California Painters   


“And what is your religion?” I asked him. “I think it is California”, he replied (from an interview with Gottardo Piazzoni conducted by Max Stern)

California has long been a land that has inspired the imagination, from the time of the first Native Americans, through the tumultuous years of settlement, to the present. The story of art in California has many fascinating chapters: the Age of Exploration, the Spanish and Mexican periods, The Gold Rush, the Missions, the Railroad, the ‘Golden Age’ of Landscape Painting, the influence of European art, the evolution of two distinct centers of art in Southern and Northern California, the Great Depression, World War II and postwar to Modernism and beyond. Despite the state’s ‘late start’ on the national artistic scene, California painters have always been among the top ranks of American artists, and in the 1960s it might be argued they even took the lead for the country.

The Spanish and Mexican Periods | Return to Top

During the years of Spanish control (1769-1822) twenty-one missions were established in California, along with presidios and towns for settlers.  The priests were not only good businessmen, they were also educated and often artistically sensitive. During the period of Spanish domination, art was primarily made for, or at, the various missions, and was most often the painted decoration of the interior of the churches. It was during this period that artists such as Jose Cardero (1768-1791) and Louis Choris (1795-1828) who accompanied expeditions, recorded views of the land, the presidios, and the population. Mexican revolutionaries broke Spain’s hold on California, and it became an empire in 1821. Rancho owners became the land’s aristocracy, but their tastes ran more to decorative arts, and pictorial art was kept alive mainly by artists coming from outside California with scientific expeditions, or by gentlemen travelers. Continuing interest in ‘mission art’ is reflected, however, in the work of late 19th-century resident painters including Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894), Christian Jorgensen (1860-1935), William Lees Judson (1842-1928), Manuel Valencia (1856-1935), as well as into the 20th century with Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), see ‘nocturnes’, Florence Upson Young (1872-1974), Ellen Farr (1840-1907), and Minnie Tingle (1874-1926).

When war was declared between the United States and Mexico in 1846, some of the military engagements were recorded.  Accompanying one U.S. battalio were artists John Mix Stanley (1814-1872) and William Hemsley Emory (1811-1887) who created pictures of people and places of that period. In 1847 California came under U.S. jurisdiction, and the first noted artist to arrive after the land had come under United States protection was Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885). Since most artists arrived by ship, their views are often confined to areas not far from the coast. For example, French engineer Jean-Jacques Vioget (1799-1855) painted early landscapes of the Klamath River and Mount Shasta; Alfred Thomas Agate (1812-1846) painted the upper Sacramento River; William Henry Meyers (1815-?) made drawings of San Diego and San Pedro; and  James Madison Alden (1834-1922) traveled up and down the West Coast for almost a decade recording scenes from the Coast Survey ship on which he served.

The Gold Rush
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The Gold Rush of 1849 attracted artists from the East Coast, some to prospect, others to create illustrations for magazines and books. Money was also earned by making panoramas, which were scenes painted on long rolls of canvas that could be viewed like today’s motion pictures. One of the most notable in this medium was Henry Miller (active 1856-1857). The most important result from such profit-from-art ideas was the development of a professional resident art community in San Francisco. Immigrant artists began to turn out oils and watercolors in a full range of subjects, displaying styles from the cities from which they had come. Particularly well-known artists of the Gold Rush era are German born Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), Alburtus Del Orient Browere (1814-1887), who made extended trips from his native New York, and Ernest Narjot (1826-1898) who came from France in search of gold in 1849. Narjot settled in San Francisco to paint, becoming one of the most accomplished artists in the city. An outstanding portraitist was William Smith Jewett (1812-1873), as was Nahl.

Statehood and the Railroads
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In 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. By 1860, San Francisco was entering a 20-year economic boom with a developing upper class that patronized art. Portraits of prominent citizens were important in pictures commemorating historic occasions, such as the painting by Thomas Hill(1829-1908) commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with Leland Stanford at its center. Aside from his portraiture, Hill is best known for his views of Yosemite Valley.

