The Collector’s Issue | Plein-Air Paradise


Roy Rose’s home cantilevers down a cliff overlooking Avalon Bay, where sailboats nest and sun-worshippers sprawl on red and yellow beach towels. The scene could be a postcard from Italy’s Amalfi Coast or the French Rivera. It is, in fact, on Catalina Island, 22 miles of Pacific Ocean away from Los Angeles, CA.

Art collector Rose has made his home in this delicious setting since 1947.
On this particular July morning his five-story, 5,000-square-foot abode is awash in the bright, golden light of California in the summertime. Rose greets a visitor to his sanctuary at the front gate, then leads the way down a series of steps to his front door. Each step is punctuated with a red or blue ceramic pot brimming with impatiens or begonias.

Once inside the home, the first thing that catches the eye is an entryway wall lined with landscape paintings that capture the light and color of the region—atmospheric plein-air paintings by Kevin Macpherson, Ralph Oberg, Ron Rencher, and Ned Mueller, among others. The works portray swaying palm trees, crimson poppy fields, and a gray day at Catalina’s Tuna Club.

The Lavalier, a portrait of a woman dressed in pink by American impressionist Guy Rose [1867-1925], hangs on a nearby wall. The prominent artist, who is Roy Rose’s great-uncle, was originally from California. At auction recently his paintings fetched $1.2 million—more than any other deceased California artist to date.

Guy Rose paintings are sprinkled throughout Roy’s home, mingling like old friends with contemporary plein-air paintings by members of the Plein Air Painters of America. He owns works by about 20 current PAPA members, as well
as additional ones by former mem-bers and guest artists through the years. Along with his friend on the island, painter Denise Burns, he was instrumental in the group’s founding.


Every year since the first show in 1985, top artists from across the country

have conver-ged in Catalina to paint its flora, fauna, harbors, coves, and street life. And every year Rose has added a few new works from the sale to his collection. Collectors who attend the show this month might spot him edging around the circular ballroom of the Avalon Casino, eyeing the more than 100 plein-air paintings that pose on easels. “Buying a pain-ting is like a marriage,” Rose is fond of saying. “You have to find something that evokes an emotion, and you have to like to look at it and live with it.”

The Casino, an art deco structure, is the defining landmark in the picturesque
town. In the 1930s and ’40s it featured popular Big Band dances that drew
Angelinos in need of a weekend respite. The island was also known as a hideaway for movie stars like John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Cary Grant. “It was a time when movie stars were like royalty and the old star system was still in place,” Rose recalls.

Rose moved to the island from the Southern California mainland when he was 11 years old. His childhood home was filled with paintings created by Guy Rose. As family members aged and wanted to simplify their lives, they gave Roy their artworks. But when Guy Rose’s widow, Ethel, died in 1953, Rose decided in earnest that it was time to reclaim the family legacy. Paintings had been scattered here and there over the years, landing in auctions and galleries and in some cases even being given away. Soon Rose was poring over black-and-white photographs of original paint-ings, a scrapbook of art reviews, and other memorabilia that Ethel left to the family. In this way his treasure hunt began. Today Rose has one of the largest and most complete collections of Guy Rose paintings in private hands.

By the late ’70s and early ’80s, he had also started to collect works by contemporaries of Guy Rose other California Impressionists like plein-air painters Elmer and Marion Wachtel, Granville Redmond, and Edgar Payne. At the time such traditional art was out of fashion among the critics. Rose knows he was totally out of step with the times, and he doesn’t care a wit. “Even though I didn’t see any people out painting on location then, I’ve always been drawn to impressionism and collected it.”

In the early ’80s, when Burns asked Rose to get involved with the contemporary plein-air movement then blossoming across the country, he was reluctant. But “Denise can be very persuasive, and she really leaned on me,” he recalls.

Pretty soon he found himself volunteering to host art enthusiasts who descended on his home to view his collection. These early events helped raise funds for the First Annual Plein-Air Festival, as it was called then, held in Avalon in 1985.

At first Rose had no interest in collecting contemporary works by the painters in the group, either. “I felt I had the best a collection of deceased artists. But then, as I became more acquainted with the living artists’ work, I realized it was equal or superior to that of their predecessors,” he says. Rose recalls putting a number of contemporary paintings in gold-leaf
frames at one point; when he stood back to look at them, he was taken aback. “I was shocked,” he says. “I couldn’t tell the difference between the living and the dead guys. The work held up really well.”

This epiphany was a major turning point in the direction of his collection. In addition, prices for works by deceased impressionists had skyrocketed by the early ’90s. Acquiring them was not making sense anymore, Rose says. For every painting he was buying, he was selling two more from his collection to pay for the purchase.

He soon changed his emphasis from deceased to living artists and has never looked back. Collecting became exciting again, he says. Paintings were affordable, and there was a endless flow of good works by living painters. As he points
out, many of the good works by the deceased artists had dried up by the ’80s. “What it took to buy work by the dead guys was luck, guidance, and a pretty fat checkbook,” he says.

Rose retired in 1990 and immersed himself in studying art history. He learned how the early impressionists lived and how they had a sense of camaraderie with each other. He studied their diaries, soaking up information about where they painted together. “I liked the idea that these people helped each other,” he says. “That appealed to me. Then as I thought about the contemporary painters, I realized that it was happening all over again today, and that made a huge impact on me.”

One of the first PAPA painters who caught Rose’s eye was Kevin Macpherson, a New Mexico-based artist whose quick, broken brush strokes and limited palette coincided with Rose’s interpretation of “pure impressionism.”

Rose says he looks for consistency when considering artists, even if their style varies. “If I see one painting that knocks me out but 20 that are mediocre, I won’t buy that good painting, because the artist isn’t consistent and he is still learning and experimenting,” Rose explains. “He hasn’t hit his mark yet.”

His love affair with impressionism encompasses all styles, including that of painters like Brian Stewart, who often incorporates humor in his scenes. Rose points to a painting by Stewart called The Fountain, which hangs in his home’s
gallery area, as an example.

It depicts a popular fountain in Avalon where tourists often gather to have their pictures taken. Rose draws a comparison between Stewart and California Impressionist Sam Hyde Harris [1889-1977]: “Stewart is the present-day Harris because he is able to paint the humorous, the ugly, and the oddball stuff like his predecessor. He does everything from old cars to Quonset huts and barber-shops,” Rose explains.

In addition to planning for this month’s PAPA show, Rose is currently working on a book project sponsored by the Society for the Advancement of Plein-Air Painting. The Enchanted Isle: A History of Plein-Air Painting in Santa Catalina
will include an essay by Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum, on the history of the island and the deceased artists. Molly Siple with the California Art Club is contributing an essay on the contemporary artists. The advocacy group is aiming for a June 2003 publication date. Some of the 200 color images for the book will come from Rose’s own collection, including First Light by Joe Paquet and Avalon Atmosphere by Kevin Macpherson.

The group was founded, Rose says, in part to insure that the history of these modern-day painters is not lost. “I take all of this seriously,” he says. “I’m helping assemble history and a collection that I know may not be important in my lifetime, because that is not the way it happens. But maybe in 50 to 100 years, it will be.” And in the meantime, Rose adds, it is a joy to live every day with the legacy of light and color that illuminates the walls of his home.

Featured in October 2002