By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Rolling hills. Pristine beaches. Temperate climes. California in the early 20th century was often considered a Garden of Eden, a paradise for landscape painters who wanted to work on location. Indeed, painting en plein air—a French term meaning “in the open air”—flourished in the Golden State from 1890 to 1930.
First practiced in Europe by artists such as Nicolas Poussin and later Claude Monet, painting outdoors was considered revolutionary at the time. Artists believed that working outside allowed them to best capture the light—a key element in their landscape works.
American Guy Rose was among the painters who were instrumental in touting the benefits of working on location. Rose had studied with Monet in Giverny, France, for a decade. When he returned home to California, Rose joined other painters, like William Wendt and Edgar Payne, who also relished setting up their easels outdoors—everywhere from the state’s rocky shores to its rugged mountain ranges. These early California paintings have stood the test of time, and today some of the works sell for $1 million or more at auction.
The term “plein air,” as it is currently used, usually refers to paintings that are completed on location. Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum in California, is quick to point out, though, that historically plein-air painting has been a means to an end. “It’s part of the process of painting a major landscape work,” Stern explains. “Every American impressionist painter does color sketches outdoors—small paintings that quickly catch the color. Then they take them inside the studio and paint larger ones.”
The early works of California plein-air painters documented the splendors of the state before the population boomed and developers encroached on this unspoiled Eden. “Part of the paintings’ appeal is that they show the way things were and the way people wish they were now,” explains Whitney Ganz, director of William A. Karges Fine Art in Los Angeles and Carmel, one of a number of galleries that specialize in early California landscape paintings.
Many California artists today carry on the legacy of Wendt, Payne, and Rose in capturing the state’s natural beauty on canvas. Stern attributes the revival of interest in landscape painting, in part, to the rebirth of the California Art Club, which was founded in 1909. In 1993, painter Peter Adams and wife, Elaine, breathed new life into the organization, and currently there are several hundred members. Today it is one of many organizations across the state that regularly sponsor plein-air painting events, shows, and workshops.
“The early impressionist painters show us what California once looked like and what we lost. Today’s painters show us what we can still save,” says Stern.
Featured in June 2008