Several highly talented artists moved to the city and organizations such as the California Art Union, the Bohemian Club, the Graphic Club, and The San Francisco Art Association, formed to encourage the fine arts. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, artists could move more easily between the two coasts, and California’s magnificent landscapes were a great attraction for painters. The year 1874 marked the establishment of California’s first art school, The School of Design, in San Francisco.

In the later 19th century, the city also attracted a number of ‘bohemians’, a term applied to persons who flouted bourgeois norms and enjoyed vagabond lifestyles. Bohemian artists found inspiration in San Francisco subjects, as well as the California wilderness. In 1873, two Frenchmen, Paul Frenzeny (1840-1902), who had been with the French cavalry in Mexico, and Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), who had fought in the Franco-Prussian war, were hired by Harper Brothers to sketch the American frontier for the magazine. Together they traveled on horseback from Denver to San Francisco, where both became active in the art community and became members of the Bohemian Club. The Bohemian Club, a men’s club founded in 1872, was originally a fellowship of journalists and other writers, but later expanded to include artists, musicians, and others interested in the fine arts. Tavernier and Jules Francois Pages (1833-1910) were founders of the Palette Club, a dissident group that in early 1884 rebelled against the dictates of the San Francisco Art Association. Pages’ studio was often a meeting place for San Francisco painters such as Julian Rix (1850-1903), Charles Dormon Robinson(1847-1933),Joseph Strong(1852-1899), and Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816-1892), as well as his good friend, Tavernier. Later, Tavernier founded the first art colony in the Monterey area, where he was joined by Frenzeny as well as Rix, Strong, Peters, and others.

The most nationally recognized landscapist to come to California at that time was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) who was born in Germany, but was raised in Massachusetts. Bierstadt is especially noted for his paintings of Yosemite, as is English-born Thomas Hill. William Keith (1838-1911) painted Yosemite too, and while there met poet-naturalist John Muir, beginning a relationship that shaped his art. The subjects of painters such as Bierstadt, Hill, and Keith were often sublime panoramic views of the California wilderness, revealing the grandeur and drama of nature, in a style some term Romantic Realism. Other active landscapists of the period were Frederick Ferdinand Schafer (1839-1927), William Hahn (1829-1887), and Hermann Herzog (1832-1932), who rose to prominence in the 1870s.

With time, California artists moved away from grand panoramas and dramatic wilderness, and more towards pictures of lowland activities or intimate genre scenes. Albertus D.O. Browere (1814-1887) depicted fishermen. George Albert Frost (1843-1907) painted the mansion of W.C. Ralston. Marine paintings were created by Charles Nahl (1818-1878), Raymond Dabb Yelland(1848-1900), William A. Coulter (1849-1936), Joseph Lee (1827-1880), and Charles Dormon Robinson (1847-1933), thus reflecting the importance of the Pacific Ocean in the growth of the state. Some, such as Nahl, Browere, and Norton Bush (1834-1894) painted pictures of the tropics, having traveled the Isthmus of Panama en route to California. The fashion for the tropics sold well, both to romantics stimulated by their exotic themes, and to patrons as momentos of their own trips.

European Influences | Return to Top

During the 1870s and 1880s many of San Francisco’s artists went to Europe for advanced study at the popular centers of Dusseldorf and Munich. This European exposure changed their art, and those decades were the ‘glory days’ for the production of subjects such as history, still life, and genre, that were promoted in those German art centers. Some of the artists reflecting these influences include historical painters Toby Rosenthal (1848-1917) and Domenico Tojetti (1806-1892), still life painter Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816-1892), and Theodore Wores (1859-1939), who studied in Munich and once back in San Francisco often painted Chinatown subjects. California genre painters generally presented a carefree and bucolic way of life, with scenes of the industrial world and poverty rarely depicted.

