The Historic Landscapes of Malibu

by Michael Zakian


When most people think of Malibu, they rarely think of art. They usually imagine idyllic beaches infused with bright California sunshine. This stereotypical image of a carefree, beach lifestyle has been reinforced by popular culture. However, it is exactly the same scenic beauty that lured sun-bathers that has also attracted artists for decades.

Besides capturing the growth of this seaside community, these artists also reflect the history of landscape painting in California. Most of the earliest works (1890s - 1920s) were painted in a California Impressionist style, using bright colors and broken brushwork to capture the region's glowing light. Later works (1930s - 1950s) reveal the influence of Regionalism, the California Watercolor School and other more modern styles. The Malibu painters represent some of the state's best-known landscapists, including Emil Kosa, Jr., Hanson Puthuff, Millard Sheets, Elmer Wachtel, and William Wendt.

To understand the cultural importance surrounding early paintings of Malibu, it is important to know its history. Located twelve miles west of Los Angeles, Malibu covers about twenty-five miles of Pacific coastline, where the Santa Monica Mountains descend to meet the sea. As a result of its topography, the scenery is spectacular and varied, ranging from towering mountains to dramatic canyons, from wooded hills to seaside cliffs. Originally the region was inhabited by Chumash Indians who found abundant food in the local coves and canyons. With the advent of Spanish settlers in the eighteenth century, it became one of the original Spanish land grants. Through the nineteenth century, it was owned by various ranchers who used the land to graze cattle.

The modern history of Malibu begins in the 1890s when the area was acquired by Frederick Hastings Rindge. Rindge and his descendants would have an enormous influence on the region -- and by extension, on the art created there -- well into the twentieth century.

Rindge was the only surviving son of six children born to a prosperous Massachusetts family. When he inherited two million dollars in the 1880s he was determined to leave the east and settle in a new region with a healthy atmosphere. He moved to California and in 1892 purchased the old Rancho Malibu. There he found the natural amenities he had been looking for -- a place "near the ocean, under the lee of the mountains, with a trout brook, wild trees, a lake, good soil, and excellent climate, one not too hot in summer."

Besides having an innate love of nature, Rindge also possessed a deep appreciation of the arts. A devoutly religious man, he saw art as a way to celebrate God's gifts to mankind. Within a few years of moving to Malibu he commissioned two young artists, William Wendt and George Gardner Symons, to paint his new home.

Wendt and Symons spent a good part of 1897 fulfilling this commission. In two long seasons, the pair completed seventy-six paintings. Although the two artists were visiting and painting in California in the 1890s, neither had actually moved there at that time; both still considered the East and Midwest their true home. The 1897 Malibu paintings represent an early sustained effort to capture the California landscape in the style of late nineteenth-century naturalism that prefigured the mature California Impressionist style of the two artists's later years.

Upon returning to the Midwest, Wendt exhibited eight of his Malibu paintings in a group show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1898. A reviewer noted:

William Wendt's eight canvases...form a prominent feature of the exhibition. They are the result of Mr. Wendt's summer and autumn in California and so vividly do they portray the brilliant atmospheric effects of that country... that just at first one is a little inclined to reject so much color. The drawing is good, though, and the movement of the windswept trees and rolling water is handled in such a masterly way that one gradually begins to feel that a man who is true in other points must also be [true] in color.

This critic's reaction probably typified the public's response to the paintings. Wendt's color -- an accurate depiction of the brilliant hues found in Malibu -- was too startling to be credible. We see examples of this uncanny brightness in the electric blues in his Malibu Creek or in the glowing oranges of the wildflowers in his Head of Amarillo Canyon. These colors seem too fresh, too vibrant to be real -- or to have been painted over a century ago.

What made Wendt's paintings believable to the Chicago critic -- and one may assume to the public as well -- was his accurate draftsmanship. This would be the hallmark of the California Impressionist style: intense, passionate color applied to accurately, conventionally drawn subjects. This combination explains the great appeal the movement would have with collectors. Good drawing appealed to people's demand for skill and craftsmanship; color allowed for the inclusion of poetic and lyric elements within an acceptable context.

A checklist of Wendt's exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago records poetic titles such as The Hillside Rendezvous, By the Domain of Neptune and Within Sound of the Ocean. It is tempting to try to associate these titles with particular works in the exhibition, but, unfortunately there is no way to be certain which titles belong to which images. As with many California Impressionist paintings, the exact scenes depicted in the paintings have been forgotten over time.

