Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on December 17, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Laguna Art Museum. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists, (ISBN #0-940872-26-9) held November 3, 2002 - March 2, 2003 at Laguna Art Museum. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact Laguna Art Museum through either this phone number or web address:
In and Out of California: The Participatory Nature of Early California Art
by Will South
California Impressionists participated in their world. Whether native or not, these loosely affiliated painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- those who called California "home" -- knew what it was to travel in and through vast and open spaces, to destinations remote, exotic, and cosmopolitan. They knew the cultural luxuries of Paris; they knew the dramatic emptiness of Western deserts.
California artists studied. In academies from San Francisco to New York to London, Paris, Munich, and Rome, they acquired and mastered the technical methods of painting. They saw exhibitions, read reviews, and discussed the state of world art. Many of them became teachers themselves, both here and abroad; still others wrote on the how and why of art for books and various journals.
California Impressionists achieved. They exhibited internationally, sold numerous paintings, won awards, and were the subject of reviews, essays, and eventually of books that have reflected on their achievements, one of which certainly was to crystallize an edenic view of California that continues to intertwine with assumptions about and experiences of the Golden State.
How remarkably and fully California artists were "out" of California as much as "in" is a theme that in an increasingly necessary way challenges the ways in which art historians, critics, collectors, and the public have chosen to understand art of this time and place -- that is, as "Californian" before it is American or Impressionist, a critically left-handed distinction at best. By continually looking for what is "Californian" in a work of art, we are continually at risk for missing expressive elements that might be considered peculiarly individual or, on the other end of the spectrum, broadly of their time. Alternately, though art made in or about or by California artists needs to be considered within mainstream discussions of American land international) art movements, this discussion must not be at the expense of failing to identify its regional eccentricities as well as its specialties. The present exhibition, in the same vein as the Laguna Art Museum's 1999 exhibition "Colonies of American Impressionism," is part of an ongoing call for equilibrium in the academic study and general appreciation of California art.
The fact that a considered and balanced look at earlier California art remains lacking is evidenced jointly by those who have summarily ignored it and by those who have blindly elevated it. On the one hand, the single largest and most recent survey of American Impressionism -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915" -- included no California artists whatsoever. The authors of that catalogue stated clearly that paintings included in this sweeping survey were "chosen for their artistic quality."[l] We might assume then that either the curators found insufficient quality among all Western artists, or else they were unaware of them. Either scenario is bleak if understood as a barometer of the interest in including California Impressionists in future studies.
In a similar vein, the newest, largest, and most visible study of early American Modernism (a period overlapping the practice of American Impressionism) also fails to include even one early California Modernist painter. At least, we might conclude, California artists are being uniformly dismissed, no matter their style.
Perhaps the underlying attitudinal nemesis toward reasonable assimilation of California art into broader American studies is the idea that it just is not any good. Recently, prominent critic Robert Hughes wrote that California artists have not produced much in the way of "certifiable" masterpieces. This is the very kind of glib and summary statement that begs broad clarification and demonstration: what exactly qualifies as an American masterpiece, who painted them, and, if possible, who sits on the Board of Certification? Responding to Hughes's bold but hardly solitary stance would mandate the inclusion of California artists (at minimum in terms of defining what does not constitute a masterpiece) along with their East Coast peers and, I believe, international counterparts, in the process of identifying, explaining, and justifying such value judgment-driven determinations. In short, California art should not be made to suffer by comparison without the benefit of actually making the comparison.
Now, at the beginning of a new millennium and in the midst of ongoing globalization, it is an opportune time to stop passing off rapidly dissolving geographic labels -- regional, American, international -- as art historical categories. Labels of this sort are always delimiting and thus subvert, not enhance, our efforts to understand who we are and what we value by way of the arts. Cultural studies are one thing, and cultural stereotyping an unfortunate offshoot. After all, it is a human tendency to make art, one unfettered by artificial boundaries or the ever-shifting notions of good, better, and best. Now is a time, with so much information and art accessible to us, to recognize that California art is of course American art, and, like all American art, embraces international influences.