Although Paris was a magnet for art students with means, few could pass the rigorous entrance exams at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which included fluency in French language. The most popular alternative was the Academie Julian, an open-enrollment school, which attracted large numbers of foreigners from many nations, including Americans from California such as Guy Rose and Charles Rollo Peters. Other Californians who studied in Paris were Thomas Hill and Ferdinand Kaufmann. Due to restrictions regarding models, female students had their own studios at Julian's. Among the California women artists who studied there were Matilda Lotz (1858-1923) who painted landscapes and portraits including Chinatown scenes; Elizabeth Strong (1855-1941) a painter of landscapes as well as animals; Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) who painted townscapes, including Monterey; muralist and landscape painter Florence Lundborg (1871-1949); and portrait and genre painter Anna Klumpke (1856-1942).

Still-life painter Emil Carlsen (1853-1932) studied in France as well as Munich, and as a teacher at the San Francisco School of Design had strong impact. Edwin Deakin (1838-1923) created landscapes of ruins and historic architecture, as well as exceptional floral still-lifes, often of roses, which he cultivated at his Berkeley home. Alice Chittenden (1859-1944) was one of San Francisco’s most talented still-life painters at the end of the century.  Interestingly, it was Chittenden, along with Maren Froelich (1868-1921), who in 1898 first broke the all-male monopoly at the Bohemian Club’s annual art exhibition. At the other end of the state, Frenchman and floral painter Paul De Longpre (1855-1911) lived in Los Angeles at the turn of the century on what is now Hollywood Boulevard, in a Moorish mansion where he flew both the French and American flags. There he planted thousands of roses and other flowers and is renowned for his mastery in painting them.

Centers of Art and New Styles | Return to Top

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, California art evolved through continuous innovation. San Francisco society struggled to define itself, and different styles of life coexisted in Northern California, varying between Victorian conservatism, to back-to-nature groups, as well as a lively bohemian community. The ‘California Decorative Style’ developed in the Bay Area at this time, as seen in lyrical tonalist compositions by Arthur Mathews (1860-1945) and Francis McComas (1875-1938). Tonalism, unlike the Impressionist free use of color, conveyed quiet mood and atmospheric effects, as is seen also in the work of Xavier Martinez (1869-1943), Thomas McGlynn (1878-1966), Henry Percy Gray (1869-1952), Granville Redmond (1871-1935), Giuseppe Cadenasso, (1858-1918), and Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945). Prior to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, many important artists of the next generation were students of Mathews at at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, including Martinez, McComas, Piazzoni, Armin Hansen (1886-1957), Clarence Hinkle (1880-1960), Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), and Maynard Dixon (1875-1946).

Three expositions, which also featured European works, were the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 in San Francisco (a portion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago), the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 held in San Francisco, and then in San Diego in 1915-1916. These events exposed the public to examples of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism. Bruce Nelson (1888-1952) was the silver medalist at the 1915 PPIE.

Beyond San Francisco, art centers emerged along the coast in places such as Carmel-Monterey, Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and San Diego.

Influenced by Impressionism, plein-air painting (painting outdoors) became the dominant style in the first decades of the 20th century, as represented in canvases by Maurice Braun, (1877-1941), Granville Redmond (1871-1935), William Wendt (1865-1946),and Hanson Puthuff (1875-1972). Guy Rose (1867-1925) is generally considered to be the state’s most accomplished Impressionist. In the work of these artists a new style emerged, a ‘California style’ of Impressionism with innovations that set it apart from that in Paris or New York. Some of this uniqueness may be attributed to ‘California light’ and the way it impacted artists. It may also be due to that fact that many California Impressionist painters, while working on the west coast, also studied at academies in other areas of the United States and abroad; they saw exhibitions, traveled, knew vast and open spaces and brought this experience to California art. Many of them were also teachers.

