Towards Impressionism in Northern California

by Raymond L. Wilson


Beginning in the 1890s painting in northern California underwent a profound alteration in form and subject matter, shifting from stirring scenes of mountain peaks and maritime adventures to smaller, more intimate and personal studies in mood and color. The shapes of forms changed too, from the familiar illusions of solidity and conventional spatial relations, to flatter, more purely decorative configurations.

These changes arose from three important developments: from a change in outlook and subsequently style, by William Keith, then the dean and most influential artist on the Pacific Coast; from a dramatic and far-reaching visit to San Francisco by George Inness, the Eastern landscape painter, in the spring of 1891; and from a young and vital generation of men and women returning to California from study in the intoxicating environments of turn-of-the-century New York and Paris, destined to lead a reshaping of northern California's pictorial ideals. These changes came slowly at first, gathered momentum at regular exhibitions, and finally won permanent endorsement and official sanction at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. There, a vast and kaleidoscopic Department of Fine Arts, crowded with exhibits from around the world helped shape the artistic future of the West.

Yet these were difficult and contentious years for northern California artists, marked by competition and conflict between old and new styles and between established artists and ambitious upstarts, How it all began is a story of despair over a prolonged slump in the art markets of the Far West which lasted for over a decade, starring early in the 1880s.

During most of the 1860s and 1870s, northern California artists enjoyed a rare and rewarding age of prosperity and public favor. But the collapse of the Nevada silver boom in 1878 placed a damper on sales of objets d'art; and a shift in taste by local patrons to the vogueish Europeans of the day eclipsed the popularity of resident artists.

For several years a moody stillness lingered over the once-lively and colorful artistic colony of San Francisco, then the capital of northern California art. Emil Carlsen, the still-life painter, arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1887 to take up duties as the newly-appointed director of the California School of Design, the educational wing of the San Francisco Art Association. Four years later, though, preparing to return to New York, he bitterly declared that, "I am going where people buy pictures, where there is an opportunity to exhibit them, and where a name means something."[1]

Some San Franciscans were in the market for pictures, but they were more often copies of old masters or pictures painted by sought-after Parisians like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Louis Meissonier, or Jean-Léon Gérôme. Members of the French Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme, and their fellow-academicians in France and elsewhere in Europe painted pictures which reflected traditional ideals: melodramas like Gérôme's Second-Dance in the Cafe, owned by Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four transcontinental railroad builders; picture-postcard views like Mecklenburg's The Grand Canal, Venice, owned by General D.D. Colton, a San Francisco lawyer and finance director of the Central Pacific Railroad; or sweetly sentimental scenes like Vibert's Duet of Love, owned by Irving M. Scott, president of the Union Iron Works, the West Coast's largest shipbuilder.[2]

Students enrolled at the School of Design, facing severely reduced prospects at home, left to travel abroad to study. At first they headed for the Royal Academy at Munich, there to study with other Americans like Frank Duveneck and his followers, as did Toby Rosenthal, Theodore Wores, and Thaddeus Welch, three young northern Californians fresh from classes at the School of Design. Paris, however, was swiftly gaining a reputation as a center of energy and experiment and soon became a magnet for young artists from many countries.

Few would-be students, though, could pass the rigorous entrance examinations, which included fluency in the French language, of the École des Beaux-Arts, the official school of the Académie Royale. The chief and most popular alternative to the École was the Académie Julian which was, next to the École, the largest and most important art school in Paris. Julian's fees were relatively modest and there were no preconditions or entrance requirements, consequently it attracted large numbers of foreigners from many nations -- Russians, Japanese, Brazilians, Britishers, and many Americans -- among the latter, many northern Californians.

Rodolphe Julian was a colorful figure with no formal artistic training of his own, though he was a painter. He had grown up in a small village in the south of France and had been a prizefighter as a young man. When his days in the ring were over, he took his savings and started the Académie Julian in 1868. M. Julian was the manager of his school which had studios located in several Paris Arondissements. To serve as instructors Julian enlisted several well-known academicians on the faculty of the more prestigious École -- Bouguereau, Gustave C.R. Boulanger, Jules J. Lefebvre, Tony Robert-Fleury, and Jean J. Benjamin Constant. Once a week subjects were given out to the classes, usually from the Bible or mythology. The results were judged by the professors and there were regular competitions crowned by the frequent awarding of medals.[3]

This rather unremarkable program was enlivened, however, in some branches of Julian's by contact with the extramural work and personalities of certain prophetic figures just then battling the outrage and scorn of the establishment.

