Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California
by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure
The following essay was written in 1982 by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, then Assistant Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is an essay written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, by Ruth Lilly Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-0-7
Can the terms "impressionism" and "post-impressionism:' labels originally applied to certain French art movements of the nineteenth century, be appropriately applied to any Southern California landscape movement of the early twentieth?
The term impressionism first applied by the hostile critic Louis Leroy to a canvas by Claude Monet in 1874, has come to be used very loosely. In simplest terms, French Impressionism was a very small, avant-garde movement whose members experimented for a brief number of years (c. 1870-c. 1880) with painterly ways to capture light on canvas. Since Southern California's first professional artists didn't arrive until the 1890's, no Southern California artist can qualify as an Impressionist on the basis of time alone. The French Impressionists' innovations in color and brushwork advanced art over that of their immediate predecessors. No Southern California Impressionist can make that claim. Lastly, Impressionism implies a certain aesthetic -- primarily the capture of light on canvas through the use of pure, unmuted, bright colors -- and such stylistic and compositional elements as a shallow, two-dimensional space, occupied by flattened forms, an uptilted picture plane resulting in a high horizon, off-center focal points, preference for dynamic diagonals rather than static verticals and horizontals, and the juxtaposition of decorative patterns and textures. The Impressionists favored landscape, some of which included architecture followed by figure studies and still lifes. Human figures, when treated, most often came from the upper classes and were primarily portrayed in leisure, urban activities.
Only by way of style can any Southern California artist qualify as an Impressionist. This should not be considered a failure. The only American artist who can claim to be part of the original French movement is Mary Cassatt (1845-1926). Every other European or American artist who practiced the style was only a follower in greater or lesser degree, depending on adherence to aesthetic principles and time period in which he worked. Even the earliest East Coast American artists who claim to be Impressionists didn't begin working in the style until about 1880, by which time French Impressionism had evolved into Post-Impressionism.
In the 1890's, however, almost immediately upon the distillation and organization of an artist community in Los Angeles, certain aspects of Impressionism's stylistic traits were noticeable in locally produced paintings. Many of the newly arriving artists had become acquainted with the style in European or Eastern American art schools, and we know that in 1895 Louise MacLeod (1857-1944), head of the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, lectured on "Impressionists Old and New." On that occasion, Theodore Strong Van Dyke (1842-1923) described a Monet canvas which he had seen in Chicago -- "close up a mere daub, but at thirty feet a masterpiece.''
It is difficult to pinpoint at exactly what date the first impressionist work was painted in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, where art traditions extended back to the mid-1840's and which was artistically years ahead of the Southland, Impressionism was retarded by the popularity of the decorative style headed by Arthur Mathews (1860-1945). But in Los Angeles the small number of romantically inclined artists probably did not exert a similar dominance. Guy Rose, one of Los Angeles' major Impressionists, was born in Southern California, but did not paint impressionist-style landscapes in the area until after his return from abroad in 1914. Although Elmer Wachtel arrived in the early 1880's, he may have been too occupied with his pen and ink illustrations and his watercolors to have painted an oil landscape until at least 1896. Arthur Millier nevertheless claims Wachtel founded the local landscape school. George Gardner Symons is reported to have visited and painted in Montecito as early as 1884, but the influence of his impressionist style on the local community is not known. William Wendt reportedly sketched in California in both 1894 and 1896-7, but as with Symons, he may have passed through without contacting or affecting the local art community.
Benjamin Chambers Brown, who settled in Pasadena in 1896 fresh from refresher study at the Julian Academy in Paris, may hold claim as first resident Impressionist. He turned to landscape painting upon his arrival, and though his nineteenth century works have not yet surfaced, his training at the Julian Academy, a school known to teach Impressionism's looser stroke, suggests he might have been working in a loosened style that early, He may have influenced local emerging painters such as Elmer Wachtel.
Granville Redmond arrived about 1898, fresh from study under Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens at the Julian Academy. As his earliest known works show an Impressionist's love of high horizon, light colors and dashed brushstrokes (although mixed with a Barbizon taste for small glades, pastoral fields, lone trees, and cloudy skies) he may hold claim as the area's first important resident Impressionist.
