Dusk Till Dawn: Landscape Painting in its Off-Hours

On display from May 27 – Sept 28, 2017

Moonlight Marsh by Granville Redmond o/c 26″ x 43″ The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine

Think “nightscape,” and you’ll probably imagine muted hues and a somber tone. But Moonlight Marsh Scene, the centerpiece of the UC Irvine Museum Collection’s Dusk till Dawn exhibit, will shock you with its blueness.

The subject matter is relatively simple: a stream winding through marshland toward a patch of concentrated moonlight, with a range of hills in the background. It is painted from an outsider’s perspective—alone in the empty landscape, some distance from the light ahead—and its effect is heightened by the saturated teals and blues. Solitude never felt so vivid.

And small wonder. Granville Redmond (1871-1935), its creator, became deaf—and, in reaction, nonspeaking—at the age of three. That deafness, and its resulting sense of isolation, left a profound mark on Redmond’s experience of the world.

Jean Stern, the museum’s executive director and head curator, describes Moonlight Marsh Scene as a compromise between Redmond’s preference for moody introspection and the art market’s love of bright color. “The market is a very strong force, and if the artist paints to survive, to live, he eventually has to confront the market,” he says. The painting’s rich hue “is introspective, but it has a color appeal.”

Redmond was a market success, and in many respects, he led an enviable life. His artistic talent was recognized early on by his teacher at a Berkeley school for the deaf, and critics praised his work even before he graduated from art school. His talent for pantomime brought him coveted work in the budding Hollywood silent-film industry—most notably in seven Charlie Chaplin films. The two became good friends: Redmond taught Chaplin sign language, and the actor reportedly spent hours silently watching the painter at work.

But Redmond was prone to introversion, and his paintings often suggest an isolated outsider’s experience of the natural world. They’re frequently gloomy, with jagged features and murky atmospheres. According to museum catalogues, when an art critic noted that Granville liked to paint “pictures of solitude and silence,” the painter responded, “Alas, people will not buy them. They all seem to want poppies.”

However, as Chaplin aptly observed, solitude and silence are not always unhappy: “Redmond paints solitude as no one else can convey it, and yet by some strange paradox, his solitude is never loneliness,” he told a journalist.

The Irvine Museum Collection focuses on California impressionist painters—artists who lived in the state or who painted it. Redmond, immersed in the California landscape, is both. His work shows an intimate knowledge of sagebrush and shrub, with no urge to repackage them into the conventional painterly language of European and East Coast landscape art.

And his emphasis on solitude makes him an ideal focal point for a dusk-to-dawn landscape exhibit. For many of us, “landscape” most vividly evokes daylight: bright flowers, lush greenery, the variation of sunlight and shade. Dusk till Dawn shows landscape painting in its off-hours. There’s a sense of isolation and uncertainty—sometimes even desolation.

For Stern, that’s part of the appeal. “During the day, the landscape is lit—you don’t need to go inside and seek shelter,” he says. “People like night scenes because they have that sense of drama, adventure, sometimes impending peril. It puts you more into defense mode, and there’s a kind of thrill to that.”

Other works in Dusk till Dawn show a decrepit building emerging from the surrounding darkness, boats resting in a sheltered harbor, Utah’s Monument Valley ablaze with sunset. Night scenes abound, but “we wanted to demonstrate what comes before and what comes after” as well, Stern says. Sunsets give an opportunity for brilliant colors and dramatic shadows, and with dawn comes “a sense of relief, of awakening. It’s the start of a new day and you made it through.”

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