Fallbrook Art & Cultural Center

photo: John Hazeltine

Fallbrook, CA

760-728-1414 / 800-919-1159



The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960

Selections from the Michael Johnson Collection


From the Introduction of the exhibition catalogue, guest curator and collector Michael Johnson states: "From the Great Depression through the turbulent era of the 1960s, a select group of California artists produced what is today referred to as American Scene Painting. Their work, particularly the watercolors featuring regional California and western subjects, received national recognition. For nearly the past fifty years, this work has been largely ignored as the spotlight shifted to abstract expressionism and subsequent artistic developments." While not intended to cover all of the notable artists of the period, the exhibition does include worthy examples of watercolors from a number of California's most memorable depression-era artists.


The Lighter Side of the Depression

Working in the American populist tradition of Duke Ellington, William Faulkner, George Gershwin, and Sinclair Lewis, California artists of the Depression-era depicted a fascinating region and pattern of life quite different from other parts of the country. The Michael Johnson Collection makes the work of such artists its focus, in particular the watercolor paintings of the California School - a loose association of artists who interpreted the "American Scene" in a uniquely California way.

Images from left to right: Ritchie A. Benson ( - 1996) "Lake Union Boat Works" c. 1950s; Mary Blair (1911 - 1978) "The Circus" 1935; Blaire Field (Active c. 1940s) "Under the Bridge" 1939; James Fitzgerald (1899-1971), "Berta Ranch," c. 1930s

The California School's love of the natural California landscape as well as for the ad hoc cacophony of the built environment is obvious and infectious, particularly in Johnson's collection. Collecting few works that express the more difficult side of things during the Depression, Johnson gravitates toward paintings with narrative power that are lighthearted slices of life.

From about 1928 to 1942, the national trend among American artists and writers was to play an active role in society and to create an art that was effective in communicating the cultural ideals of the nation. For the most part, the "American Scene" movement grew out of the disruptive upheavals that arose in the United States during the Great Depression and up to the outbreak of World War II. American Scene art and literature captured the country's social, political and industrial life, reflecting both the development of modern mass culture and nostalgia for a simpler, more agrarian past.

Prominent critics of the day like Thomas Craven and the New Republic's Edmund Wilson supported the American Scene, and writers like John Steinbeck and William Saroyan vividly captured it. It was poignantly documented in the photographs of Dorothea Lange, and central to the work of nationally known painters in the midwestern and eastern United States like Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and Grant Wood. Some American Scene writers and artists (called Social Realists) made work reflecting the difficult social conditions and everyday dramas created by widespread poverty. For the most part, however, literary and visual Regionalists took a more positive outlook, expressing their personal responses to a given environment based on direct experience without a reformist stance.

Images from left to right: George Gibson (1904 - ) "Toward Bunker Hill" 1946; Harold Gretzner (1902 - 1977) "State Capitol"; Ralph Hulett (1915 - 1974) "View of the Grape Vineyards" 1944; Emil Kosa, Jr. (1903 - 1986) "Moore Hill, Los Angeles" 1940

In Southern California, Regionalist artists such as EmilKosa, Dan Lutz, Ben Messick, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, and Millard Sheets were active in the California Water Color Society and in the artistic community that grew up around Chouinard School of Art. Prominent among the San Francisco Bay Area artists were John Haley, Dong Kingman, Erle Loran, Alexander Nepote, and George Post. The "Berkeley School" led by Haley and Loran championed somewhat brighter colors and a more modernist approach than that in Southern California (in a style borrowed from Hans Hofmann and Raoul Dufy).

Many artists in California, like Rex Brandt and Milford Zornes, survived the Depression by working as muralists and easel painters on the federal arts projects instituted under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. While most California Regionalists created mainly positive images of rural and urban life, paintings by some, such as Paul Sample, implied a mild social commentary. This was due to the vital presence of the Mexican muralists in California during the 1930s. The art cognoscenti of the day on the West Coast extolled Mexican art and were aware that it provided the model for the New Deal projects and propelled the national mural movement forward.

Numerous artists, including Lee and Mary Blair, Phil Dike, Hardie Gramatky, and Charles Payzant, worked in the film industry, especially the animation field. Because of the vivid interaction of film with the more traditional arts during the Depression, California Regionalist paintings share much with the cartoons of the Walt Disney Studios: humorous characterization, masterful depiction of action and movement, anthropomorphism, and rhythmic application of color to emphasize the emotional tone of the work. The film industry contributed to an economic recovery that was felt as early as 1934 in Los Angeles - far earlier than in other parts of the country. Therefore, the image of California as a Golden Land prevailed during the Depression.

