California’s Golden Landscape; Plein-Air Painting & California Impressionism

From the turn of the 19th century until the Great Depression of 1929, a number of artists produced a large body of gorgeous paintings apotheosizing the California coastline, foothills and mountains. These works were done “en plein air” after the French fashion, (that is outdoors, in nature ) and for the most part, not in the studio. They also referred stylistically to French Impressionism in their ” bright chromatic palette with loose, painterly brushstrokes.”  While these artists did focus considerable attention on the the effects of light, these landscapes have a somewhat less transient, snap-shot feel, than their continental cousins. Only a very few of these painters were actually California natives, but once they settled there, they all became pre-occupied by the special, magic light of the ” Golden State.” They also tended to cluster around three geographic areas, Carmel, which is just south of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and its immediate surrounding areas, and finally, Laguna. Here are my favorite artists from among the many who successfully practiced this style of painting.

One of the few native Californians to lead the movement, was Guy Rose. He was born to a prominent family in Rosemead, outside of L.A in 1867. His father was a state senator and the family had extensive ranch land in the San Gabriel valley. After high school, he moved to San Francisco to attend the California School of Design. Four years later, he moved to Paris to study, then on to New York, where he worked briefly as an illustrator. However, he soon returned to France and lived for eight years In Giverny,  under the spell and tutelage, of Claude Monet.


One can clearly see the influence of the Monet in these works, above, but upon moving back to California permanently, in 1914, there is a dramatic change in his style, as he found his own voice.


And like so many other’s, as we will see, Rose was mesmerized by the high meadows and mountains, that were close by, as well as by the ubiquitous sea. Rose was not the only of the great practitoners of this group to spend considerable time, and part of their training, abroad. William Wendt, born in Germany in 1865, moved, in 1906 to Laguna, California, where he soon became known as the “dean of Southern Calfifornia landscape painters.”

Wendt arrived from abroad, in Chicago, at the age of 15, and started work as a commercial artist. In 1894 he travelled for several years to  California, the East Coast, Germany and France, absorbing local art and polishing his easel painting technique. By the time he and his wife, a sculptor, settled in California, he was a highly accomplished painter with his own unique style. He was also a founding member of The California Art Club, an influential group that counted many of the best painters of the day among its active membership.



Like most of the others Wendt was equally  enthralled with magical light of the high meadows, valleys, and mountains that were so easily accessible.



This purple light which is so typical of the magical quality of the California landscape is to appear over and over in the work of these artists. The rugged coastline of of the Monterey Peninsula, south of San Francisco, and particularly, the quaint coastal town of Carmel, was to be the home and source of inspiration of several masterful painters. One of the best was German born, William Ritschel.


As a young boy, Ritschel worked as a sailor and started doing seascapes from an early age. He then studied at The Royal Academy in Munich, before making his way to New York, then California. His love of the sea infused his magnificent oeuvre of coastal landcapes.







Granville Redmond was a Norhtern California artist with an interesting story. Born in 1871 in Philadelphia, he became deaf at the age of 2 1/2, after a bout of scarlet fever. His family moved to San Jose, partially so that he could attend the Berkeley School for the Deaf. His artistic ability emerged there, and he then attended the California School of Design. In 1893, he won a scholarship that allowed him to study in France. In fact, his painting, Matin d’Hiver, below left, was exhibited in the 1895 Paris Salon.

Having returned to California, Redmond moved to Los Angeles. He became friends with Charlie Chaplin, who admired the animated expessiveness of his use of ASL, American Sign Language. Chaplin got him a studio on the movie lot, collected his work, and talked him up all over town, In fact, he gave him a part, in “City Lights,” as the sculptor.



Below are some of his beautiful paintings.


Born in 1883, in  the Ozark mountains of Missouri, near the Arkansa border, Edgar Payne also took a circumlocuitous path to reach his final home in California. Edgar had a serious desire to see the world, and before he was done, had travelled all over the U. S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe. He enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago but only lasted two weeks because he chafed under a structured curriculum. He and his wife, Elsie, also an artist eventually had some  artistic success in Chicago. However, it was a trip to visit his wife’s grandparents in San Francisco that changed his life. From there, he visited the Sierra Nevada mountains and found his favorite motif. He worked throughout the southwest, and did much famous work on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area. He finally settled in Laguna, but would often, throughout his life, take trips to paint elsewhere, particularly throughout the West. Here are a few of his Laguna seacapes and signature mountain pieces.




Northern California also became the eventual home of the very talented Mary Agnes Yerkes.

