineteenth century, artists had discovered Laguna Beach. Laguna's unique location, nestled between the San Joaquin Hills and the Pacific Ocean, made it one of the most exquisite spots in Southern California. Its climatic extremes, relative inaccessibility, and undeveloped beauty and charm fostered and nurtured an adventurous colonial artistic spirit. Despite the inherent difficulties of living in Laguna, the sparse population was nothing if not independent, pragmatic, and a bit cocky: they had discovered the "pearl of the Pacific,"2 a small slice of unspoiled heaven on earth.

The novel idea of forming an art colony had its roots in nineteenth-century France, in Barbizon, where artists began in the 1820s to congregate outside of Paris to paint outdoors in a natural setting. By the end of the century, several French colonies, such as Giverny and Grez-sur-Loing, were well established and attracted numbers of European and American artists.3 The appeal of such colonies was largely twofold: they provided a lifestyle alternative to urban living, which in America was coming under deep scrutiny at the turn of the century; and they were located right in the heart of the Impressionist pictorial motifs in favor at the time. Artists could gather to paint out-of-doors, living together in a relatively relaxed community while being free to roam the countryside in search of their inspiration.

Art colonies sprang up in the United States on both coasts, but primarily in the East, where the artistic tradition, like the settlement of the land, had a longer history. Common to colonies discussed in this essay was the dominance of Impressionism. The very term "Impressionism" is ubiquitous in the language and dialogue of art history. For the purposes of this study, most of the artists discussed fall under the general rubric of Impressionist painters. Members of these colonies practiced modified forms of Impressionism, varying in great degree from artist to artist. Nevertheless, the practice of Impressionism, in its variously adapted forms, was the bond that held these colonists and colonies together. (Editor's note: Please see the book review by Joan Stahl of the National Museum of American Art on the book American Art Colonies, 1850-1930 : A Historical Guide to America's Original Art Colonies and Their Artists / Steve Shipp.--Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, December 1996.--192 p.: ill.--ISBN 0-313-29619-7 (cl., alk. paper); LC 96-5434: $69.50.)

Impressionism was born in France and one of its leading exponents was Claude Monet. Monet's move to Giverny in 1883 helped to solidify the art colony there and established a model for their counterparts in the United States in the years to come. American and other painters congregated at Giverny in order to be in the presence of the Master, in spite of Monet's attempts to guard his privacy and not fraternize with other artists. The residence of a great artist may be one reason for the development of an art colony, but not the only one. Art historian Karal Ann Marling has posited a division of art colonies into the following categories: those that evolved naturally from groups of visiting artists who were drawn to an area primarily for the scenery, and those intentionally planned in hopes of creating a specific political or social environment that would foster the creative arts.4

This essay explores Laguna Beach and three East Coast art colonies: Cos Cob and Old Lyme in Connecticut and Shinnecock on Long Island. The first three colonies mushroomed through their discovery by artists who fell in love with the countryside and location; Shinnecock grew with the presence of the American Master William Merritt Chase, but the unique terrain also offered artists an array of visual stimuli.


Footnotes: 1 -9, 10-25, 26-38, 39-54, 55-72, 73-79

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

rev. 11/22/10

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