It can definitely be said that by the turn of the century a few local artists were producing landscapes which reveal their knowledge of Impressionism, whether or not they identified themselves as Impressionists. None of these works would probably look "impressionist" to us today. Examination of the earliest-known pieces by Redmond, Wachtel and Brown (which come from the early twentieth century) shows that these artists commonly used high horizons,, although their compositions are attacked in a simple, straightforward manner with no exploration into Oriental balance or perspective. Brush strokes are dashed in the impressionist manner, but are tight, uniform, conservative and academic. Colors, however, are not at all impressionistic and tend to be subdued and low-key, of the kind associated with the Barbizon School. Craftsmanship dominates. A significant number of pre-1900 canvases will have to surface and be studied before anything definitive can be said about Impressionism in late nineteenth century Southern California.
The first one and one-half decades of the twentieth century saw an increasing influx of painters into the Southland. Many of these were landscapists or turned to landscape upon arrival. It would be ideal to be able to go back to the years 1906 through 1909 to view exhibitions of the Painters Club and to assess the styles seen there in contemporary terms. Were any of these artists Impressionists as we now interpret the term? Many certainly would have had the opportunity to come into contact with French Impressionism. A number, including Benjamin Brown, Granville Redmond, Guy Rose and Alson Clark, studied at the Julian Academy in Paris. An evaluation of this academy's influence would be enlightening. Viewing works at the annual Salons of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Société des Artistes Francais, Paris, exhibitions which contained some landscapes and figure studies painted with the new loosened brushwork and bright palettes, also must have had an influence on our European trained artists. Also, local artists couldn't help being inspired or influenced by reproductions of paintings by European and Eastern American Impressionists which appeared in locally received art magazines such as International Studio. Indeed, Antony Anderson's column in the Los Angeles Times regularly contained the table of contents of the current issue with added brief commentary, We also know that William Wendt, the area's major impressionist landscapist, set about to help educate local artists upon his arrival in 1906. Of the influence of early art schools not enough is yet known to make any definitive statements.
Were any of these artists Impressionists in either their own or our eyes? Anderson does not generally use the term Impressionism when critiquing local landscapes prior to about 1914. Instead, he sees landscapes as poetic, vigorous, well composed or solidly constructed, but he does not deal with "isms." In post-1915 reviews he alludes to Los Angeles' pre-1914 landscape period as one of struggle, one in which canvases were painted in low-key colors and a period in which there was no particular interest in light. We can also conclude by the sensation created by the "snowstorm of colored confetti" exhibited by Jack Gage Stark (1882-1950) at the Blanchard Gallery in 1909  that such a style, at least in the extreme in which he painted it, was noticeably rare in Los Angeles.
Yet enough is known of the early works of such artists as William Wendt and Franz Bischoff to know
that some local artists were indeed painting what we would today call impressionist landscapes. And, by 1912 when Anderson reviews a California Art Club exhibition, we know that Impressionism, as he knew it then, had arrived in Los Angeles.
Which of these artists can we describe as Impressionists and why? The premier Impressionist, not just prior to 1914 but through 1930, is William Wendt. Of the few pre-1914 landscapes known by his hand, Hillside (Private Collection) is a prime example to demonstrate how he was working with small brushstrokes and was aware of the diagonal perspectives and high horizon preferred by the French Impressionists. What makes Wendt special over the long run, however, is his locally self-developed style, Wendt is one of the few artists for whom the cliche "going directly to nature to absorb her vitality" is a truism. In addition, his ever-evolving style grew in power and monumentality in contradistinction to the ever-declining style, the lapse into facility and decorativeness, seen in so many lesser local painters. The kind of personal impressionism Wendt had developed by the early 1920's -- an intensely masculine, broad brushed, bold formed, earthy toned impressionism -- has much in common with the brand or variant produced by such rural Pennsylvania painters as Edward Redfield (1869-1965), although Wendt does nor seem to have had any particular contact with them. His gradual evolution away from short, dashed strokes and softer, more feminine colors seems to indicate a natural outgrowth of his direct communion with the strength of California's landscape rather than assimilation of another's style.
