In Praise of Nature

By Will South

The following is excerpted from California Impressionism by William H. Gerdts and Will South [1998 Abbeville Press, New York City].

Fannie Eliza Duvall, Untitled [First Communion, San Juan Capistrano, 1897], oil, 20 x 30, courtesy The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, CA; Gift of Miss Vesta A. Olstead and Miss Frances Campbell.,painting, southwest art.
Fannie Eliza Duvall, Untitled [First Communion, San Juan Capistrano, 1897], oil, 20 x 30, courtesy The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, CA; Gift of Miss Vesta A. Olstead and Miss Frances Campbell.

California was America’s destiny materialized. Here, at the farthest edge of the Union, were seemingly limitless resources: thick forests, fertile valleys, crystalline rivers, and underground troves of gold. If America really was the promised land a belief held for so long by so many immigrants from so many countries then California was the promise kept. This was a land of opportunity and second chances, a land where one could rejuvenate, if not reinvent, the self.

Gold and dream became and have remained two of the words used most repeatedly in connection with California. They suggest the state’s wealth of resources, its Edenic landscape, and its therapeutic and even magical atmosphere. These words have been used as shorthand for various California myths of endless fun in the sun, of instant stardom and wealth, of carefree unconventionality unthinkable elsewhere lifestyles often desired but only sometimes achieved by its residents. But they are words that can also obscure the often brutal realities of unchecked growth, violence, poverty, and oppression that have darkened so much of California’s history. Finally, though, these are words that echo the greatest of America’s myths: the opportunity for a better life for all, the original golden opportunity that was and remains the American dream.

John Gamble, Passing Shower [n.d.], oil, 30 x 40, collection of Candice Bergen,painting, southwest art.
John Gamble, Passing Shower [n.d.], oil, 30 x 40, collection of Candice Bergen

Indeed, California’s history is inseparable from the larger context of American history. During the 19th century the era of Impressionism’s nascence and develop-ment—Californians believed, as their fellow Americans did, in creationism (the belief that the world and everything in it was made by a divine being); in patriotism (America was a great land destined to be even greater); and in the existence of certain irrefutable truths about the universal order (as God held dominion over men, for example, so men held dominion over women). A typical land-owning, business-running, churchgoing 19th-century Californian could profess to understand his world with astonishing clarity and confidence, as could his eastern counterpart.

Jack Wilkinson Smith, Sunlit Surf [c1918], oil, 331⁄4 x 421⁄4, The Buck Collection.,painting, southwest art.
Jack Wilkinson Smith, Sunlit Surf [c1918], oil, 331⁄4 x 421⁄4, The Buck Collection.

Supported by such an unshakable worldview, the average 19th-century American of European descent considered truth and beauty to be largely knowable too. These twin stars of the philosophical universe were identified, codified, and taught. The standard aesthetic criterion for painting was its fidelity to observable nature, that first and greatest of all creations. Art, made by mere humans, could never compete with nature, created by God. The best that artists could do was to mirror the glory and the order of nature, the perfection of its incredibly varied parts. This widely shared belief in a planned, stable, and complete environment of divine origin provided a strong foundation for the pragmatic thinking and moral certitude of the dominant social class in America. The clearest expression of American self-righteousness came at mid-century with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which declared that the United States had a pre-ordained role to colonize all the land between the East and West Coasts.

Jean Mannheim, Ironing Day [1910], oil, 39 x 34, collection of Peter and Gail Ochs.,painting, southwest art.
Jean Mannheim, Ironing Day [1910], oil, 39 x 34, collection of Peter and Gail Ochs.

In the last decades of the 19th century, even the devastating Civil War, the appearance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the Industrial Revolution did not subvert the prevailing belief in a planned and ordered universe. American ideas about truth and beauty in painting remained grounded in what was verifiable—in what could be matched and measured against the ultimate aesthetic standard of the great outdoors.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1854: “Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction—a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” The typical 19th-century American painter envisioned his vocation to be like that of Thoreau’s proudly diligent worker and, like him, sought the truth. In visual terms, this meant the laboriously accurate representation of landscapes, still lifes, or portraits.

Guy Rose, Laguna Eucalyptus [c1917], oil, 40 x 30, courtesy The Irvine Museum, CA.,painting, southwest art.
Guy Rose, Laguna Eucalyptus [c1917], oil, 40 x 30, courtesy The Irvine Museum, CA.

This aesthetic credo of faithful representation also demanded spiritual interpretation. Thomas Cole had declared early in the century that he was more than “a mere leaf painter;” he was an artist who expressed the inherent goodness and the overwhelming majesty of creation. Art was to be morally edifying and uplifting. Landscape art, in addition to expressing such religious sentiments, was also related to the expansionist fervor of the nation. As America pushed west, so did artists who created images that were as grand as the ideology of Manifest Destiny itself. Artists absorbed the political imperatives of their time and place, and they inevitably left traces of those values on their canvases.

These various impulses—to replicate nature, to convey its spiritual dimensions, and to infuse the landscape with political significance—were inherited by the painters of late 19th- and early 20th-century California known collectively, if somewhat imprecisely, as the California Impressionists. These painters—a large group, including well-known artists Alson Clark, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose, and William Wendt as well as such lesser-known painters as Anne Bremer, John Frost, Evelyn McCormick, and John O’Shea are all more direct descendants of America’s Hudson River school painters than of the original French Impressionists. The California Impressionists’ perception of wilderness in all its aspects the grand, the sublime, and the intimate—was derived from a worldview in which reality was stable and related more closely to the fixed and flawless images by Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt than to the transient and tenuous landscapes by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissarro.