On the opposite end of the scale of aesthetic justice from those who exclude and dismiss early California art are the latter-day boosters who refuse to recognize any deficiencies of any sort in Golden State painting. The boosters are those art historians, critics, collectors, and assorted aficionados among the general public who reside (mostly, but not exclusively) in California and who collectively have worked to resurrect the careers of long-forgotten artists (even when the sole criterion for career revival has been that an artist merely be long forgotten). The boosters have created healthy and impressive markets for the works of these left-behind artists, and interpreted their art as emblematic of California's great and diverse geography as well as of its essentially healthy, optimistic, and rejuvenating environment. Never mind that in many, if not most, cases involving exhibitions and exhibition catalogues, there has been little attempt to demonstrate why, in precise terms, seemingly every early California artist is worthy of widespread attention. "Elsewhereians" (that charming term used by early California promoters to describe non-Californians) might argue that being born in California or residing there for a few months, in and of itself is hardly a guarantee of aesthetic merit. And they would be right. Nor of course is such residency an automatic reason to be labeled "regional" and subsequently underestimated. Again the need now is for balanced research, writing, and review, along with greater assimilation of information between both American coasts and beyond.
The extent to which California Impressionists participated in their world as opposed to East Coast Impressionists (a.k.a. American Impressionists) may be discerned by a simple and rather obvious comparison between two careers. In the East, Childe Hassam (1859-1935) is generally considered among the greatest of American Impressionists as evidenced by critical acclaim past and present. He is routinely included in virtually every survey of American Impressionism, and, not insignificantly, his work fetches the highest prices among collectors of this material. Hassam's California (and thus still American) counterpart would be Guy Rose (1867-1925), generally considered to be this state's most accomplished Impressionist. Rose is included in virtually every show of California Impressionism and his work easily commands the highest prices among his peers. How and in what specific ways did the careers of the two men differ and/or overlap? A serious and substantive distinction between California Impressionism and the larger umbrella of American Impressionism should be discernible by way of comparing these two respective luminaries.
Hassam's introduction to the world of painting came as a young man in part by way of study with the Barbizon-inspired Boston painter William Morris Hunt. Guy Rose likewise began his formal training early and close to home, in San Francisco, with the tonalist Emil Carlsen. Both Hunt and Carlsen understood the value of sound training in academic procedures, and passed this understanding to their students. From America, Hassam went to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julian in 1886; Rose made the same trip (though he came from slightly farther away) in 1888, and also enrolled at the Julian. The two shared some of the same instructors, and admired many of the same artists (the American Alexander Harrison among them). Of course they also experienced many of the same sights, sounds, and artistic treasures of France, and other European sites to which they traveled. Hassam debuted at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1887, Rose in 1890.
Back in America, Hassam became a member of the "Ten American Painters" in 1897. Rose would later join a similar group in Los Angeles called the "Ten Painters Club of California." More indicative of the closeness of the two men's artistic ideology was that Hassam became associated with an artist's colony in 1903 -- the one centered at Old Lyme, Connecticut -- while in 1904 Rose relocated to Giverny, France, and became a fixture within the colony of American artists there. Membership in these respective colonies -- so distant from each other but so similar in function -- was indicative of not just how both artists constantly pursued the picturesque in nature, which they did, but also of how clearly they identified themselves and their art with an ideology that was prevalent internationally. Not surprisingly, Hassam and Rose wound up showing on occasion with the same picture dealer (MacBeth) in New York, in addition to winding up in many of the same group exhibitions.
In 1914 the peripatetic Hassam traveled to California where he would paint a now well-known image of the famous tourist destination Point Lobos, a location eventually painted many times by Guy Rose. This seems only fair, in light of the fact that Rose painted the Washington Arch in Manhattan, a landmark often painted by Hassam. Each of these artists then, armed with similar artistic backgrounds, actually wound up painting on the other's American coast in not dissimilar Impressionist styles.
Further, Hassam notably displayed his debt to French Impressionist sources, to Monet specifically, in his scenes of flag paintings (mimicking Monet's tendency to paint in series as well as Monet's images containing flags). Rose notably displayed his debt to the same artist by painting Point Lobos in a series at different times of day (recalling Monet's series on Rouen Cathedral).
Such comparison could go on. Each painted colorful, light-filled views of coastlines, bridges, and churches. Hassam's lovely Church at Old Lyme, 1906 (Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York), for example, shares the same formal construction and readily evident level of spiritual content as Rose's Cathedral Tours (CAT. NO. 58). And, in the making of such comparisons, one discovers that each artist achieved a remarkably similar level of technical skill in drawing and painting, and an equally similar sensitivity to the interpretation of light and atmosphere. However vaguely or precisely one wishes to define the abstract notion of "quality," the art itself created by each man allows for them to be discussed as equals in both ambition and achievement.
Rose stopped painting in 1920 because of a debilitating stroke, and died in 1925. His legacy has often been summarized along with that of the entire California school of impressionistic painters as perpetuating an Arcadian view of California. Hassam lived to 1935, and the majority of his late work was unabashedly Arcadian in sentiment.