Images from left to right: Jake Lee (1915 - 1991) "Oil Field, Signal Hill" c. 1940s; Phil Paradise (1905 - 1997) "Mining Town" 1938; Millard Sheets (1907 - 1989) "Symphony Under the Stars" 1956; Joseph Weisman (1906 - 1977) "Lew King Chair Repair" 1935

California School paintings have social and cultural significance as embodiments of the California Dream - promising freedom, individualism, and new possibilities. The paintings reflect a mobile society that emphasized recreation and entertainment as a way of life, as well as other features of life in California that make the state a tourist mecca. Because of the year-round climate, for example, many Regionalist artists in California elected to paint their scenes of everday life outdoors, directly from nature. They developed a plein-air approach in the portrayal of the American Scene, and used the medium of watercolor, which afforded gestural freedom and improvisation. The delightful interaction of the artist with the natural and man-made environment is tangible and invigorating.

During the 1930s, critics began to recognize and comment on the progress of this new and vigorous watercolor movement, calling it "the California School". Watercolor became a major vehicle of expression on the West Coast, propelling a national interest in the medium. This distinguished the California artists' work nationally and it characterizes The Michael Johnson Collection as well.

Johnson's primary prerequisites in choosing watercolors for his collection, aside from the aesthetic qualities of the work he so admires, are that they "tell a story about a certain time and place" and are expressive of the human element of the new industrial landscape. It seems natural that Johnson would gravitate toward the watercolor work of Depression-era artists rather than their oil paintings, which were usually completed over time in the studio. Painted quickly on location in one sitting, their watercolors are more highly expressive of a certain moment in time.

Aside from the work of artists who were major and minor players in the national and regional art scene in California during the Depression and through the war era, Johnson also collects postwar watercolors up to the early 1960s. The experience of World War II forced many American artists into a spiritual revolution, transforming them from painters of the local scene into seekers of a deeper meaning and significance to life. After the war, the Regionalist movement lost its impetus and largely submitted to radically new developments in American art. But for many artists the urge to paint their everyday surroundings continued.

Johnson collects the postwar work of key artists of the California School, as well as work by lesser-known "second generation" artists like Jake Lee, Ralph Hulett, Crandall Norton, Dorothy Sklar Phillips, Ken Potter, and Ed Reep, who in some way emulate the earlier American Scene artists. Johnson continues to enjoy discovering artists that have been overlooked, and is attracted to images that remind him of his youth in Southern California during the 1950s and early 1960s. He grew up in a highly creative and free-spirited atmosphere, with a mother who is a painter, and loves art and antiques. Most of the works in The Michael Johnson Collection make the collector smile. Like other private collections of art, it is somewhat eccentric and reflective of Johnson's personal taste - even the laborers in his Depression-era paintings look like they are having a good time.

Essay by Susan M. Anderson, independent curator and art historian.


The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960 opens September 11, 1999 at Fallbrook Art & Cultural Center and runs through Sepember 30, 1999.

Text and images from the catalogue of the exhibition. Courtesy of The Michael Johnson Collection. Mr. Johnson resides in Fallbrook, CA and may be reached at 760-731-0189.


Resource Library features these essays concerning Southern California art:

The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960: Selections from the Michael Johnson Collection by Susan M. Anderson

Dream and Perspective: American Scene Painting in Southern California by Susan M. Anderson

Modern Spirit: The Group of Eight & Los Angeles Art of the 1920s by Susan M. Anderson

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Julia Armstrong-Totten, Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Will South

The Arts in Santa Barbara by Janet Blake Dominik

Ranchos: The Oak Group Paints the Santa Barbara Countryside by Ellen Easton

Speculative Terrain - Recent Views of the Southern California Landscape from San Diego to Santa Barbara by Gordon L. Fuglie

Sampler Tour of Art Tiles from Catalina Island by John Hazeltine

Mission San Juan Capistrano: An Artistic Legacy by Gerald J. Miller

Loners, Mavericks & Dreamers: Art in Los Angeles Before 1900 by Nancy Moure

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the Eucalyptus School in Southern California by Nancy Moure

San Diego Beginnings by Martin E. Petersen

Keeping the Faith: Painting in Santa Catalina 1935-1985 by Roy C. Rose

Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945 by Jean Stern

The Development of Southern California Impressionism by Jean Stern

The Development of an Art Community in the Los Angeles Area by Ruth Westphal

A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-53 by Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick and Julia Armstrong-Totten

The Historic Landscapes of Malibu by Michael Zakian

and these articles:

California Impressionists at Laguna is a 2000 exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum organized by Florence Griswold Museum curator Jack Becker, the exhibition consists of twenty-six paintings by over a dozen California artists and selected works by members of the Lyme Art Colony, providing opportunity to compare and contrast the styles and subjects of the Lyme and Laguna Impressionists. The exhibition examines how the colonies contributed to the very identity of their regions; in the case of Laguna as a new Eden of perpetual sunshine, and for Lyme as a place rooted in traditional New England values. (left: William Wendt (1865-1946), South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 1918, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II)

Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art 1910-1930 is a 2000 exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art which thematically explores Southern California's early twentieth-century artistic development -- from the expanding influences of East Coast artists, to the building of local art organizations striving for independent expression, and finally the early stirrings of avant-garde Modernism. Presenting over seventy paintings, drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition will focus attention on the progressive artists of Los Angeles and their response to national and international art movements.