Among these branches were the "little studios" on the rue du Faubourg-St. Denis, where Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard were studying in 1888 and 1889. The massier or monitor of the Faubourg studios at that time was Paul Sérusier, later to become an important member of the Nabis. Also enrolled at the Faubourg studios was Arthur E. Mathews, a young San Franciscan. Other northern Californians studying at Julian's in the late 1880s were Amédée Joullin, Ernest Peixotto, Elizabeth Strong, Charles Rollo Peters, Anna Klumpke, Will Sparks, Jules Pages, and Matilda Lotz.[4] These young Americans could observe firsthand the avant-garde crucible of Parisian art. Profoundly affecting their education, later to be manifested half a world away, were the works and personalities of Paul Gauguin, the muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and the characteristically flat, though boldly outlined, Japanese print, just then capturing the imagination and advocacy of artists like Vincent Van Gogh.

Exposure to Gauguin's ideas may have occurred at a moment recounted in a celebrated essay by Maurice Denis titled "The Influence of Paul Gauguin:" "Paul Sérusier," wrote Denis, "appeared in the Faubourg St. Dcnis studio one day in October, 1888, and showed us, not without a certain amount of mystery, a cigar-box cover on which could be seen a landscape later called 'The Talisman' painted by Sérusier under Gauguin's supervision. It seemed crude because of its synthetic formulation in purple, vermilion, Veronese green, and other pure colors -- just as they had come out of the tube -- with almost no white mixed in. 'How do you see this tree,' Gauguin had said, standing on one of the corners of the Bois d'Amour. 'Is it really green? Use green then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.' Thus, for the first. time was presented to us, in paradoxical form, but unforgettably, the fertile concept of the 'flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order,'"[5]

Reinforcing the effect of the flat surface were Japanese woodcuts, imported to Paris in growing numbers in the 1880s by Samuel Bing, a dealer chiefly in Orientalia, and by others, During the later 1880s when many northern Californians were matriculating in Paris, there were regular public exhibitions of Japonisme and publication of illustrated books and periodicals on the subject. Add to this the extensive press coverage of Japonisme and it would be hard to conceive of any art student remaining unaware of this development.

In 1887, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh organized a show of colored woodcuts, seen for the first time in Paris, at the Café Le Tambourin. In the autumn of the following year Samuel Bing put on a show called the International Exhibition of Black and White, featuring the woodcuts of Utamaro. There were Japanese prints at the Paris International Exposition of 1889, and a major exhibition of Japonisme at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1890 at which works by Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kunisada were represented.[6]

Another Parisian whose work excited admiration and imitation among the more experimentally-minded of Julian's students was that of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis specialized in murals and easel paintings based on quasi-literary allegories. Haunting, gracefully endowed figures were often posed silhouetted in a dream-like Arcadia and painted in subtly harmonized and muted tones, as in the often illustrated Sacred Wood Beloved of the Arts and Muses, painted between 1884 and 1887.

For young northern Californians in Paris, preparing to assume the leadership in bringing about a revival of art in the Far West, there was abundant inspiration in the revolutionary appeal and doctrines of Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, and the Japanese print. In the meantime, halfway around the world San Francisco's largely dormant art colony was about to awaken and shrug off the apathy and depression of the 1880s.

In the spring of 1891, George Inness, probably America's most famous landscape painter, paid a visit to San Francisco where he was warmly welcomed by William Keith and other members of San Francisco's civic and social establishment. Keith made his studio available to Inness and together the two artists traveled to the Monterey Peninsula to paint. By the end of April both men were back in San Francisco, preparing for the spring exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, the Pacific Coast counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the annual Paris Salon.[7]

On May 7 the exhibition opened with a reception hosted by the Art Association. Inness's painting, Sunset Near Monterey, was accorded a place of honor, and Keith showed four paintings: Under the Oaks at Monterey, Near Monterey, Twilight in the Valley and Landscape.[8]

