En Plein Air: An Introduction to California Impressionism

California Landscape with Flowers by Granville Redmond

California Landscape with Flowers by Granville Redmond

Painting en plein air—the French term for outdoors—seems ideal for California, where we routinely head outside for everything from lunches to seminars to weddings. And yet the California Impressionist movement—also called California plein-air painting—has only recently come into its own.


Moving outdoors: the roots of Impressionism

At its core, the Impressionist movement is a longing to head outdoors. In the 1860s, the formal style sanctioned by art critics and the influential Académie was Realism, an artistic style devoted to the pursuit of objective, impartial representation of the “real” world. The perfect Realist painting hides the artist’s presence as much as possible—brushstrokes are blended into invisibility, and the inherent subjectivity of perspective is reduced by observing over time, reworking to give an overall, rather than a momentary, representation. Despite the name, Realist art often has an artificial aspect, a perfect-conditions light and composition that is more a product of the classroom than the playground.

For the groundbreaking artists of French Impressionism—today household names like Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne—this deliberate, self-conscious painting, produced inside a studio rather than in nature, missed the point. Excited by the idea of perception and impression—and helped along by new developments in color theory—the French Impressionists sought to capture the world as it appeared to them in a single, fleeting moment, whether the moment showed a beautiful landscape or a rainy urban scene. They exchanged formal perfection for spontaneity, and replaced the carefully-blended, subtly tonal brushstrokes of their predecessors for bright, complementary colors applied in rougher strokes that sacrificed detail for sense.


Heading west

Impressionism was famously rejected by the conservative Académie as being grotesque, crude—even vulgar. Americans encountering the outlandish new style in Europe were likewise unimpressed: one young student called it “worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” But despite such dramatic reactions to hay bales and flowers, the movement gained traction relatively quickly, becoming a recognized element of the art world. It quickly became associated with artist’s colonies centered on proximity to beautiful natural scenes—but close enough to metropolitan centers that artists could easily distribute and sell their work.

These artist’s colonies were not simply hideaways to encourage productivity. For Americans, unlike their French counterparts, Impressionism was closely tied up with rejections of the industrial age. French artists may have wanted simply to be outdoors, but their American counterparts wanted to be outdoors in the fresh air, a safe distance away from railroads, factories, and urban noise and dirt. Artist’s colonies, located in small towns adjacent to stunning natural scenes, were a withdrawal back into an idealized nostalgia of small-town, rural life.

Because of the quick-changing nature of California’s natural light, the swiftly-executed Impressionist style was a natural fit. By the 20th century, just as Impressionism was gaining traction in the larger United States, the heyday of California plein-air painting was in full swing, with prominent artists’ colonies in Carmel and Laguna Beach.


The California landscape

California art in all of its forms—painting, literature, music—has suffered from an ongoing tendency toward identity crisis and critical neglect. Dana Gioia, a Los Angeles-based poet, explains the particular difficulties of trying to represent the natural world: “Our seasons, climate, landscape, natural life, and history are alien to the worldviews of both England and new England. There were no ranches or redwoods, abalone or adobe, in the Old World or the East.”

Gioia is specifically referring to literature, of course, but the disconnects of fauna, flora, and architecture have haunted California painters as well. And artists of all stripes must learn to deal with a yearly patterning of seasons that bears little resemblance to an East Coast- or Europe-focused model: “Summers here are brown and dry, winters green and mild, and every month finds something blooming.” How, then, can a California artist meaningfully employ the tropes of winter/white death and spring/return of life?

But there’s another problem: artistic movements need critics to define them, to find connections and chains of influence among artists, and to pinpoint the significance of a movement within a larger cultural tapestry. And the entrenched art scene of the East Coast has led to a privileging of its forms—and a resultant dismissal of California’s.

To give an example, in The New York Times in 1998, the prominent arts journalist Grace Glueck had this to say about a National Academy Museum exhibit called All Things Bright and Beautiful: “it will tell you more than you want to know about the insipid regional school known as California impressionism,” whose famous names “do not ring many bells in the East, and there’s a reason. Their work was less varied, less au courant and even less adventurous…if you think of the California Impressionists as ‘pleasant’ painters, whose canvases are based on the French school but lack its snap and sparkle, you’ve got the idea.”

This knee-jerk dismissal is a perfect encapsulation of the monotonous criticisms of California’s artistic culture: bland, derivative, unsophisticated, shallow. Even as many prominent critics have objected strongly to a pervasive culture of Eurocentrism and East Coast snobbery, overcoming that snobbery has been tricky.

Up until the mid-1970s, California impressionism was a largely forgotten movement, edged out by an artistic culture wrapped up in the purposeful, difficult works of the Abstract Impressionist movement. Impressionist landscapes were first rediscovered by collectors—not curators or art historians—charmed by their beautiful composition and affordable prices. Their status as a school was increasingly cemented by gallery and museum exhibits, and by the publication of Nancy Moure’s Dictionary of Art and Artists in Southern California Before 1930, in 1975, and Ruth Westphal’s Plein-Air Painters of California: The Southland.


A language we know

Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine, points out that geography is an important feature of American Impressionism more generally, with regional schools in Chicago, the Ozarks, and Santa Fe. Moreover, while very few of the California Impressionists were born in the state, many chose to live and die there. Prominent artists like Joseph Kleitsch, William Wendt, and Alson Clark escaped the rigid, gridlocked East Coast art establishment for California’s rich landscapes, changing light effects, and commercial possibilities. And California Impressionism includes so many prominent women artists—including E. Charlton Fortune, Donna Schuster and Jessie Arms Botke—in part because the East Coast art world, with its male-only painters’ clubs and entrenched sexism, was largely uninterested in their work.

For Stern, one of the most appealing aspects of these California scenic paintings is that they don’t require an interpreter. Unlike more abstract works, “You don’t need help to know what they’re about,” he says. “The more you elevate the visual message” with representative art, “the more you have the emotional message underneath.” California Impressionist painters simplify form and manipulate color and space to evoke the spaces and landscapes that their audiences already know, with powerful emotional effect.

And in their very familiarity lies much of their appeal. Joan Irvine Smith, a scion of the prominent Irvine family, originally collected the Irvine Museum’s collection because she felt such a strong connection to California’s land and scenic views. Many of the museum’s works are of Orange County scenes; many of these painters lived and worked within the borders of a still-undeveloped Orange County. And even if the scene represented in a particular painting has been replaced by freeways or houses, the artworks still speak a language we know. The sages and dry wildflowers that inspired them are the same ones we stop to marvel at; the light effects they chased wake us in the morning, illuminate our children on the playground, and keep us outside as the shadows lengthen. If the fleeting beauty of an ever-changing landscape is at the heart of Impressionism, then California landscape art must hold an essential place in that tradition.