California Style: 1930s and 1940s

by David Stary-Sheets


Up until the 1930s California art was dominated by painters in awe of the landscape, the natural beauty of this vastly diverse country. From the earliest arrival of Eastern and European trained artists in the 1850s, to the painters later known as the California Impressionists, 1900 to 1930, the artists in California depicted glorious and grandiose studies of the landscape as a land untouched and unspoiled. The works, in a variety of styles, were highly pictorial, serving unquestionably as positive advertisements for the Golden State.

In the 1920s Los Angeles had redoubled in population and was continuing to grow at a never before seen rate. Late in the decade young artists from the small communities near Los Angeles traveled into the city to study at the various art schools. Most of these budding artists were born and raised in Southern California and were very much aware of the many changes in art that were taking place at that time. Industrial development, oil exploration, and the burgeoning motion picture industry diverted their attention away from the landscape.

Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, and Phil Paradise were principal painters in this group of young artists who found inspiration in the work of the New York painters known as the Ash Can School -- Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, and George Luks. The New York artists were painting subject matter that dealt with everyday life. Although images of their works were only available in black and white reproductions, the energy and realism of the interpretations was not lost and left a deep impression on the young California painters. Sheets, Dike, and Paradise were students at the Chouinard School of Art where they were guided by experienced artists such as Clarence Hinkle and F. Tolles Chamberlin. The school's founder and director, Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard, advocated a deep philosophical commitment to art rooted to a firm academic base.

Early in his schooling, Millard Sheets was introduced to the medium of watercolor by his teacher F. Tolles Chamberlin. Chamberlin showed the young artist the versatility of the medium when working out-of--doors. Immediately upon trying the medium, Sheets was excited with the results. Within a year, while still a student, Millard Sheets was asked by Mrs. Chouinard to instruct a class in watercolor. His fellow students were just as enthusiastic as he was, and thus a new art movement began.

Prior to this time watercolor had been considered by most artists to be a sketching medium, i.e. used to outline a design and define a color chord for an oil painting. Also, watercolor had been a popular form of painting in England, where, traditionally, it was very delicately and meticulously applied to paper. Soon, this small band of painters in Southern California began painting with the medium in a whole different way. They were not trained in the traditional manner, but instead directed to figure things out for them-selves. The results were watercolor paintings that were expressive, highly pigmented, and, as Phil Paradise stated, "paintings that had the body of oil, but with the immediacy of the watercolor."

By the early 1930s the West Coast art world was very much aware of the work being done by Sheets, Dike, Paradise, and newly arrived artists such as Emil Kosa, Jr. and Barse Miller. They had become members of the California Water Color Society, founded in 1921, and member exhibitions were attracting more and more positive attention. On the rough side of things, however, the country had slipped into the Great Depression. The economy, politics, and government were confused and in turmoil. Other parts of the country were deeply scarred, and a great amount of distrust for all our systems was the talk of the land. President Roosevelt was formulating a plan for recovery, but implementation was still years ahead.

Nationally, a call among American artists to establish a truly American form of art was being trumpeted throughout the land. In the Midwest, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, in the South, Thomas Hart Benton, in the east, Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, and in the West, Millard Sheets and his contemporaries agreed that the language of our national art should speak to our experience and background. It was time to move away from European influences and derive styles and approaches that instead reflected the feeling and traditions of the various regions of our own country. Thus during the early part of the 1930s, a new direction, now known as the American Scene movement, was born. Ameri-can Scene was reflected in two stylistic approaches: regionalism and social realism. The social realist artists emphasized social criticism, depicting the harshness and stark realities of the life in the Depression. Region-alist artists, in contrast, found the positive aspects of their individual areas, both urban and rural, to record in their work.

Obviously the Depression brought hard times to everyone in the country, but some areas were much harder hit than others. In California the astounding growth of the previous decade had laid the ground-work for a predominant continuation of positive forces. Building in Los Angeles and its surrounding communities continued relatively unabated, as did the migration of families from around the country who were seeking the "California dream." The movie industry was beginning its golden era, and, in general, things were not as bad as in other regions. The mild climate also contributed to a stronger sense of well being.

For a California artist, work was available to anyone who was willing to find it. The movie industry offered countless jobs as art directors, scenic artists, animators, and poster and billboard designers. Teaching was another avenue for artists to pursue. Beginning in 1933, the various programs formulated by the New Deal -- the Public Works of Art Projects (PWAP, 1933 - 34), the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP, 1935 - 43), and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, 1935 - 38) -- created great opportunities for struggling painters and sculptors.

During this period, the California watercolor movement was growing in national as well as local prominence. By the mid 1930s a number of the painters were winning prizes at museum exhibitions in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. One-man shows were also held for them at prominent commercial galleries in Chicago and New York, and the critical reviews soon identified their work as "the California Group." The subject matter of their paintings dealt with ordinary life -- construction sites, laundry hanging in the breeze, rush hour traffic, trains, tractors, and trucks. Farmers plowing fields, migrant workers picking crops, and people frolicking at the beach (part of the magic lure of California) were all images that the watercolorists found important to portray.