A week after the opening of the Art Association show and on the eve of Inness' departure for the East, the artist was feted at a lavish banquet given by Irving M. Scott. According to press accounts, a large number of socially and artistically prominent persons attended, including Claus Spreckels the sugar magnate, James Ben Ali Haggin, a Western industrialist and patron of Albert Bierstadt, and artists Keith, Raymond Dabb Yelland, director of the California School of Design, and two young soon-to-be-known artists recently returned from study in Paris, Amédée Joullin, and Arthur E Mathews, also both instructors at the School of Design.[9]

Symbolically, the day after the Scott reception, while in Keith's studio, Inness was invited by his host to make changes in a painting titled A Forest Interior. Reportedly Inness took Keith's brush and palette and painted a vivid sunset in the center of the picture, covering a brooding bower of trees.[10]

A month later, in the June number of the Overland Monthly, a local journal, Charles Dorman Robinson, a native painter of growing renown, published an article titled "A Revival of Art Interest in California." The revival began, Robinson asserted, with a loan exhibition of paintings at the rooms of the San Francisco Art Association which took place shortly before the spring exhibition at which Inness and Keith had participated.

The loan exhibition consisted of the Irving M. Scott and W. H. Crocker collections in which "a few fair examples of the leading modern European schools, and also two or three passable of the older masters were shown."[11] Monet's Sunlight Effect on the Riviera and Pissarro's Woodland Scene, both owned by Mrs. W. H. Crocker, were on view as was Puvis de Chavanne's Charity. Representing the Barbizon school were Theodore Rousseau's The Oaks, Jean-Françcois Miller's Man with A Hoe, and two by Camille Corot -- Evening and Dance of the Nymphs -- all owned by the Crockers. Irving Scott lent Charles Daubigny's Spring and Autumn.[12]

An important part of the loan exhibition, continued Robinson, was a painting by Inness whom he proclaimed "America's greatest landscape painter." That painting, wrote Robinson admiringly, "must be positive revelation to local artists who have never had an opportunity before closely to study his methods. His technique is bold and original in the extreme, yet it bears evidence of years of thought and experiment, of scholarly investigation and great mechanical skill. The subtle mastery with which the mystery of tone which envelops the whole picture is obtained is marvelous to the trained eye and hand. There is no linear drawing in the picture, yet it is a gem of drawing, there is no brilliancy of pigment anywhere upon the canvas; but not often before has one graced the walls of the Association which in its apparently low and subdued key of color shot forth such fiery gleams of nature's light as does this canvas."[13]

By the time that Robinson's article appeared, Arthur E Mathews, returned from Europe, had been working in San Francisco for nearly two years and had launched himself on a career as a teacher and artist. In 1890 he was appointed to teach the life class at the California School of Design. Within two years time the school and its parent, the San Francisco Art Association, had moved to new quarters on the crest of Nob Hill and into the vacant mansion of Mark Hopkins, one of the original Big Four transcontinental railroad builders. At this time the school also became affiliated with the University of California in Berkeley, across the Bay.

On the recommendation of the retiring director of the school, Raymond Dabb Yelland, Mathews was appointed the new director. Following his appointment, the latter immediately moved to restructure the curriculum of the school, utilizing the lessons learned in Paris. He deemphasized the traditional course in learning to draw from plaster casts of famous sculptures like the Venus de Milo, and made drawing from life models a requirement. Mathews also added a course in anatomy. Through this revamped curriculum were to pass many young talents destined to make major contributions to the resurgence of art in northern California and to the rise of lmpressionism, such as Francis McComas, Xavier Martinez, Giuseppe Cadenasso, Gottardo Piazzoni, Joseph Raphael, Armin Hansen, Lucia Mathews, Charles Rollo Peters, and Maynard Dixon.

Two other events which were to be of considerable importance in leading to a revival and in setting the stage for the appearance of Impressionism in northern California were two international expositions, one Midwestern and one local. They were the World's Colombian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, and the California Midwinter International Fair of 1894, held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

A major international occasion, the World's Colombian became a showcase for some of America's leading planners, architects, and artists. Each state in the union had its own pavilion exhibiting its products and manufactures, but California was the only state to have its own art gallery housing works by resident artists. Norton Bush, a well-known northern California artist of the older generation, was placed in charge of the art exhibition.

