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California Painters

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The Development of Modernism

A tendency toward individual expression and adaptation led to an exploration of styles that developed into a community of Modernists in the 1920s. Some worked in pure color, dramatic light-dark contrasts, and powerful form. Fresno born Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), who was to become famous for his desert paintings, simplified the earth and sky colors he depicted as his style grew increasingly modern. A great loss occurred when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed Dixon's studio and all of his accumulated work at that time. West Coast artists in the early 20th century explored Expressionism, Cubism, and more. The influences from Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism resulted in some of the best-selling California painting in the 1920s.

Members of the Society of Six, a group of Northern California painters which included Selden Gile (1877-1947), Maurice Logan (1886-1977), Louis Siegriest (1899-1989), William Clapp (1879-1954), Bernard Von Eichman (1899-1970), and August Gay (1890-1948), painted landscapes in a bold, modernist style using bright, expressive color. Although loyal to the Northern California landscape, they were clearly influenced by the powerful currents of new European art, and in their painting helped to open the door to the modern era.

The Six rejected the tonalists’ preference for a muted landscape, which depicted California’s foggy days but not its predominantly sunny reality. They sought instead to capture the visual impression of sunshine and the color of the land and sky, to evoke the quality of the light and weather, the yellow hills, the tile roofs, Monterey pines. Often their canvases were small and vivid. Many consider the Six’s new version of landscape art to share a legacy of ‘painterly instinct’ with names such as David Park (1911-1960) and Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993).

Northern and Southern California Styles

Regional painting styles developed that highlighted the differences in climate and landscape between Northern and Southern California, as well as the effects of hazy light in the north vs the brighter light of the southland. However both regions had their experimenters in modernist concepts of color.

The South:

The brilliant sunshine and reflected light of the Southland provided a golden illumination that resulted in generally lighter, warmer palettes, as is interpreted in paintings by Alson Clark (1876-1949), a student of William Merritt Chase; Charles Reiffel (1862-1942); George Gardner Symons (1861-1930); Edgar Payne (1883-1947); major Impressionist Guy Rose (1867-1925) who painted in Giverny; Alfred Mitchell (1888-1972); landscapist and ‘King of the Rose Painters’ Franz Bischoff (1864-1929); Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972); Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949) who traveled widely along the Pacific Slope with his easel; husband and wife Elmer (1864-1929) and Marion Wachtel (1870-1954) who painted together for twenty-five years; and Ferdinand Kaufmann (1864-1942), known for colorful landscapes and marine scenes.

‘The Eucalyptus School’ was a loose title that covered the large number of landscapists active in Southern California from about 1915 to 1930. They used local geography for subject matter, generally excluded humans, animals or architecture, and were most often representational, such as the work of Dana Bartlett (1882-1957). Laguna Beach was also known for it's distinctive gum trees, often depicted by the artists.

By 1917, thirty to forty artists were residing in the village of Laguna Beach. It was Edgar Payne (1883-1947) who was largely responsible for the idea of forming the Laguna Beach Art Association in order to establish a gallery to promote the artists’ paintings.
Among those many noted artists associated with the
Laguna Beach Art Colony were Donna Schuster (1883-1953) who favored figural studies and still-lifes and had a small summer home in the village; Elanor Colburn (1866-1939), George Brandriff (1890-1936), Frank Cuprien (1871-1948), William Griffith (1866-1940), Gardner Symons (1862-1930), Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931), Anna Hills (1882-1930) and William Wendt (1865-1946), considered the premier Impressionist through 1930.  Academy trained and eclectic in style Clarence Hinkle (1880-1960) and his wife lived in the village from 1931-1935. Jean Mannheim (1863-1945) and Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972) were also leading forces in the Laguna Beach Art Association. Landscapist Granville Redmond (1871-1935) was a member of the Association and painted there with his Los Angeles neighbor Elmer WachtelJack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1939) lived in Alhambra but was a founding member of the Association.

Maurice Braun (1877-1941) is the most famous of San Diego’s painters and the one who is considered to have made the city’s leading contribution to the national art scene. Other noted San Diego artists were Charles Fries (1854-1940), best known for his desert landscapes;  Alfred R. Mitchell (1888-1972), a student of Braun’s, was the first serious professional painter to develop and spend his whole career in San Diego, and Charles Reiffel (1862-1942) known for his paintings of hills around San Diego, was invited by the distinguished Robert Henri to exhibit at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The North:

The arbitrary line defining ‘Northern’ California is generally considered to be Santa Barbara, and many painters, such as Granville Redmond, Clarence Hinkle, and Jean Mannheim are claimed by both the Northern and Southern regions. The cool fog and hazy light of the Northern California landscape appealed to some of the most important names in California painting. Their styles range from Romantic Realist and California Decorative to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, Expressionist and Abstract. At the turn of the century, one difference between the San Francisco area and Los Angeles, was that the south at that time had no established training institutions and meager public interest. By contrast, the San Francisco Art Association, The Bohemian Club, and the California Society of Artists were all supportive to the art community. Many artists who exhibited in Monterey were refugees from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. Others found new locations. When his studio and most of the city went up in flames in 1906, John Marshall Gamble (1863-1957) relocated to Santa Barbara and remained there for the rest of his life.