It should be noted, too, that the American art market, while not a site of ideas generally so much as an arena for the transaction of commodities, gives us further insight into the perceptions (which underlie the perceived value) of the East Coast painters in relation to those of the West. At the time of this writing, a Hassam painting generally is valued monetarily at more than ten times that of a similar Guy Rose; that is, a Rose seascape may be one hundred thousand dollars and a comparable Hassam seascape would be over a million. This, given the historic similarities between the two artists and their symmetrical aesthetic accomplishments, is a mystifyingly self-serving logic that only those spending the money, or receiving it, could hope to rationalize. It is disappointing to realize that current art historical analyses are not often, in the main, much deeper than market perceptions.
In a longer, more focused study, it could be argued that there are few -- if any -- substantive, radical differences between Childe Hassam and Guy Rose beyond the differences in individual personality one can find between any two painters, or any two people. In short, their careers are more alike than they are different. This single comparison, that between Hassam and Rose, would seem to justify the inclusion of California artists in that it begs for this comparison to be visualized on museum walls, and, if shows on American Impressionism are to be truly American, not just upon California walls.
Given the opportunity to make actual visual comparisons, we may see brilliant displays of technical virtuosity by Californians such as William Wendt (SEE CAT. NO. 66) and Colin Campbell Cooper (SEE CAT. NO. 11) that compare formally to the skillful lushness of the East Coast painters. Likewise, just as East Coast painters often indulged self-conscious pretenses to sophistication in the appropriation of European themes and settings, so, too, does this type of work have its counterpart emanating from artists working in the West. But this is not so much a criticism as a way of pointing out that once again, American artists on both coasts participated in the moment of Impressionism in similar and often equivalent ways -- a phenomenon still not widely acknowledged, let alone accepted.
For example, it is generally assumed that the California artists espoused an all-is-well-with-the-world edenic viewpoint in their paintings long after Impressionism had lost its vitality internationally; that is, artists elsewhere had moved into new stylistic realms -- into Fauvism, Cubism, and other forms of Modernism, and especially in America, into the social realism of New York's Ash Can School led by Robert Henri. However, was the encapsulated urbanity of the Boston-area painters such as Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson, with its quiet perfectionism and sylvan atmospheres, an ideology far from that of their California peers? Indeed, painters of uninterrupted tranquility had their exponents on both coasts and, not surprisingly, there was an active community of Modernists in California beginning in the late teens, the existence of which undercuts any argument that California painters as a whole rejected either the startling visual innovations or adventurous ideas of the early twentieth century.
The example of Guy Rose is but one that demonstrates to what extent California artists broadly participated in the art world surrounding them. In the specific area of artistic study, the dramatic case of Granville Redmond (1871-1935) provides further evidence of California artists' intentional and determined immersion in international opportunities.
Redmond, raised in Northern California, suffered from scarlet fever at the age of just two-and-a-half years, and was left deaf as a result. Despite what was in the nineteenth century a formidable handicap in the pursuit of formal education, Redmond managed to study art. This he did first with a another deaf artist, Theophilus d'Estrella, at the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind in Berkeley (now the California School for the Deaf, Fremont), then later at the California School of Design in San Francisco, where Rose had preceded him. Redmond progressed and made the requisite trip to France for study at the Académie Julian and, like both Rose and Hassam before him, showed at the Paris Salon (SEE CAT. NO. 48). He developed an incredibly astute understanding of tonalism, a mode of expression he retained throughout his notable career. While in Paris, Redmond encountered problems with international sign language, and overcame those, too.
There was nothing about early life in California, whether in the northern or the southern part of the state, or even when given a life of severe handicap (in Redmond's case), that prevented any aspiring painter from going abroad to seek the most professional instruction available. To point this out may seem, like other observations made herein, to cite the obvious, yet contemporary California studies routinely miss the obvious -- an academic circumstance that (whether intentionally or not) tacitly supports the notion that Californians ipso facto did not participate (as Hassam and company did) in impressionism's international moment.
A common assumption is that the Californians were just too far away from it all. Typical of the overheated and unsubstantiated claims about California's early remoteness is the assessment of Southern California's pre-World War II environment as a land of "outlandish" isolation, this despite the fact that 1920s Los Angeles absorbed the single largest internal population migration in United States history. One might assume from such a belief that California's pre-World War I isolation was beyond outlandish, perhaps even aesthetically fatal. But of course it was not at all. And such characterizations stymie the development of a discourse in which American Impressionism is actually about America and not merely New England.
