California Here We Come: The California Impressionists

July 12, 2021 - March 31, 2024
Palm Desert, CA



“It was that population that gave to California a name for getting up astounding enterprises and rushing them through with a magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences, which she bears unto this day – and when she projects a new surprise the grave world smiles as usual and says, ‘Well, that is California all over.’” – Mark Twain

The allure of California is hard to deny. From its vibrant cities to its dramatic landscape, the state has been a haven for artists both in person and in spirit. This exhibition dives deep into the California Impressionists, the unique form that Impressionism took in America. Whether Californians by birth or by choice, these groups of artists showcase the astounding range of vision and technique.

While the Impressionism that originally sprang from Paris focused on modern, urban life, the impressionism that took root in California revolved around its tremendous landscape. Although Giverny in France would give rise to a style fascinated by nature, only in California could it take root in such spectacular fashion to form a style filled with light and nature. Many of the California Impressionists studied in Paris where they encountered Impressionism or were exposed to it via the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Some, like Alson Clark, even worked in Giverny near Monet.

Nevertheless, the Americans and those on the West Coast, rejected the industrialism that characterized early French Impressionism. Instead, they retreated to artist colonies where they could work in nature while still being close enough to a city where they could sell their works. The climate and environment of the state is foreign to those in Europe and the East Coast of America. The visual vocabulary of the Old World would have to adapt to a new setting. With its dramatic coastline, its majestic mountains, dense forests, deep canyons, and everything in between, California could provide artists an endless source of inspiration.

Many of these artists painted “en plein air” (in open air) in the same vein as their French counterparts. In this way they could capture spontaneous interplays between the changing light and wavering color. This group of artists also changed their approach to the canvas, moving away from smooth brushwork and realism or Academic painting to choppy or expressive brushstrokes that could better evoke light, color, and emotion.

Not just aesthetic backdrop, California also provided opportunities for artists to form important relationships through clubs. The California Art Club was founded in 1909 and original members include John Hubbard Rich, William Wendt and Edgar Payne. The CAC became closely associated with California Impressionism but not all members painted in that style.

In nearby Laguna Beach, an art colony formed which coalesced into the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918. It counted among its members Edgar Payne and William Wendt. The purpose was “to advance the knowledge of and interest in Art and to create a spirit of cooperation and fellowship between the painter and the public.” Both the LBAA and CAC proved important in guiding artists, building relationships, and promoting their work. These groups proved influential in maintaining representational art even as abstraction began to take hold in other parts of the country. The CAC continues to this day while the LBAA has become the Laguna Art Museum.

California, whether real or imagined, provided a sense of freedom away from the rigidity of the East Coast and Europe for artists like Joseph Kleitsch, William Wendt, Alson Clark, Jean Mannheim and more. Very few were born in California. Moreover, unlike many other art movements, California Impressionism included many prominent women including Gertrude Partington Albright, Jessie Arms Botke, Mary Deneale Morgan, and Lillie May Nicholson. But it was this rejection of the entrenched East Coast and European art scene that relegated the movement to the margins until it was rediscovered in the 1970s.

Heather James is proud to showcase the diverse variety of beautiful paintings by these pioneering artists. The works as a whole capture the possibilities of California, its unique landscape and culture. The artists could even apply their experiences to geography outside of the state providing new perspectives on majestic landscapes. Myriad of missions, rugged coasts, wide plains, towering trees – all of these can be found in the exhibition giving us a glimpse into the spirit of the artists and of California.

Discover more about the history of art in California with our other virtual exhibitions, “Moment to Moment: Figuration and the Northern California Avant Garde” and “The Cool School”, which explore how artists in both Northern and Southern California pushed the envelope and changed the course of art history both nationally and internationally.

“For this is the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination; this untamed, undomesticated, aloof, prehistoric landscape which relentlessly reminds the traveller of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth.” – Christopher Isherwood