Among the many important painters identified with the San Francisco Bay area and the Monterey Peninsula in the early 20th century are: William Keith(1838-1911), the most influential California painter in the late 1800s; Arthur Mathews (1860-1945), who became director of the California School of Design, and his wife Lucia Mathews (1870-1955), who established her separate identity within the California Decorative Style; Anne Bremer (1868-1923) president of the Sketch Club and one of the early converts to the ideas preached by Mathews; Impressionist E.Charlton FortuneArmin Hansen (1886-1957), who often used the sardine fishing industry of Monterey as his subjects; ‘cowboy artist’ Edward Borein (1872-1945)

and his friend and fellow western painter Carl O. Borg (1879-1947) who both lived in Santa Barbara;  Guiseppe Cadenasso, (1858-1918) who was perhaps the first to paint the moody eucalyptus trees of the area; Francis McComas, painter of stylized oaks and pueblos; Mexican born tonalist Xavier Martinez; painter and teacher Emil Carlsen (1853-1932);  Joseph Raphael (1869-1950) a master of the Impressionist style who was California-born but who became essentially an expatriate; Charles Rollo Peters, known for his nocturnes; Thomas Hill, Jules Tavernier, watercolorist Henry Percy Grayand the widely traveled Jules Pages; and wildflower landscape painter John Gamble (1863-1957).

Some art historians sometimes refer to the period between 1945 and 1950 as the Golden Age of Bay Area Painting. The innovations wrought during that short time, particularly at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) radically changed the course of painting on the West Coast. Following the war, veterans of WWII returned to schools in record numbers. Among the students at CSFA, where a competitive spirit was known to exist among artists who vied to ‘shock’, were Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991), James Weeks (1922-1998), James Kelly (1913-2003), and Deborah Remington (1935-  ). Clyfford Still (1904-1980), who some refer to as the West Coast’s answer to Jackson Pollock, was both an artist and teacher at the school.


Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who produced a mural for the CSFA and other places in San Francisco, is perhaps the best-known muralist to have created works in California, but others span the artistic and political spectrum. Through four federal art programs, hundreds of public murals and sculptures were created between 1933 and 1943, about half of which still exist. Others were commissioned by private patrons. In them we can see a panorama of our civilization.

Jose Orozco (1883-1949), Alfredo Martinez (1872-1946), Fletcher Martin (1904-1979), Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Millard Sheets (1907-1989), Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999), Barse Miller (1904-1973), Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000), Jesse Arms Botke (1883-1971), and Florence Lundborg (1871-1949) are some of the mural painters of these cultural landmarks in California.

Abstract Expressionism

Michael Leonard, in his article ‘The Golden Age of Bay Area Painting’ (Art of California Magazine, Aug/Sept. 1989) explains how Abstract Expressionism found its roots in the work of the Mexican muralists and the European Surrealist artists. “The Mexicans taught the Americans to think ‘big’ in scale, and the Europeans encouraged them to look inwards for abstract forms derived from their own psyches”.

The time that Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) spent in San Francisco allowed regional artists a first-hand look at mural painting. New ideas were presented at San Francisco Museum of Art exhibits which focused on the Surrealists as well as Abstract Expressionists. Hassel Smith (1915- ), Edward Corbett (1919-1971), David Park (1911-1960), Frank Lobdell (1921- ), and Ernie Briggs (1923-1984) were among those who responded and played significant roles in the evolution of abstract painting in the Bay Area. Sam Francis (1923-1994), was for a while part of the Bay Area Abstract group that included Still, Park, and Diebenkorn, until in 1950, when he left San Francisco to live in the Orient and Paris, and went on to receive tremendous international attention for his Abstract Expressionist works. Leonard quotes Fred Martin of the San Francisco Art Institute: “One of the most important elements of Abstract Expressionism in the West was its relationship to Surrealism… the generic Surrealism of any artist who follows his own intuition.”  Bay Area abstract painter and teacher Nathan Oliveira (1928- ) is noted for his figure-forms as well as his graphics.  Paul J. Wonner’s (1928- ) abstract expressionist paintings often focus on small objects or figures that dominate the space.

Other 20th Century California Painters

Many of the most recognized names in modern American art are California based artists. A well-known painter difficult to classify, is Wayne Thiebaud (1920- ) whose images rest somewhere between realism and abstraction.

Perhaps most famous are his still-lifes of foodstuffs, as well as his contemporary landscapes. He is aligned by some with the Pop Art movement, and studied by others simply for his manipulation of paint itself. He creates cityscapes with plunging streets and tilted perspectives that synthesize the geometry of Diebenkorn, distorting perspective and flattening forms. At other times he focuses on images of cosmetics, or ritualized foods –such as comic cakes or luscious meringues-, or tools of the painter’s trade.

British artist David Hockney (1937- ) also creates work that is representational but with an abstracted twist. Dividing his time between homes in London and Los Angeles, Hockney is known to give his viewer a variety of glimpses - affectionate pictorials of his friends, his family, himself; glimpses of refreshing Los Angeles swimming pools and exotic far away destinations.

Mel Ramos (1935- ) reflects a variety of styles, from Pop Art to Surrealism, and is well-known for his flashy nudes. Highly productive and successful Ed Ruscha (1937-) is noted for pop-word modeling and numberic messages that reflect life in Los Angeles. Ralph Goings (1928- ) is a photo-realist, known for images of trucks, diners, and other middle-class America views. Vija Celmins (1939- ) is another notable artist who has incorporated elements of photo-realism into her work, and she is known for subjects such as waves, or constellations of the night sky. San Diego artist John Baldessari (1931- ) creates non-objective ‘calligraphy’ works.

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