Bush and his committee, which included William Keith, Arthur E Mathews, the portrait-painter Mary Curtis Richardson, and William E Jackson, selected ninety paintings for showing, about half of which were by women artists of northern California. The older generation of California painters was well represented with paintings by Charles Christian Nahl, Thomas Hill, and Jules Tavernier. But Keith and the younger Paris-trained group were strongly represented too. Keith showed four paintings whose titles suggest that they were of the smaller, more intimate quality of his new style, as may have been Early Moonrise and The Deep Somber Woods.[14]

That winter of 1893-94, several prominent San Franciscans led by M. H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, decided to organize an exposition of their own, which being held in mid-winter would dramatize the appeal of California's mild and benevolent climate. Set in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, there were hundreds of buildings and exhibits, even a recreation of a Gold Rush camp.

The art gallery showed works by living and deceased northern California artists as well as works by artists from other nations, especially from France and Poland. Keith was asked to head the selection jury for the California exhibit. As with the previous summer's World's Colombian Exposition, a rough balance was struck between old and new. Representing the living artistic establishment were Thomas Hill, Ernest Narjot, the genre painter, and Raymond Dabb Yelland. Keith was on view once again with four paintings, including Deep Somber Woods from the Chicago exposition. But of the fifty-one exhibitors in the category of California Local Artists, a majority were from the newcomers.[15]

Besides the Californians, there were in the French department, A Field in Giverny and The Cliffs at Varengeuille by Claude Monet, An Algerian Girl by Renoir, The Meadow by Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley's The Banks of the Marne. The Barbizonists were also represented by Daubigny with two paintings and Corot with four. Press reviews of the California exhibit were favorable and public response was enthusiastic, winning for the contemporary point of view sooner rather than later, admittance, if not yet total acceptance into the mainstream of northern California's art life. Far from presenting a united front, however, the vanguard group was a diverse lot - -made up of native northern Californians and immigrants, some with extensive training in art and others with comparatively little. Of the architects of Impressionism in northern California, two stood in the foreground -- William Keith and Arthur E Mathews.

Keith (1815-1911), a Scotsman and veteran of the peak years of the silver age as well as a survivor of the depression that followed, was a prophet of the new age. Years before the ascendancy of Mathews and before the arrival of Inness, Keith had been meditating on his art, searching for a new perspective on painting, one that would match the threads of his past experience with the new impressions gained from a stay in Europe during the years 1883-1885.

At a lecture delivered to the Longfellow Society at the University of California in 1888, Keith mused, "When I began to paint, I could not get mountains high enough nor sunsets gorgeous enough for my brush and colors. After a considerable number of years experience, I am contented with very slight material -- a clump of trees, a hillside and sky; I find these hard enough, and varied enough to express any feeling I may have about them."[16]

Indeed, by the middle 1880s Keith's landscapes, limited to a more restricted horizon, were becoming more intimate and lyric in their mood. In this the Barbizon influence with its serene vistas and often shadowy forest scenes may have played a role. Titles like In the Woods from the 1884 Art Association exhibition and Edge of the Wood from the 1886 exhibition suggest clues to his development.[17]

Another factor which may have played a part in Keith's thought was a shift in taste among American collectors away from earlier landscape styles to the Barbizon mood. Included, for instance, in the collection of Collis P. Huntington, the railroad tycoon and resident of Nob Hill, were pictures by Narcisse Diaz who had specialized in scenes of dimly-lit forest interiors. In another instance, even Irving M. Scott, Keith's old friend and patron, bought Daubigny's Spring and Autumn. Mrs. W. H. Crocker, wife of the banker, owned The Oaks by Theodore Rousseau, Miller's Man with a Hoe, and two works by Corot -- Evening and Dance of the Nymphs. Ever sensitive to subtle changes in art and taste, it would have been surprising if Keith had remained unaware of these developments.[18]

Alongside Keith, Arthur Frank Mathews (1860-1945) shared co-responsibility for bringing about the change in style from epic landscape to the first Impressionist experiments. Born in Wisconsin, Mathews was brought west with his family in 1866. His father was an architect who, shortly after arriving in California, established a practice in Oakland. By the age of twenty-five, having already apprenticed at his father's architectural offices, Mathews left for Paris, there to enroll at the Académie Julian.

