Book Review — California Light: A century of Landscapes

Cover for California Light

California Light : A Century of Landscapes

By Jean Stern and Molly Siple

Blazing deserts, moody interiors, snow laced mountains, urban landscapes and rich farmland are the allure California offers to the artists of the California Art Club. California Light: A Century of Landscapes is a celebration of the club’s centennial. Beginning in 1909 when a group of southern California artists founded the club. Among the founding members were Franz Bischoff, Hanson Puthuff and William Wendt. They felt strongly that artists living in southern California should have a means to exhibit their work, exchange ideas and have a support network. Interestingly, the club was open to all artists, women were not prohibited, many members were sculptors and artists used any medium they wanted.  By 1911 they held their first exhibition and most professional artists in southern California were members. This group would go on to prosper for the next 3 decades giving rise to California Impressionism, a uniquely American style of Impressionism.

Prior to 1860 California was difficult to reach. Travelers had 3 choices, overland by horse and wagon, and two choices by sea. A ship to Panama, this was prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, the ship docked on the Atlantic side where travelers continued overland via mule and canoe to the Pacific side and continuing on to California by ship. Or, travelers could take a lengthy route via ship around South America. 

In 1869 the Union Pacific Transcontinental Railroad was completed and travelers had a direct route from the east to San Francisco, cutting the months-long journey by wagon to just a week. 

In 1885 the Santa Fe railroad from Chicago to LA was completed linking the east, the heartland and the west coast of the country. This led to an economic boom that ushered  explosive population growth in California.

Among the travelers were artists such as Granville Redmond, Elmer and Marion Wachtel, Jack Wilkinson Smith, and Edgar Payne to  name a few. The work they produced was stunning and uniquely American with a focus on the landscape painted from the perspective of the artist; there were no patrons or organizations to dictate the subject or how it was to be presented.

Part 1 of California Light takes us along on the journey of these early artists, the obstacles they overcame in order to capture their vision on paper, canvas and in stone. Their story continued until the Great depression of the 1930’s. They formed a close and inclusive group exchanging ideas and mounting exhibitions not only to sell their work but to educate the public on the importance of what they were doing. Eventually collectors were eager to purchase. These artists captured landscapes that are gone today using brilliant colors, varied compositional perspectives and design, a new chapter in American art. This period between 1900 and 1930 was known as California Impressionism. Based on the tenants of French Impressionism but with more emphasis on atmosphere and emotion.

The California landscape was the perfect place for these artists to evolve French Impressionism. The brilliant light and stunning scenery combined to push these artists to produce work rich in color, texture and design capturing the energy and unique characteristics of the area. 

As their work gained recognition more artists came to the state, exhibitions were mounted and the public were enthralled. It was a heady time. Throughout the book we are treated to a gallery of paintings, beautifully reproduced. These paintings run the gamut of styles and vision, but all incorporate lush use of paint, and active, descriptive brushwork. Though representational there is a surprising amount of modernist concepts that give the landscapes a fresh singular aspect. The work of Edgar Payne is one example. He flattens form and yet describes immense space in his paintings

Canyon Riders

Canyon Riders    Edgar A. Payne

While reading this book I realized how critically important a club like this was to the artist members. They had limited exposure to Impressionism, yes, many were trained in France or studied with someone who had trained in France, but practically their  only exposure would have been the few exhibitions they could have attended in this country. Being able to discuss  and share ideas with other artists painting the same landscapes would have been essential to their growth. 

As I stated earlier, the club hit a rough patch after the 1930’s for a few reasons. The depression gutted the art market and in the coming decades the many art “isms” of the century turned public interest away from Impressionism. A few artists held the club together continuing to paint plein air and providing a fragile link to the representational painters of the last century.

In part 2 of the book we read about the revival of The California Art club in the 1980’s. During the period between 1930 and 1980 the landscape of California was being swallowed whole by population growth and development, prompting a new interest in wild spaces and the need to preserve them. Plein air painting found a special role in this regard. Plein air art organizations such as The Catalina Art Association hosted its first annual Plein Air Art festival and from this a group of artists formed The Plein Air Painters of America, a national organization that promotes outdoor painting and is strongly involved in educational programs. Today plein air painting is hugely popular with thousands of events nationwide each year. The California Art Club was reinvigorated starting in the 1980’s and currently has a robust membership of landscape artists eager to portray their vision of the landscape, as well as preserve what remains of the landscapes that inspire them. 

A noticeable difference between the artwork of part 1 and part 2 is the inclusion of manmade structure and people. I think this highlights the stark difference of the two ages of plein air painting in California and perhaps, as well, it is a modern approach to landscape painting, including the artifacts of human existence and its effect on the land. The unique vision of so many artists is a treasure to have and this book is a fitting celebration to California and the artists it inspires.


The Artists Book Club recommendation:

This is a great reference volume to have in your art library. A little bit of history and a singular collection of work from hundreds of artists beautifully reproduced with insights from each of the artists about what inspires them and the many benefits of plein air painting. 

  • Artistic work not only allows, but demands, some deviation from form and line. Just how far this may go depends on the viewpoint of each painter.

    Edgar A. Payne