Gardner Symons, the Eastern Impressionist who maintained a studio at Arch Beach (now part of Laguna Beach) and visited California at intervals, equals Wendt in strength of conception. Many of his eastern scenes are extant and show his excellent composition, brushwork and color. His California works are fewer in number, but the most outstanding western view to yet surface is Seascape (Private Collection), as it comes closest to a complete work in its virility of stroke and its well-filled composition. Jack Wilkinson Smith, who settled in Los Angeles the same year as Wendt (1906), comes close to the first ranks of local early Impressionists. His background as an illustrator and scene painter left him with a facile, confident, loose technique. Although some of his works have a "commercial" look and none yet seem to approach the substance or sincerity of a Wendt, many of his landscapes are quite excellent. Jack Gage Stark and Helena Dunlap (1876-1955) hold claim to being the first acknowledged Impressionists of Los Angeles. Between 1913 and 1917 Impressionism effected a revolution in Los Angeles painting. Anderson notes this change in his review of the spring 1917 exhibition of the California Art Club:
It is difficult to attribute this change to any specific
impressionist influence, for after 1913 Impressionism entered the consciousness
of local artists in numerous ways, Added to the means listed earlier must
be mentioned the return to Los Angeles before World War I of many European
trained Impressionists, such as Guy Rose and Helena Dunlap, whose locally
exhibited landscapes opened local artists' eyes to light and color. The
hundreds of French and American Impressionist works on view at the Panama-Pacific
Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 gave California artists who had not
traveled widely their first major dose of the style. After the exhibition's close, Everett C. Maxwell, art curator
of the Museum of History, Science and Art, brought to Los Angeles for exhibit
thirty-eight works, most of which were by contemporary American Impressionists. He also brought selected pieces by Ash
Can artists George Luks, John Sloan, Robert Henri and George Bellows, as
well as Impressionists Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, Childe Hassam
and Ernest Lawson to Los Angeles from the Panama-California Exposition in
San Diego. The exhibitions
in 1916 and 1918 of the Modern Art Society, which was made up of Impressionists
and Post-Impressionists, certainly had its effect. In the 1920's, William
Preston Harrison gave the Museum many examples of Eastern American
Impressionist paintings. Their permanent display enabled hometown artists to study American Impressionist techniques at leisure. Local commercial galleries occasionally exhibited the contemporary Eastern Impressionists.
The effect of this barrage of Impressionism in the teens
was immediate as Anderson's 1917 comment reveals, but while Los Angeles
artists adopted Impressionism's tenets en masse, it is interesting that
the major Southern California Impressionists after 1914, those who demonstrated
superior composition, brushwork, and who most closely followed the majority
of French Impressionism's tenets, were artists who had received training
in the East or Europe and who moved to California after careers
Certainly one of the major local Impressionists was Guy Rose. Glancing through the illustrations of Rose's paintings contained in the two exhibition catalogues of his work published by Stendahl Galleries, two facts become apparent. The works Rose painted in France are French in subject -- polled willows, peasant cottages nestled in the Seine Valley, ponds of water lilies -- and French in style -- muted, soft colors, and dainty, feminine, Monet-like strokes. The works painted after Rose's 1914 return to California are Californian in subject matter -- shoreline from Laguna to Carmel, cypress trees of Carmel, some open landscapes, figure studies -- and Californian in their brighter palette. To the chagrin of California collectors, the latter works tend to suffer from unsympathetic colors and erratic brushwork, and Rose's French works may prove to be the most artistically significant. Among his best works is Carmel Dunes (Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Alson Clark, who arrived about 1920, brought with him a professional impressionist style he had developed in the competitive East and Midwest; he became one of the few local artists to regularly include architecture in his landscapes. Besides painting such fine easel works as After the Shower, Cuernavaca (Collection Gardena High School) and Locks, Panama Canal (Collection of The Southwest Museum) and scenes of Balboa Park, San Diego, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and La Jolla, he also rendered historical subjects, His ability to work in large format led to mural work.