Anne Millay Bremer, An Old-Fashioned Garden [n.d.], oil, 20 x 24, courtesy Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, CA.,painting, southwest art.
Anne Millay Bremer, An Old-Fashioned Garden [n.d.], oil, 20 x 24, courtesy Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, CA.

To be sure, the California Impressionists did graft a variety of French Impressionist methods onto their own more academic techniques, but they could never forsake one of the basic tenets of their American philosophical heritage: truth is in nature; the duty of the artist is to reveal this truth, not to alter it, and certainly not to destroy it. Whereas Monet stood before the landscape and dissected its color components with the cool precision of a surgeon, the California Impressionists, like all American landscapists of their era, were essentially humble before the objects within their field of vision and preserved the integrity of them. These artists hoped to invest their canvases, as the Hudson River school painters had done before them, with positive, soul-uplifting imagery, as opposed to the French Impressionists, whose interest in the sensual and the contemporary far outweighed any such sense of moral obligation.

The more effectively an American painter translated the facts of nature onto a canvas and evoked a mood, whether awe-inspiring or pastoral, the more highly praised he was. To reveal something of nature’s power, mystery, and beauty was for the artist to be akin to its Creator; the artist was like a preacher who makes the obscurity of a parable comprehensible. The artist’s technical skill often determined his or her own estimation of artistic merit, and it was a critical component of public success. Many of the 19th-century American artists who had worked diligently to acquire the academic skills of representation were understandably loath to abandon them to French modernism.

Still, Impressionism held many attractions for Americans. The intensity of color in an Impressionist canvas closely resembled the color actually observed in nature. Such color had a visual truth that reached beyond the polished and precise yet predominantly brown and gray descriptions of branches and rocks found in the work of their Hudson River school predecessors. So, too, the reductive approach in an Impressionist painting—in which, for example, masses of leaves became a plane of meshed strokes rather than individual leaf upon leaf—approximated nature seen out of doors and occasionally out of focus, as opposed to the constant atmospheric clarity within the studio. To paint this way was not inconsistent with the facts of nature. And the intimate scale of Impressionist painting was appealing. Not all experiences in the landscape were heroic and theatrical; on the contrary, much of nature’s poetry could be quiet, even reclusive.

Numerous American painters eventually adopted the flickering, fragmented light of Impressionism, a light so different from the hushed radiance of earlier American landscapes. For the French Impressionists, painting the energy, warmth, brilliance, and transience of light took precedence over idealizing the landscape, and the vitality of the paintings that resulted from this focus on light impressed all their followers who sought to interpret the landscape at home. The Impressionists’ desire to capture fugitive light could determine the speed with which an image was transcribed and the overall intensity of its chromatic representation.

American painters of the 19th century, including the California Impressionists, adopted aspects of the French Impressionist approach—grayless color, simplified detail, intimate scale, and, most important, the idea of light itself as subject matter. The Californians continued to portray the landscape realistically, carefully retaining underlying structures and recognizable forms. But Impressionism gave them a painting method that heightened their ability to represent outdoor light and color more convincingly. Their use of selected Impressionist innovations did not obscure their accurate academic drawing or prevent their expressing some higher content in their work than mere topographical description—an aim entirely consistent with the Californians’ artistic and cultural heritage. While the French Impressionists were the first among the European avant-garde in their dematerialization of nature, the California Impressionists were the last among the American transcendentalists in their reverent praise of it.

Of course, simply to describe the visual elements of California Impressionist paintings—their shapes, colors, and subjects—and to analyze the cultural context in which they were made will neither automatically nor absolutely reveal their meaning. Careful historical investigation and critical interpretation may enhance our general appreciation of this era and its art, but individual artists work in personal and idiosyncratic ways, at times confounding even our most thoughtful efforts at understanding. Artists do not react to cultural and historical stimuli in predictable patterns. Indeed, how can the present-day historian ever know what artists felt when standing beside the pristine Pacific Ocean of 100 years ago?

The western landscape itself must be considered a factor in any discussion of early California artists. The region’s extraordinary fecundity reinforced both creationist and nationalist beliefs. If any land was truly blessed, it must be California, and if any land challenged the spirit of both individuality and democracy by offering opportunities and obstacles to one and all, it must be California. Here, it seemed, was every possible landscape: verdant valleys, rugged mountains, bone-dry deserts, and more than a thousand miles of sand-covered shoreline. California was, and is, a land of spectacular light and color. Painting out of doors was a way of being profoundly involved with this environment, and it provided stimulation and inspiration often impossible for artists to put into words.

The appellation “California Impressionism” is used here to designate an informal school of painters who were hybrids of the then-dominant strains of American culture and European artistic innovations. Within that school, individual responses and  modifications were everywhere apparent. This was a generation of painters who began their careers in the 1880s and 1890s already conditioned by a pragmatic yet spiritually oriented value system and attuned to the rhetoric of progress as much as to poetic reverie. They adopted aspects of French Impressionism, Barbizon school painting, and stylish formulas for figure painting observed in fashionable salons and galleries, but they never lost their philosophical or cultural grounding in the broader spectrum of American art. To say that a given painter was a California Impressionist is to acknowledge this mixed heritage.

Photos courtesy Abbeville Press, New York City.

Featured in December 1998