Little of his work of those days has surfaced, but what has bears testimony to his allegiance to conventional illusionistic values. In later life he recorded little alnout what he must have seen and heard, to which his later work attests, of the dramatic developments in art occurring all about him during his tenure at the Académie Julian.

On Mathews' return to San Francisco in 1889 he began offering instruction in life drawing at the San Francisco Art Students League. A year later he was appointed to the faculty of the California School of Design. In his first year at the school Mathews taught the antique drawing and life classes and lectured on artistic anatomy and composition. The next year Yelland resigned as director, recommending that Mathews be appointed to succeed him.[19]

As recounted earlier, Mathews moved rapidly to restructure the curriculum of the school, deemphasizing the antique classes and making requirements of life drawing and anatomy. He also quickly gained a reputation among the students as a tyrant, ruthlessly criticizing the efforts of beginners and promoting favorites over the heads of sometimes more deserving peers. Whether, for instance, Lucia Kleinhans was more deserving than her peers is open to question, but at any rate she was quickly promoted and not long afterwards became Lucia Mathews, the director's wife. Other Mathews' students were Francis McComas, Xavier Martinez, Gottardo Piazzoni, Anne Bremer, Armin Hansen, and Thomas McGlynn.

With Mathews' career, that of his wife Lucia, and those of his more promising students advancing smoothly, he had every reason to feel optimistic about the future. His serene horizon, however, was shattered on the morning of April 18, 1906, when a massive earthquake rumbled across northern California, striking hardest in San Francisco. Fires started almost immediately and with water mains broken by the shifting earth, conventional means of fighting the fires were quickly exhausted as wells and cisterns were drained. The gallery and studio districts were rapidly imperiled and while William Keith and a gallant few were able to rescue a handful of pictures, the flames soon drove them off; devouring in minutes the Montgomery block which contained many studios.[20]

After pausing, the inferno began leaping up Nob Hill in the direction of the old mansions of the railroad and silver kings and the Mark Hopkins Institute. Some pictures were saved and others were looted -- exactly how many in each category will never be certain. What is certain is that the Mark Hopkins Institute, its library, its instructional apparatus, and its collections were carbonized on the afternoon of April 18. Two days later, with the ashes of the city still cooling, many artists began packing their belongings and looking for refuge abroad -- to Oakland across the Bay, to the Monterey Peninsula to the south, and even to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

San Francisco's busy and colorful art scene died with the city and for years afterwards a silence deeper even than that of the early 1880s lingered. Its artists remained in exile and a generation of students just beginning work at the Mark Hopkins Institute had fled to New York and Europe. The refugee art colony located on the Monterey Peninsula flourished, however, and early in 1907 the Hotel Del Monte opened the Del Monte Art Gallery. Among the participants at its first exhibition were Mathews, Xavier Martinez, John Gamble, Elmer Wachtel, and Eugen Neuhaus.[21] A few more years passed until finally, late in 1911, the year of Keith's death, a proposal for an international exposition, to be held in rebuilding San Francisco, was put forward.

Drawing up ambitious plans, the directors made space for a Department of Fine Arts -- in which the United States section alone was ultimately to grow into an exhibit of more than 4,500 paintings. When plans for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (P.P.I.E.) were made public, San Francisco's moribund art scene began to show signs of life. The tempo quickened in 1912 and 1913 and by 1914 plans for the Department of Fine Arts were firm -- in addition to a very large European section with prominent exhibits by artists representing most of the major current styles, including the first American appearance of the work of the Italian Futurists, there was to be a large California exhibit with separate galleries for Arthur Mathews, Francis McComas, and the deceased William Keith. Besides serving on the advisory committee for the American West which passed on pictures to be exhibited at the Department of Fine Arts, Mathews had been appointed to the International Jury of Awards as were Francis McComas, Eugen Neuhaus, and Jules Pages.[22]

Opening in February of 1915 after intense anticipation, the P.P.I.E and especially the Department of Fine Arts were an instant hit and over the spring and summer attracted large crowds day after day. So successful, indeed, was the art exhibit, that it alone among the P.P.I.E. exhibits was continued over into 1916. For many younger artists and art students, it was often a first and certainly a prolonged opportunity to study the work of recent and emerging European and American masters in the latest vanguard styles.