Just as alleged remoteness and physical impairment did not keep Californians from full participation, study, and achievement, neither did gender. A most interesting case study in California's art history is the little-known Lucy Bacon (1858-1932). Bacon had attended art school at the Art Students' League and the National Academy of Design in New York before leaving for France in 1892. Apparently possessed of no small degree of determination and direction, Bacon contacted Mary Cassatt for advice, and wound up studying with Camille Pissaro, making her perhaps the only artist associated with California Impressionism to have studied with a French Impressionist. Bacon received a good deal of support in her adventures from her brother, Albert Vickery, a merchant in San Jose, California. Indeed, Lucy Bacon was related by marriage to Robert K. Vickery of Vickery, Atkins and Torrey, an important gallery in San Francisco in the 1890s. Her career, however slight ultimately, found its initial impetus in the confluence of her own courage and the open-minded support of her California family.
Nothing prevented a Californian, and a California woman artist at that, from aspiring to direct contact with a European master. Lucy Bacon's career, along with that of others such as the mysterious Mary Brady (who, like Californian Evelyn McCormick, had been part of the colony at Giverny), needs more study for the light it might shed on the internationalism of American art at this time, not just as a wildly interesting anecdote in the annals of California Impressionism.
Another widely held assumption is that California artists were simple, ingenuous individuals. In fact, whether in or out of the state, a great many California artists were cosmopolitan. A native San Franciscan who expatriated early in his career was Jules Pagès, who moved to France around the turn of the century and, like Joseph Raphael (1869-1950), remained abroad until the outbreak of the Second World War. A former student at both the California School of Design and the Académie Julian in Paris, Pagès became an esteemed instructor at the latter. As a figure at the center of Parisian life, art, and instruction (SEE CAT. NO. 38), it could be said that Pagès attained all the exterior trappings of what we refer to as "cosmopolitanism," that vague state of cultural savoir faire that distinguishes the refined from the great unwashed. And, since it is cosmopolitanism that has been a focal issue in the study of American Impressionism, California's painters once again beg for inclusion.
The exemplary career of Guy Rose, the inspiring triumph of Granville Redmond, the intriguing tale of Lucy Bacon, the cosmopolitan ascendancy of Jules Pagès -- all these accounts collectively and the many more to be gleaned from the history of California art strongly suggest that the California story needs to be bigger than California. Given the plethora of exhibitions on California art, and specifically on California Impressionism, it might seem that such protestations are a bit too loud. Admittedly, California art historical studies are moving in fits and spurts outside of California, though still in largely restricted circumstances and/or circumscribed within delimiting intellectual parameters. The need for equilibrium, for a fair, informed, and yet intensely inquisitive approach to studying the Golden State's early art, has yet to mature. To what extent California art historians and museums themselves continue to exist in a state of arrested academic development is evidenced not just in the routine production of glossy catalogues featuring Mission buildings, eucalyptus, poppy fields, and florid texts, but by the more rigorous investigations which, in varying over-compensatory ways, inadvertently skew the efficacy of California studies.
For example, among the now-extensive literature on California art, one routinely discovers the tendency toward hyperbole and overstatement regarding the value and achievement of her artists -- a literary pendulum if you will, still swinging too far to one side. But even more problematic and insidious are the equally unnecessary apologetics written by those who understand the very fact of living in California as a problem for early artists (whether those artists did or not). A number of essays exist that are well researched, clearly written, and rich with biographical detail, but that are unfortunately weakened by the distracting obsession Westerners continue to have with aesthetic imprimatur from the East.
Why the obsession? The answer in part is because of critics like the aforementioned Hughes, who, in a recent review of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's gargantuan millennium show "Made in California," reminds the reader that California 1900-2000 is not New York 1900-2000, let alone Paris 1900-2000. California art historians, feeling themselves to be ever on the critical defensive, have spent a great deal of time and energy responding to this sort of brusque totemizing. Unfortunately, saying that the art of a given state is not up to snuff, and then turning around and responding, "Yes, it is," amounts to a circular conversation that never gets around to addressing the art in question.
What then of the future of California's art history? The last decades of the twentieth century may prove to have been the awkward adolescence of California Impressionist studies, a time of growing pains, self-consciousness, and admirable, but inadequate, analyses. The first decades of the twenty-first century should be the time we discover and define why California Impressionism is not a footnote to East Coast work; that indeed it is a chapter in the emergence of the Impressionist aesthetic generally, from Paris and London to Russia and Italy and beyond. In the course of this process, there will be those for whom the art objects themselves have less and less significance, until paintings are only an annoyance in the cloistered world of effete theories. Opposite the theory people will be the object-jurying connoisseurs, lingering in the realm of art criticism as the fabrication of lists, who remain afraid, unwilling, or unfortunately unable to see that art, even California Impressionism, is multivalent -- capable of evoking multiple meanings to different audiences at different times. In any case, neither extreme position -- interpretation based on an absolute reliance on the object or solely on the idea -- will satisfactorily explain what anything is, as any work of art is most certainly a mix of both object and idea.