Some of the California women artists who advocated this shift in taste from the somber tones of the barbizon or decorative styles towards the brighter more vigorous themes of Impressionism were Donna Schuster (1883-1953), Henrietta Shore (1880-1963), and Euphemia Charlton Fortune (1885-1969), all of whom exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco.

Early California women Impressionists were Lucy Bacon (1857-1932), Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) and Mary Brady (1867-1940), the latter two both part of the colony at Giverny. Although she is less known than some other artists, Bacon’s story is an intriguing. She 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, she contacted Mary Cassatt for advice, an 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. Bacon was related by marriage to Robert K. Vickery of Vickery, Atkins and Torrey, an important gallery in San Francisco in the 1890s.

Nocturnes | Return to Top

At the turn of the century, night scenes, or nocturnes, were popular with romantic-minded Victorians who were entranced by the mystery created when pale light, like that from the moon, obscured details. Among those who painted California nocturnes are: Sydney Laurence (1865-1940), Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), Will Sparks (1862-1937), Charles Walter Stetson (1858-1911), Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), and Granville Redmond (1871-1935).  Although he is best known for his paintings of Alaska, Sydney Laurence was Los Angeles based. He emphasized the enigma of California mission ruins in his nocturne work ‘Evening Star, Mission Capistrano’, where he dissolves the arcade of the mission in a fog, and adds a spiritual element via a single shining star, a feature frequently seen in his work. Pasadena painter Charles W. Stetson was taken with that region’s beautiful moonlight, as in his work ‘An Easter Offering’, where moonlight bathes one of the commercial fields of white calla lilies that once grew in the area. Frank Tenney Johnson, who settled in Alhambra, California, around 1930, specialized not in the inky versions of nocturnes produced by Tonalists such as Peters, but rather in blue-toned views of cowboys and cattle under a full moon. His subjects were quiet, such as pack trains wending their ways, night herders regarding their bedded-down cattle, or lone cowboys in philosophical contemplation.

Granville Redmond, who lived both in Northern and Southern California, painted not only his famous fields of poppies, but also enchanting coastal nocturnes. Tonalist painter Charles Rollo Peters, who was of the same generation and palette as Arthur Mathews, studied in Paris, where James Whistler had a studio. It is said that Whistler stated Peters was “the only artist other than himself who could paint nocturnes”. (California Painting, 450 Years, by Nancy Moure). After extensive touring throughout Europe, Peters returned to California, where he eventually settled on a large estate in Monterey. There the artist specialized in moonlit nocturnes featuring romantic depictions of Monterey's old Spanish missions and adobes painted in a deep tonal palette, often with his trademark of soft light showing through a window. These works earned for Peters the nicknames “The Poet of the Night” and “The Prince of Darkness”. Will Sparks also painted many pictures of crumbling humble adobes set in a moonlit landscape, which has caused his name to be linked with that of Charles Rollo Peters. Sparks' paintings reveal his particular fascination with twilight scenes that combine the effects of both natural and artificial sources of light.

Development of Modernism | Return to Top

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 | Return to Top

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 Gray,  and 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 (1935-2010). 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.

Murals | Return to Top

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 | Return to Top

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 (1915-2007), Edward Corbett (1919-1971), David Park (1911-1960), Frank Lobdell (b. 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 (1928-2010) abstract expressionist paintings often focus on small objects or figures that dominate the space.

Other 20th Century California Painters | Return to Top

Many of the most recognized names in modern American art are California based artists. A well-known painter difficult to classify, is Wayne Thiebaud (b. 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 (b. 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 (b. 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 (b. 1937) is noted for pop-word modeling and numberic messages that reflect life in Los Angeles. Ralph Goings (b. 1928) is a photo-realist, known for images of trucks, diners, and other middle-class America views. Vija Celmins (b. 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.