Clarence Hinkle: Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight is a 2012 exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum which features over one hundred paintings dating from the early 1900s through the 1950s, and includes many paintings that were in the original exhibitions of the Group of Eight, especially their 1927 show at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.

The Fieldstone Collection: Impressionism in Southern California, a 1999 exhibit at the the William D. Cannon Art Gallery, includes approximately 40 works, created between the late 1800s and early 1900s, depict the natural landscapes of the region in the "plein air" style of the French Impressionists.

The Final Eden: Early Images of the Santa Barbara Region is a 2002 Wildling Art Museum exhibit of paintings, watercolors and prints depicting the Central Coast of California between 1836 and 1960 and celebrating "its rural pristine and fertile nature," selected by guest curator, Frank Goss. It is his thesis that the paradise that once was California, a land of boundless resources and unlimited opportunities, has shrunk through urbanization and exploitation, and the Central Coast, not yet paved over, is "the Final Eden." (left: John Hall Esq. (1808 - ?), "Santa Barbara-Upper California," 1836, hand-colored lithograph.. Lent by Eric Hvolboi

First Generation: Art in Claremont, 1907-1957 is a 2008 exhibit at the Claremont Museum of Art, which traces the art history of Claremont and the region in the first 50 years after the city's incorporation in 1907.

On a clear day a century ago, one could see the peak of Mt. Baldy from virtually every corner of the Los Angeles basin, from ocean to desert. The original inhabitants of this area, the Tongva/Gabrielino Indians, called the mountain "Yoát," or snow. Its siren song has drawn generations of settlers to its shadow. Since the late 19th century, prominent artists have been among those attracted to the foothills of Mt. Baldy and its neighboring peaks-and the city of Claremont, in particular.The exhibit traces the art history of the region, from the work of such artists as Hannah Tempest Jenkins, Emil Kosa, Jr., and William Manker to that of Millard Sheets and his circle in the 1930s. Sheets's influence as artist and teacher extended as well to bringing artists such as Henry Lee McFee, Phil Dike, and Jean Ames to Scripps College, thereby enhancing the existing art community and assuring its lasting influence.

Greetings from Laguna Beach: Our Town in the Early 1900s is a 2000 Laguna Art Museum exhibit which illustrates Laguna's early history through 20 landscapes painted by some of the town's earliest artist residents as well as historical photos and a room-sized installation of a typical period cottage. The paintings include works by Franz A. Bischoff, Conway Griffith , Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Joseph Kleitsch Millard Sheets, William Wendt, and Karl Yens.

L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy is a 2012 exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The figurative artists, who dominated the postwar Los Angeles art scene until the late 1950s, have largely been written out of today's art history. This exhibition, part of the Getty Foundations initiative "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980," traces the distinctive aesthetic of figurative expressionism from the end of World War II, bringing together over 120 works by forty-one artists in a variety of media -- painting, sculpture, photography, and performance

The Legacy of the California Art Club in San Diego chronicles the history of art in San Diego, California from the turn of the 20th century through the beginning of the present century.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings from the Gardena High School Los Angeles Unified School District Collection, hosted by CSU Dominguez Hills in 1999, features works by Franz A. Bischoff, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Benjamin Chambers Brown, Alson Skinner Clark, Leland S. Curtis, Maynard Dixon, Victor Clyde Forsythe, John (Jack) Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Armin Carl Hansen, Sam Hyde Harris, Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Frank Tenney Johnson, Emil Jean Kosa, Jr., Jean Mannheim, Peter Nielsen, Edgar Alwin Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, John Hubbard Rich, Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius, Walter Elmer Schofield, Clyde Eugene Scott, Jack Wilkinson Smith, James Guifford Swinnerton, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, William Wendt (1865-1946) and Orrin Augustine White. Painted Light toured to

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings from the Gardena High School Los Angeles Unified School District Collection, hosted by CSU Dominguez Hills in 1999, features works by Franz A. Bischoff, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Benjamin Chambers Brown, Alson Skinner Clark, Leland S. Curtis, Maynard Dixon, Victor Clyde Forsythe, John (Jack) Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Armin Carl Hansen, Sam Hyde Harris, Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Frank Tenney Johnson, Emil Jean Kosa, Jr., Jean Mannheim, Peter Nielsen, Edgar Alwin Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, John Hubbard Rich, Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius, Walter Elmer Schofield, Clyde Eugene Scott, Jack Wilkinson Smith, James Guifford Swinnerton, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, William Wendt (1865-1946) and Orrin Augustine White.

Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings: The Gardena High School/Los Angeles Unified School District Collection toured to The Irvbine Museum in 1999.

Representing LA, Pictorial Currents in Contemporary Southern California Art, featured at the Frye Museum in 2000, is the first group exhibition to explore the rich and varied representational painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture produced by Southern California artists from 1990 to 2000, and fills a gap in West Coast and Southern California art history by surveying and interpreting about 80 works by 70 artists working in representational or realist styles and approaches.

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

rev. 10/26/10

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