Even as late as the 1920's Los Angeles can boast the "arrival" of some artists whose work contains more of the qualities identified with Impressionism than Post-Impressionism or the Eucalyptus School. I think what places Sam Hyde Harris with the Impressionists rather than the Eucalyptus School is that he demonstrates interesting, well-structured compositions which depend on such basic impressionist tenets as raised horizon and diagonal perspective. This is particularly true of his larger, more important work. His sense of structure is increased by his inclusion of architecture (which so few Southern California Impressionists could paint). Furthermore, his bland palette, which closely resembles that of Hanson Puthuff, is now and then nullified by dabs of a sharper color. Harris is exemplary of several other illustrators-turned-painters, such as Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) and Joe Duncan Gleason (1881-1959), whose commercial experience gave them technical superiority over the average local painter of landscapes. Harris does not seem to have worn the same horse's blinders which kept the average local landscapists fixed on pure landscape. He found interest in painting the extremely difficult perspectives of boats moored in San Pedro Harbor, as well as industrial scenes, of which he was basically the lone practitioner.
Other artists whose landscapes exhibit similar sophistication
are Edward Burgess Butler (1853-1928), Joe Duncan Gleason and Bert Cressey
(1883-1944). George Brandriff also shows sufficient sophistication to deserve
inclusion in this elite group, although his late entry into Southern California's
landscape movement almost disqualifies him.
While landscapes are the subject usually associated with American Impressionism, it is incumbent to point out that figure painting was of great interest to French Impressionists and that many figure studies were painted en plein air -- to study the effects of direct or dappled light on flesh. In a 1915 review of the California Art Club fall exhibition, Antony Anderson writes:
And, Anderson adds with special significance to California figure painting, "Often they seek and find a landscape setting, where a year ago, they were content with studio and drawing room interiors." Anderson's suggestion that, "We are rapidly growing older, and as we grow older we accumulate wisdom -- in short we become more human more interested in souls than bodies; we incline to turn from outdoor nature to man himself," is typical of the kind of romantic hypotheses which critics and art historians alike still have a tendency to make. He comes closer to the truth when he says, "Perhaps the great war has accelerated this evolutionary tendency," but he attributes interest in the figure to the romantic, philosophical notion that war reminds people of the importance of humanity, rather than the practical fact that the war caused French-trained Southlanders to return home where their artwork, exhibited locally, influenced the local community.
Anderson prophesied that, "Many of these accepted [in the 1915 California Art Club exhibition] are not particularly good, but they are highly important in that they indicate the powerful stream of tendency, and because they are the precursors of great things to come. Nobody doubts that when we once seriously begin to paint figures we will do it very well." But, in fact, the most outstanding local figure impressionists were those arriving about 1914, who had developed their styles during residence in France and Boston, where figural work enjoyed great vogue.
One of the major local figure painters was Guy Rose, whose interest may have developed from his friendship in Giverny with the American figure painting Impressionists Frederick Frieseke (1874-1939) and Richard Miller (1875-1943). Rose, appealing to the more conservative American audience, primarily painted fully dressed, very feminine, young women, both indoors and out, and though he did paint some nudes, his nudes tend to be idealized and do not exhibit the eroticism or sensuousness projected by Frieseke's or Miller's.
William Vincent Cahill's (?-1924) interest in figure painting is not surprising in view of his background as an illustrator and his residence in Boston. That city housed a disproportionately large number of impressionist figure painters included Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938) and Frank Benson (1862-1951).[.21] But unlike the Boston artists' timid, feminine, and "pretty" brand of Impressionism, the three known works by Cahill show solidly modeled, monumental figures.[.22] He usually painted upper class women at leisure, acting within a shallow plane, usually against a rigidly geometrically divided backdrop. At various times Anderson called Cahill a tonalist and a pointillist, and more will have to be learned of his paintings before we can define his work in current terms.
Donna Schuster, a pupil of Edmund Tarbell and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), obviously received strong schooling in figure painting and, indeed, the figure paintings she produced while teaching locally at Otis Art Institute retain more of an East Coast, Boston flavor than anything identifiably Californian. She wields a loose brush and makes long, attenuated strokes which dissolve figure and foliage into shimmering light. Her work equals the quality of her Boston confreres, but, like many of theirs, falls just short of complete technical virtuosity and meaningfulness of subject.