In surveying the Malibu paintings of 1897, it is striking how few depict the ocean. One particularly dramatic depiction of the shore, however, is William Wendt's Bluffs of Point Dume which features stately cliffs rising above the sand. Point Dume is one of the most distinctive landmarks on the Malibu shoreline, visible for miles up and down the coast. In the nineteenth century it was used as a harbor to load ships with oak from local canyons destined for homes in Los Angeles.

Rindge was fond of the ocean and wrote, "Yon boundless ocean is the best symbol of eternity.... The deep blue sea reflects the deeper blue of the heavens." Wendt captured this transcendental quality of the sea in his Sunset over Malibu Coast. In this painting the sky and sea seem to exist in a timeless interdependence.

One of the most spectacular of the 1897 paintings is George Gardner Symons Old Bony. This work, executed on the grand scale of a European Salon "machine", is a fitting size for its subject. Old Bony is the ragged range in the distance, named for its resemblance to an animal's backbone. This work embodies the grandeur of Malibu as well as the aspirations of California art on the brink of the twentieth century.

Although, at present, Malibu is a beach resort, in Rindge's time it was a working ranch. This may account for the fact that Wendt and Symons did not emphasize the beach. Rindge may have wanted them to concentrate on painting the productive land. In fact, Rindge believed that raising livestock had religious implications because it allowed one to experience the simple life of Biblical times.

Rindge appreciated that the natural features of Malibu were not frozen monuments but living entities that reflected the cycle of the seasons. Wendt's Malibu Creek represents one of the most fascinating. The flow and size of this stream vary greatly with the season. Most of the year it is a gentle creek. After winter rains, however, it becomes a powerful river. During dry summers it appears to slow to a trickle. The creek feeds into Malibu Lagoon, a wetland that opens onto the Pacific. In the lagoon fresh water blends with salt water, creating a delicate ecosystem that today still offers home and refuge to numerous species of plants, birds and animals.

Rindge was especially fond of the wooded areas of Malibu. He enjoyed "the restful presence of green-leaved trees." He wrote that one group of trees looked "like the nave of a cathedral. We call it the Temple, since the woods were God's first church."

The Rindge family valued their private retreat and dedicated their lives to protecting their privacy. Descendants of Rindge fought for decades to keep their land private property. Because Malibu occupies the coastal route between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, external pressure to develop the land was enormous. State and county officials wanted to open a public highway through the ranch. The Southern Pacific Railroad wanted to lay tracks, thereby completing the coastal train line from San Diego to San Francisco. The family tenaciously resisted outsiders, taking their fight to the courts, even going as far as the Supreme Court. In the end, the forces of progress won, but the family succeeded in maintaining their seclusion for some time. The county road through Malibu did not open until 1921 and the state highway followed in 1929. Subdivision and subsequent development of the region did not begin until the 1930s and by that time the Depression limited growth.

Artists were affected by the battles to keep Malibu private because they did not have easy access to the land for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Except for the 1897 paintings by Wendt and Symons, no other California Impressionist seems to have had the opportunity to produce sustained studies of Malibu. As a result, paintings of Malibu dating from the height of the California Impressionist movement -- from 1900 through the 1920s -- are relatively scarce. The few painters who did venture into the area succeeded in capturing various aspects of the land.

Topanga by William Lees Judson depicts a canyon that formed the eastern border of the original Rindge ranch. Early in the twentieth century, the road through Topanga allowed travelers to circle inland and bypass Malibu. Judson's depiction of the scene uses the diagonal shape of an oak tree to lead the eye towards distant hills. His serene and romantic image captures the idyllic quality of the place which even today is a tranquil haven, a world removed from the bustle of nearby Los Angeles.

Elmer Wachtel's Malibu Canyon depicts the broad opening to this canyon from the San Fernando Valley. The painting is rendered in his characteristic blue and violet tones. Using these colors he was able to convey the cool air encountered within canyon's shaded interior.

Hanson Puthuff has been called the "foothill painter" because he specialized in rendering the gently rolling hills of California. When he painted in Malibu, he chose to depict one particularly dramatic peak, known as Monarch of Malibu. The rocky outcroppings on the face of the hill lose their sense of scale so one is not sure if they are small rocks or huge boulders. Whether small or large, these details are orchestrated into a crescendo of form that surges upward into space.