What was it about this art that attracted so much attention? Critics and museum curators alike noted the directness of the work, its expressive description of subject matter, the richness of color, its inherent naivete brought forth from the rural backgrounds of the artists, and its absolute commitment to straightforward communication. Millard Sheets was viewed as the inspirational leader of the group. His work was compared to the best in the land and was once described as "at least equal to that of Homer at this stage of his career." One article described him as the "Lindbergh of American Art." Each of the painters deserved their individual honors, and it was clear that California watercolorists were capturing the imagination of the national art scene.

Although the California Water Color Society was founded in Los Angeles and dominated by Southern California artists, Northern California artists too began to join the movement. Dong Kingman, George Post, John Haley, Erle Loran, and Nat Levy were important contributors to this California phenomenon. These northern artists were influenced by a more modernistic approach that preceded the abstract movement of the late 1940s and 1950s. Some of them also utilized opaque watercolor (gouache) in their work, something few of their southern counterparts did. Their commonality, however, was in an emphasis on story telling as the basis of their work.

By the late 1930s the country was working hard to come out of the Depression. In California obvious signs of growth and stability were occurring with the construction of the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco. The Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 was a declaration that California had entered the realm of modern America. But it was also very evident that a world war was on the horizon. Our national economy was positively bolstered by this reality as massive shifts in our industrial complex with the production of war materials began. The impact of this in both ship building and in the aircraft industry was monumental in California. A sense of success and security was present.

By end of the decade, the California watercolor movement reached its peak of acceptance. In 1940 the Riverside Museum in New York City featured the Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition, organized by the California Water Color Society. The interest in their work was nationally spotlighted, and several paintings were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their permanent collection. The threat of world war was now bearing down hard on America, and the artists shifted their energy toward the buildup effort. Illustration for magazines was showing a measured change to the upcoming heroic effort, and stylistic art in general began to slip to the back seat of importance.

For artists in the United States, World War II brought a different kind of opportunity and obliga-tion. The War Department commissioned artists to record the events of the war. Others were hired as artist-correspondents by the news media. Life magazine hired twenty artists to illustrate the war for publication in the magazine. Among the Californians who participated in the war effort were Tom Craig, Milford Zornes, Barse Miller, and Millard Sheets. Most of the works created through these experiences are in the collection of the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

The experience of going to war left indelible impressions on these artists. It changed their lives, and, when they returned from the war, their painting reflected that change. By the end of the 1940s modern art, which had met considerable resistance, had secured a stronger foothold. Abstract Expressionism and other movements forced representational art to a back seat. Many American realist artists, including some of the California School, adapted the new styles to their own art. Few were successful. Perhaps their hearts were not in it. Many continued to work in their own personal idiom of representational expression. Some were successful in continuing their careers as before, refusing to bow to those critics who decried their methods as being passé. Their prominence in American art continued throughout their lives.

About the author

David Stary-Sheets was co-owner -- with Susan Stary-Sheets, his wife -- of Stary-Sheets Fine Art in Laguna Beach, CA. He was the son of the painter and architect Millard Sheets. An artist in his own right, he made one-of-a-kind, handcrafted studio furniture and sculpture and was active with the Gualala Art Association, the Laguna Art Museum, and the Orange County Art Museum.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library in June 2009, with permission of Susan Stary-Sheets Pasas, Tony Sheets, and Sebastopol Center for the Arts, granted to TFAO on April 23, 2009, April 19, 2009, and June 2, 2009, respectively. . If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Sebastopol Center directly through either this phone number or web address: 707-829-4797; The Sebastopol Center for the Arts is located at 6780 Depot Street in Sebastopol, CA. Please call the Center for hours and admission fees.

It is an essay from the catalogue entitled California Style: 1930s and 40s, which accompanied an exhibition of the same name that was on view at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts (August 21 - September 28, 1997), Orange County Museum of Art (December 13, 1997 - March 22, 1998), and Ventura Museum of History and Art (April 3 - June 14, 1998). An adaptation of the essay appeared in the January - February 1998 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Linda Galleta and Pat Schuler of Sebastopol Center for the Arts; Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle; Susan Stary-Sheets Pasas; Teri Sowell of Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, CA; Tony Sheets; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

For California art history overall see California Art History, California Artists: 19th-21st Century, California Regionalism and California School of Painters, Ashcan Artists, WPA Era Art and Scene Painting and Regionalism.

For further biographical information on artists mentioned in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Following are examples of representational artworks created by artists, or photographs of artists, referenced in the above article or essay. Images may not be specific to this article or essay and are likely not cited in it. Images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images.


(above: Millard Owen Sheets (1907-1989), San Dimas Train Station, 1933, Watercolor on paper, 15" x 22." The Hilbert Collection)


(above: Ernest Martin Hennings (1886-1956), Homeward Bound, 1933-1934, oil on canvas, 30.2 x 36.2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


(above: John Sloan, Self-Portrait, Working, 1916, oil with Windsor & Newton Copal Varnish and wax finish on canvas, 22 x 17.9 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Gift of John and Helen Farr Sloan. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: George Benjamin Luks, The Bread Line, c. 1905-25, oil on panel, Dayton Art Institute. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


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