What is Post-impressionism? In European art it denotes the style of a number of otherwise unrelated artists working between 1880 and 1906. They were concerned with Impressionism's dissolution of form and attempted, through further experiments, to reinvest substance and meaning into painting. The form of these experiments varied with the goals of the individual artists. Subjectivity and pictorial surface were emphasized at the expense of illusion, for Impressionism had demonstrated that realistic representation of nature was no longer a necessary or sufficient goal in a painting. Some artists attempted to reinvest meaning by using more intense, brighter or more contrasting colors, as well as outline. They also experimented with the psychological properties of impasto and brushwork. Subject matter changed from Impressionism's sunny, positive landscapes and its interest in portraying the upper classes at leisure to, if not social protest, at least the presentation of the common man. Sometimes esoteric, historical, mystical or religious imagery was incorporated.
Artists turned from plein air painting, made popular by the Impressionists, back to working in the studio, in which, Monet said, "The unity which the human spirit gives to vision can only be found...It is there that our impressions -- previously scattered -- are coordinated and give each other their reciprocal value, in order to create the true poem of the countryside." Post-Impressionism was a vital, highly important experimental link in the chain of modern art leading from Impressionism to later styles such as Fauvism and Cubism.
In contrast to Southern California's respectable number of Impressionists, the area could boast of very few Post-Impressionists . (The same seems to be true of America in general, if one is to judge from the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. See footnote 23.). As with Impressionists, these local artists deserve the appellation only because of their intent and style, not because they worked in the correct time frame. It is not difficult to understand why fewer local artists cared to work in this style. Unlike the equally revolutionary style of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism's negative, unattractive or esoteric subject matter did not elicit the patronage of Southern California's collectors, and its subjectivity and experimental nature seems to have been too challenging for local artists who had their hands full just trying to paint a realistic landscape.
The first local Post-lmpressionist was probably Jack Gage Stark. If his works were indeed like colorful confetti snowstorms, as one shocked viewer dreamed, he may even have been what we now call a pointillist. At least that description suggests his work was a step beyond simple Impressionism.
If Post-Impressionism means experiment beyond Impressionism, then we must look to Los Angeles' earliest experimenters to find its practitioners, These are found in the Art Students' League of Los Angeles. Early cityscapes by Stanton MacDonald Wright (1890-1973), painted in bright, bold colors, are known from Wright's 1906-10 period. It is possible that Val Costello's (1875-1937) landscapes and blurred figure studies, as well as Rex Slinkard's (1887-1918) softly-toned, broadly-handled figural subjects might be considered post-impressionistic.
Clarence Hinkle is quite decidedly a Post-Impressionist. His Untitled, (Private Collection) showing a seated young woman in profile, is worked with a basket-like pattern of brushstrokes in bright, contrasting, warm and cool shades. It reveals a painter experimenting with color, In Southern California after 1917, Hinkle took a further artistic step. He began to paint landscapes more often than figures, and these are slashed out with elongated strokes of raw energy. They depend on a uniquely individual color scheme -- a sun-drenched blinding white, highlighted with intense color accents, often black.
Other artists who qualify as Post-Impressionists formed the first group titled "modernists." Arriving in the mid-1920's, they had an interest in bright colors or treating solid forms on a two-dimensional surface. Among these artists are Henrietta Shore (d. 1963), Helena Dunlap, Meta Cressey (1882-1964) and Eduoard Vysekal (1890-1939). Cressey's Toys at Rest, (Private Collection), c. 1918, is a prime example of the return to substantive form and color. Vysekal's Mood (Private Collection), 1916, shows equal strength in substantive form and color. Lawrence Murphy (1872-1948) often painted studies of men and horses, executed with expressive, lively, confident strokes. This, with his identifiably personal color schemes, often consisting of maroon and deep blue accents on white fields, should certainly be considered post-impressionistic. The abstract shapes into which he distorts humans and animals are sophisticated and pleasing. Even the unpainted borders, which suggest the painting was left unfinished, complement the composition. Conrad Buff (1886-1975), who constructed massive three-dimensional geographic features with pin-like strokes, has much in common with French Post-Impressionists such as Seurat.
Continued on page two
Essay reprinted with permission of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11
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