The exhibit also won in the West general acceptance and endorsement for Impressionist: styles -- for the brilliant and vigorous work of the Nabis, for instance. Among the northern California exhibitors were Henry Joseph Breuer, Paul Dougherty and William Ritschel, awarded gold medals by the International Jury of Awards; the silver medalists, E. Charlton Fortune, Armin Hansen, Lucia Mathews, Bruce Nelson and Joseph Raphael; and the bronze medalists, Anne Bremer and Percy Gray.

The artistic and popular success of the Department of Fine Arts exhibits at the P.P.I.E. crowned the early years of Impressionism in northern California and at the same moment offered glimpses of the shapes that the future might take. It capped the career of Arthur Mathews and for many others it was an important milestone. Besides the P.P.I.E., circumstances, favorable and unfavorable, had much to do with the germination and flowering of Impressionism in northern California. The climate, natural disasters, and economic conditions all played a part. Of key importance were the talents and perseverance of figures such as Arthur Mathews, Charlton Fortune, Armin Hansen, and others like them. Without their inspiring presence and vital contributions, Impressionism, which would have probably made its way west eventually, would certainly have made its appearance much later and perhaps without such a dramatic and eventful journey.

The range of techniques and tonal ensembles, from the boldly stated oaks of Francis McComas to the pellucid hues of Charlton Fortune revealed and heralded the spreading popularity of Impressionist methods and a changing order underway since William Keith's first Barbizon-inspired paintings began appearing in the middle 1880s. From the regions around San Francisco Bay came reflections on the tawny fields of Marin, the shaggy eucalypti of the Berkeley and Oakland hills, and the wind-blown dunes of San Francisco's developing western reaches. From the Monterey Peninsula came images of the gently curving Monterey Bay, the sharply silhouetted arabesques of cypress trees, and the craggy coastline south from Point Lobos.

Arthur Mathews, Francis McComas, Xavier Martinez, Gottardo Piazzoni, and Giuseppe Cadenasso, the latter perhaps the first in California to paint the foreign-born eucalyptus tree, were strongly represented with their idiosyncratic and synthetic blends of the decorative style -- chiefly large flat areas of muted and deftly combined colors. Shifting away from the sinuous rhythms of Arthur Mathews, Francis McComas painted his stylized oaks and Southwestern pueblos with boldly outlined contours. Xavier Martinez's monotypes and paintings, like McComas's watercolors, were composed from a darker palette, resembling in their painterliness Whistler's seaside scenes. Cadenasso had claimed the eucalyptus for his own, painting them from the late 1890s, and Piazzoni, a muralist in an age of muralists, kept simplifying his forms until, with Lux Aeterna, he achieved a minimal, though stirring form of expression.

The synthetic style practiced by Mathews and his followers had approached its zenith a few years before. It continued to attract adherents, for instance, Thomas McGlynn, charmed by its apparent simplicity and elegance, but it was about to be eclipsed in popularity by methods associated with the éclat palette of the first generation of French Impressionists.

Defying easy classification, either by style or by region, and especially in the cases of Joseph Raphael and Jules Pages, two native-born, yet essentially expatriate artists, as a group they painted in bright, animated colors, They took to the shorelines, discovering atmospheric effects, and with surprising speed and audacity they began to explore the tactile values and charms of paint.

Anne Bremer and Mary DeNeale Morgan who started their careers painting the muted moods and harmonies of Barbizon and the next-generation tonalism of Mathews, perceived the abundant potential contained in a higher-keyed palette combined with the changing atmospheric effects characteristic of the Monterey Peninsula, particularly its misty fogs and hazy sunshine. Others such as Theodore Wores and John Gamble, both of whom also rose from darker beginnings -- Wores from his training in Munich and Gamble from study with Mathews at the California School of Design -- discovered the subtle appeal of the blue lupine and yellow poppy of the California coastline from San Francisco's western beaches to Santa Barbara.

Testamcnts to the difficulties of classification are the works of William Ritschel and Armin Hansen who applied paint in broad, textured strokes and in saturated ultramarines, deep reds, and glowing greens. Both were schooled in Germany, though Hansen was born in San Francisco, and both painted the sea, emphasizing color and composition.

