Keeping the Faith: Painting in Santa Catalina 1935-1985

by Roy C. Rose


The history of art is one of continual change. Over time, the popularity of each form of artistic expression is supplanted by another form. The Impressionists, all of whom were plein air painters, reigned supreme in California and in Catalina Island from the 1890s until the end of the 1920s. By that time, however, the seeds of change had already been planted in Europe.

Guy Rose (1867-1925), an American Impressionist and a native Californian, was interviewed by the Providence Journal in 1914, shortly after his return home from France. He was asked, "What do you think of the 'Futurists,' the 'Cubists,' and the ilk?" Rose responded, "I think they are simply crazy. I don't see how it is possible to paint anything any worse. I was glad to get away, for the place is simply overrun with them. I don't think it will have any lasting effect, however, and then we shall come back to sane work." Rose went on to say, "Yes, I know people once said that the Impressionists were crazy. But they did paint pictures. The 'Futurists' try to paint a state of mind. They translate their sensations into terms of paint that result in such things as pictures of horses in motion with 20 legs, or a portrait of a woman which embodies also what she sees on the street, what is going on in her mind or in the room, all translated in spots of color!"

Guy Rose was wrong -- the new art movements did not go away. Fortunately for Rose and the rest of the Impressionist and plein air painters in California, the changes that had been planted in Europe moved westward very slowly. By the late 1920s, though, plein air painting, and Impressionism in particular, was in trouble. American Scene and abstract painting styles were quickly replacing the classic compositions of the plein air painters.

American Scene paintings showed images from everyday life, such as people shopping, working, and playing. They showed housing, auto travel, train travel, and just about anything that reflected life in America. With the onset of the Great Depression, American Scene painting focused on the day-to-day life of a society in crisis. Many artists had a very difficult time making a living, so they turned their talents to more practical areas in order to survive. Some turned to commercial sign painting or to the movie industry. Others were lucky enough to receive government grants or subsidies to paint murals and decorations for public buildings. Many gave up the arts altogether.

World War II provided a wealth of subject material for the American Scene painters, at least for those who were too old to join the fight. Numerous pictures from the era depict women in the workforce for the first time, men and women in uniform, and machines of war.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) in particular had a tremendous influence on American art. His poignant, nostalgic, and patriotic paintings, done for magazine illustrations and covers, set the tone for American taste in art for decades.

Forty years later, the American art world was headed for another major shift. In California this change became apparent in November 1977, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a de-accession sale to benefit new acquisitions. In a much-publicized sale held by Sotheby Parke Bernet, the museum auctioned off many 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and watercolors, as well as Impressionist and Modern paintings. The art critics were jolted when the works of the early California plein air painters not only sold, but in many instances, went for several times their pre-auction estimated values.

At about the same time, art galleries began to acquire and sell California paintings from the early 20th century. In 1982 Ruth Lilly Westphal published her book Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, a landmark in the "rediscovery" of plein air painting through the works of early California artists. Westphal's book reintroduced the phrase "plein air painter" into our vocabulary.

The history of painting in Catalina during this part of the 20th century mirrored that of the rest of the country. Out of the many artists who chose to paint Catalina, I have chosen to profile three artists who helped to "keep the faith." Altogether, Roger Moulton "Bud" Upton (1900-1988), Henry Vander Velde (1913-1997), and Frank Loudin (1930- ) recorded the history of Catalina for 50 years.


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