There is no ambiguity of size in Frederick Becker's Canyon Light -- Malibu Canyon. The artist chose to depict the deepest section of the spectacular canyon, seen from the canyon floor. He emphasized the myriad textures of the scene. Examining his brushstrokes close-up, broad sweeps of paint with little apparent detail can be seen. When viewed from a distance, however, his paint captures with uncanny fidelity the rough, uneven surfaces of rugged rocks and boulders.

The culmination of the California Impressionist style was in the late 1920s. With the advent of the Great Depression, the brightly optimistic, cheerful scenes of the Impressionists no longer seemed to accurately portray everyday life. In the 1930s a new movement arose that is known as Regionalism or American Scene Painting. Artists reflected the economic down-turn by using dark, brooding colors and more emotional brushwork. They chose subjects that reflected economic realities around them, such as factories, shipyards, and old ranch buildings.

Warren Newcombe was one artist who spent time painting in Malibu in the 1930s. His Malibu Ranch was inspired by the powerfully emotional landscape style of Marsden Hartley. Using a darker palette of harsh yet powerfully expressive colors, he captured the poignant image of a solitary haystack set before Malibu's energetically rolling hills. His Topanga Canyon Post Office may lack the superficial grace of many Impressionist renderings but it reflects the pioneering, rustic spirit of the people who settled and lived in Topanga Canyon.

One of California's most accomplished Regionalists was Emil Kosa, Jr. In paintings such as Wonder of it All -- Malibu Canyon, he used a limited range of greens and golden browns to record intense, dramatic effects of light and shadow. He most likely produced this canvas while working as a special-effects artist and art director for Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, where he was employed from 1933 until his death in 1968. This scene was probably painted during a lull in filming near what is now Malibu Creek State Park.

One of California's great contributions to American art in the twentieth century was the California Watercolor School. These artists broke from the meticulously detailed English technique to produce a new broad way of handling the medium. The fluidity of their approach is seen in Kosa's Latigo Shore Drive -- Latigo Cove. Kosa's masterly touch is seen by the way each wall of every building is rendered with one decisive brushstroke. This painting also documents an important chapter in Malibu history. The house with the high-peaked roof in the foreground was one of four beach houses built by the Rindge family in 1929.

Malibu has grown far beyond what Wendt and Symons could have imagined when they painted there in 1897. With the explosive growth of Los Angeles after World War II, and the growing popularity of cars, increasing numbers of people began to travel up the coast to spend time on Malibu's beaches. Although it has now been developed, the community still retains an appreciation for nature and for the simple life that marked an earlier age.

Since the earliest European settlements, the aspirations of Americans have focused on the land. Malibu represents both a typical and an extreme example of these ideals. The original tract of Rancho Malibu offered to Rindge everyone's dream of a perfect rural home: it was situated near the sea, surrounded by rolling hills with a comfortable year-round climate. It represented a veritable land of peace and plenty. What makes the story of Malibu so appealing is that this beautiful area seems to belong to a far off time and place, yet it lies within a short journey from downtown Los Angeles and retained its timeless pastoral character well into the 1930s. The artists who were inspired to paint the region have left a lasting legacy of Malibu's timeless beauty.

About the Author

Michael Zakian has been director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University since 1995. This art historian, curator and critic has lectured and written extensively on modern and American art. A native of New York City, he received a B.A. in art history from Columbia University. He pursued graduate studies at Rutgers -- The State University of New Jersey, which awarded him an M.A. and a Ph.D., both focused on American Abstract Expressionism. He is the former curator of the Palm Springs Desert Museum and the author of numerous books including Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, Sam Francis: Elements & Archetypes, Wayne Thiebaud: Works 1955 to 2003 and Russell Forester: Unauthorized Autobiography. He has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Redlands and California State University, San Bernardino.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 14, 2009 with with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on October 7, 2009. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address: 310-456-4851;

This article appeared in the March - April 1998 issue of American Art Review. It pertains to an exhibition entitled Historic Landscapes of Malibu that was on view January 11 - March 29, 1998 at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University.

Also see these articles and essays: California Art History, California Artists: 19th-21st Century, California Impressionism and California Regionalism and California School of Painters. Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum in Resource Library.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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