Perhaps closest to the original French Impressionists in spirit and technique was Euphemia Charlton Fortune. Her light-washed and loosely composed scenes around Monterey suggested a measure of spontaneity lacking in the studied approach of her peers. Often vigorous, broadly brushed strokes are accented with small, flickering spots of brilliant color. William Merritt Chase, the distinguished and inspiring teacher of Impressionist techniques, taught a class at Monterey in the summer of 1914 at which Charlton Fortune may have been present. A luminous, but milkier light also characterized the painting of Bruce Nelson who found his inspiration in the shallow coves of Monterey Bay and the brightly-lit fields near the coast.

Sufficiently individualized were all these viewpoints that critics such as Michael Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle and Eugen Neuhaus, himself an exhibitor and a member of the International Jury of Awards, but also a prominent spokesman, forswore generalizations, yet pronounced favorably on the developments. However, a palpable emphasis on composition and carefully harmonized colors hinted at a formal, academic approach to Impressionism rather than at a spontaneous response. Yet in most cases they brought an elegant and often compelling perspective to familiar places.



1. Gene Hailey, ed., Abstract from California Art Research, W.P.A. Project 2874, O.P. 65-3-3632, Vol. 4 (San Francisco: Works Progress Administration, 1937), p. 39.

2. "Collections in San Francisco:' in Earl Shinn, Art Treasures of America, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: George Barrie, 1880), p 56. See also Painting and Statuary Belonging to Irving M. Scott, Sixteenth Annual Industrial Exhibition (San Francisco: Mechanics Institute of San Francisco, 1881).

3. Several American artists, Cecilia Beaux and Robert Henri, for example, wrote of life at Julian's. A description of the curriculum and requirements can be found in Alice Fessenden Peterson, "The American Art Student in Paris," New England Magazine (2 August 1890): 669-676.

4. See The Americans in Paris (Paris: published for the author and editor, 1887).

5. Reproduced in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 100.

6. See Klaus Berger, Japonismus in der Westlichen Malerei, 1860-1920 (Munchen: Prestel-Verlag, 1982),

7. Brother Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1942), p. 216.

8. Spring Exhibition, 1891: San Francisco Art Association, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco, 1891).

9. San Francisco Daily Alta California, 17 May 1891.

10. Mentioned in The Art Digest (1 October 1930): 13. The painting was later bought by A. Livingston Gump, son of the founder of the well-known store bearing his name.

11. Charles Dorman Robinson, "A Revival of Art Interest in California," Overland Monthly (June 1891): 649-652.

12. Art Loan Exhibition of Foreign Masters: San Francisco, California, arranged by W. K. Vickery, March 1891 (San Francisco: Woodward and Co., 1891.

13. Robinson, p. 650.

14. California at the World's Colombian Exposition, 1893: Report of the World's Fair Commission (Sacramento, California, 1894).

15. Official Catalogue, Fine Arts: California Midwinter International Exposition, 1894 (San Francisco: Harvey, Witcher, and Allen, 1894). The fine arts gallery was the first home of the Golden Gate Park Museum, now the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.

16. San Francisco Alta California, 29 February 1888. A copy is contained in Box 4 of the Keith-McHenry-Pond Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California.

17. Spring Exhibition, 1884: San Francisco Art Association, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco: Bosqui Eng. Co., Lith., 1884); Spring Exhibition, 1886: San Francisco Art Association, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco: Bosqui Eng. Co., Lith., 1886).

18. For a discussion of the change in taste to Barbizon, see Peter Bermingham, American Art in the Barbizon Mood (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, 1976).

19. Circular of the California School of Design, I890.

20. Keith claimed that he lost over two thousand paintings to the fire, but this figure seems excessive and may have been a shrewd attempt at boosting the market for his "remaining" canvases.

21. Art Gallery, Hotel Del Monte, California, 1907, exhibition catalogue. William Merritt Chase, a member of The Ten, taught at the Carmel Summer School of Art in 1914, seven months before the opening of the P.P.I.E.

22. Official Catalogue of the Department of Fine Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition (San Francisco: The Wahlgreen Co., 1915).


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was written in 1986 by Raymond L. Wilson, an art historian, writer and lecturer at San Francisco State University. It is an essay written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California, The North, edited by Ruth Lilly Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-1-5

Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California

Also see these articles and essays: California Art History, California Artists: 19th-21st Century, California Impressionism and California Regionalism and California School of Painters.


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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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