Asian-Californian Artists
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Sometimes overlooked, Asian-Californian artists have made significant contributions to the Golden State’s artistic heritage. Names of note include George Chann (1913-1995), who exhibited at every major Californian museum from the 1930s through the 1950s; Yun Gee ( 1906-1962) who formed an art school in San Francisco and went on to gain an international reputation; Hideo Benjamin Noda (1908-1939) and muralist and landscapist Takeo Terada (1908-1993) both students at the CSFA when Diego Rivera produced his mural there. Terada was the only Asian chosen to do a mural for Coit Tower in San Francisco. During the relocation of Japanese-American people during World War II, the work of many artists was lost forever. Abstract Expressionist painter Hisako Hibi (1907-1991) was one of many California Asian artists who painted while entered in Topaz, Utah. A strong artistic life existed at many of the camps, and works were even shipped out to exhibitions. Over the years, some Asian-Californian artists have earned international recognition, such as Dong Kingman (1911-2000), Sueo Serisawa (1910-2004), Mine Okubo (1912-2001), and New York based Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953) who had trained at the Los Angeles School of Art.

Asian-Californian Artists | Return to Top

Today, interest in California paintings continues to rise. Abstract Expressionists Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis, along with Pop artist Edward Ruscha (b. 1937) have each drawn auction prices well over $3,000,000, and works by Wayne Thiebaud, and David Hockney have sold for close to that. Auctions of early 20th-century pieces are delivering record prices. As Tim Andersen suggests in his article, ‘California Landscapes’ (California Art, 1989), one reason for this affinity for early works may be the loss of some of the pristine landscape due to development, and the fact that early pictures are reminders of what is so special about California. In the article ‘California Impressionism’, the Forbes Collector (April 2004) suggests another reason may be that as works by Easterners like Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, and George Bellows have migrated from the market to museums, collectors’ eyes have turned westward. Recent notable sales of California Impressionist works at auction include: Guy Rose ‘Early Morning, Summertime’ $1.2 million, in 2001; William Wendt, ‘In the Valley’ $530,500 in 1998; Granville Redmond, ‘California Poppies’ $424,000 in 2000; John M. Gamble’s ‘Wild Lilac and Mist’ for $193,000 in 2000; and  Selden Gile’s ‘Northwestern Pacific Railway Along Tiburon Hills’ for $156,875 in 2002.  Rose, who studied in Paris, lived at Giverny, and was a disciple of Claude Monet, is considered the leading California Impressionist. Along with Rose, others in the top tier for collectors of California Impressionism are William Wendt, known for his rolling landscapes; Granville Redmond, the remarkable deaf and mute painter known for his vibrant wildflowers as well as his nocturnes; and Edgar Payne for his craggy Sierra Nevada mountainscapes and Southwest scenes with big skies and red-rock canyons; Maurice Braun for his Impressionist paintings of Southern California hills, the High Sierra's, and Southwest deserts. Other important names are Franz Bischoff, Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931), Armin Hansen (1886-1957), Alson Clark (1876-1949), Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937), and John Frost (1890-1937). California watercolorists of particular note include Henry Percy Gray (1869-1952) and Lorenzo Latimer (1857-1941).

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Compiled by Teta Collins

Credit for the above information is given to: Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, author of California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media; and to California Grandeur and Genre by the Palm Springs Desert Museum; to Tim Andersen, author of ‘California Landscapes’ from Art of California, 1989; The California Historical Society, publishers of ‘Splendide Californie, French Artists’ Impressions of the Golden State, 1786-1900’; ‘California Impressionism Finally Gets Some Respect’ from the Forbes Collector, (published by Forbes Magazine), April 2004; Michael Leonard ‘The Golden Age of Bay Area Painting’, Art of California magazine, Aug/Sept 1989; Linda Aldrich ‘Views From Asian California, 1920-1965’ from Art of California magazine, Sept 1992;  Will Smith, author of ‘In and Out of California: The Participatory Nature of Early California Art’; and to Nancy Boas, author of The Society of Six.

Artists with a connection to California Painters
Associations may be by subject, geography, school, style, etc.