And here, despite the plethora of literature on California Impressionism, is part of the basic problem in California art historical studies: we have yet to deal effectively with what it is on a fundamental level. For those truly interested in American Impressionism or California Impressionism, one must first be interested in the phenomenon of Impressionism in general, and how this visual phenomenon manifested itself globally. By approaching California Impressionism from a global perspective, it becomes part of a sensuous international quilt that is evidence of a widespread and many-layered human desire for air, light, color, and texture.
This shared passion for Impressionism's relentless engagement with the physical world of which we are a part is in great measure why people internationally continue to be more than happy to flock to the latest blockbuster Impressionist exhibition while collectors continue to pay phenomenal prices for nineteenth-century French paintings. Scholars will continue to decipher the multiple social, psychological, and historical meanings of these images of gardens, poppy-covered hillsides, and redolent still lifes. But these same scholars -- with so many interpretive possibilities at their service -- overlook that the one salient reason Impressionism retains its worldwide popularity is because it resonates so strongly and fundamentally with this world and the things in this world that we see, touch, and walk through. Its sheer physicality, its dauntless appeal to the senses, its near-hypnotic invitation into reverie, and its presentation of safe and healthful environments make Impressionism's promise of sensuous gratification irresistible to those who would indulge the possibilities of the senses.
California Impressionism -- engorged with physicality, reverie, and possibility -- begs for inclusion in broader art historical studies of Impressionism. The artists and their work communicate a deep involvement in the world itself -- in its places and things, in the cultural values and philosophical posturing of its inhabitants, in its intimate acknowledgment and need for nature. Their widespread and far-flung participation in the world stemmed from a shared belief -- however culturally conditioned -- in the transformative power of art; that the contemplation of this earth and its amazingly varied parts could open the mind to the rich contents of this same earth. Such an awareness was its own reward, a reward reaped more freely then, without cynicism and censure, though a reward regarded today in some quarters as derivative, disingenuous, and ultimately tangential.
The task before present-day curators, collectors, and casual viewers is to take their cue from the spirit of the objects we purport to study and admire, and likewise participate more fully -- by way of inclusion, comparison, and consideration -- in this world of objects and ideas. The paintings, ever unaware of the critical winds that surround them, will be waiting.
1. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, text by H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry (New York, 1994), p. 6.
2. The study referred to here is the otherwise impressive book by Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999).
3. Robert Hughes, "A Flawed Ex-Paradise," Time, December 11, 2000, p. 108.
4. In 1907 Albert Gallatin referred to Hassam as "beyond any doubt the greatest exponent of Impressionism in America." See Albert E. Gallatin, "Childe Hassam: A Note," Collector and Art Critic 5 (January 1907), p. 102. In our time, Hassam is highlighted as a "Master Impressionist" in William H. Gerdts, American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), chap. 9.
5. On Rose, see Oakland, California, The Oakland Museum in association with the Irvine Museum, Guy Rose: American Impressionist, text by Will South (Oakland, 1995). On Hassam, see Warren Adelson, Jay E. Cantor, and William H. Gerdts, Childe Hassam: Impressionist (New York: Abbeville Press, 1999).
6. On the general development of Modernism in Southern California, see Newport Beach, California, Orange County Museum of Art, Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art, text by Sarah Vure (Newport Beach, 2000); on Stanton Macdonald-Wright, California's pivotal early Modernist, see Raleigh, North Carolina, The North Carolina Museum of Art, Color, Myth & Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism, text by Will South (Raleigh, 2001).
7. See Bram Dijkstra, "Early Modernism in Southern California: Provincialism or Eccentricity?" in Paul J. Karlstrom, ed., On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900-1950 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1996), p. 158. Dijkstra's central thesis is that choosing to live in faraway California did not make California artists "provincial," although it did make them "eccentric." It seems there must exist a third option (and perhaps a great many more): that California painters, and Californians in general, simply preferred the climate and geography of their chosen state to that of the East.
8. The author reviewed a number of these essays and first posited his criticism of them in a review for California History (1997 Supplement).
9. Hughes (note 3).
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