Born outside Chicago in 1886, Yerkes was to become an avid naturalist, who travelled frequently through the National Park System in the West, to pursue her “plein- air” motifs. She showed great talent in a number of mediums and soon drew considerable attention in the Chicago art world. After marrying a Naval officer, she moved up and down the California coast, from post to post, before settling permanently in San Francisco. While she did paint some ocean views (see below), her real love were the mountains and high desert. She and her husband would take camping trips  throughout the West and Northwest in pursuit of the natural vistas that so inspired Mary.




Below, are her more typical scenes.



Another of my favorites, was the Austrian born, Franz Bischoff. Born in 1864, he was originally trained in ceramic decoration and watercolor. He first settled in Dearborn Michigan, where he painted porcelain, made ceramic glazes and taught watercolor technique. In 1900, he came to California and quickly settled in Los Angeles. He became an early member of the California Art Club, along with William Wendt. He then put his considerable talent and particularly his gift for the expressive use of color, in service of the local landscape that so captivated him.




Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel was born in 1875, and like so many of these other artists, coame to California by way of somehwhere else. Marion was trained at both the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Student’s League, in New York. In 1903, she came to Los Angeles, where among others, she studied with her soon to be husband, the artist, Elmer Wachtel. Initially she did her landscapes in watercolor, switching to oil after her husband’s death. (Competition issues?) Marion was a founding member of the California Watercolor Society, and both she and Elmer were active in the California Art Club. Below is some of her work.



Elmer, born in 1864 came to California via Maryland. His brother had married Guy Rose’s sister and was the foreman at the Rose Ranch. Elmer, a self taught musicain, became first violinist in the L. A. Philharmonic Orcherstra. He discovered his visual artistic talent later, and in 1900 enrolled at the Art Student’s League in New York. Returning to Los Angeles, he earned money from both his music and painting until his art took off. His work is below.



Paul Dougherty, born in Brooklyn N.Y. in 1877, was already a nationally renowned artist by the time he moved to  Carmel, on the Monterey  Penninsula in 1925. His father was a prominent attorney who prevailed on his son to go to law school, which he reluctantly did. Paul sketched and painted constantly as a child, and his talent was obvious. In fact, at the age of 18 he had a painting accepted to the prestigious, annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. He went as a far as to pass the bar, but immediately took off with his brother on a long European journey. He toured and sketched while visiting all the great museums of London, Paris, Venice , Florence, Munich, etc. Dougherty was well educated, worldly and urbane. His passion quickly  became the sea, and  the rougher and more dramatic, the better. He painted on the Cornish Penninsula in England (as did JMW Turner) and the rugged coast of Maine. He was incredibly hard working and prolific. His work sold well and he was called the heir apparent of Winslow Homer. Persistent arthritis brought him to California, where he continued his exploration of the sea. He eventually became  more interested in a very impressionistic rendition of light. This fascination can be clearly seen in the final painting I included of his.



California’s take on French Impressionism was tailored to the unique landscape here, and the intense, highly saturated, colorful light that is so prevalent. These artists were less concerned with the scientific breakdown of the optics of light at a particular, and fleeting moment, than capturing a permanet expression of light, as both the glue that brings objects and forms together, and as the very molecular constituent of matter itself. I see, visually, something also of Fauvism here, and spiritually, of the Hudson River School of Painting and Luminsim, where nature, through the glory of her landscape and light, offers an opportunity for transcendence. There is a monumentality of intent in California Plein-Air painting and Impressionism that comes from, I think, an almost religious awe at the beauty and majesty of nature, and at the the magic light that infuses her. What comes through so intensely in these paintings, is how deeply these painters felt that, and how nobly they expressed it.







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21 Comments on "California’s Golden Landscape; Plein-Air Painting & California Impressionism"

  1. Helen says:

    Magnificent work! Because I live on the East Coast, I have not given a great deal of thought to the impressionists in California. Yes, I see the Fauvism, too. They were very inspired painters and did capture the awe of nature. Thanks for bringing them to light…which I know is a pun…but will say anyway. I didn’t know of most of these painters. Think I need to revisit this post from time to time!

    • David Leeds says:

      Helen, I am always amazed when I look at the work of these painters, and there are quite a few more really good ones, how consistently great their work is. Painting after painting of sheer gorgeousness. And all infused with the same quality of light.

    • Urban Tree says:

      Whenever i think about these painters i feels that how beautiful their thinking will be because drawing such a amazing beauty on paper not only required the art but a true soul who can feel that how beautiful the world is and how beautifully we can seem the world. Its a great pleasure of us that there are such a people who lives in their dream world and shows us the real view of god’s creation.

  2. Ulf Skei says:

    Interesting, and impressive. Light and water. Astounding. Makes one see there’s no lack in motifs to learn…

  3. Kathy says:

    I’m always so amazed at the beauty of these early California painters, and the relative lack of recognition that they’ve received. Maybe because I’m a California native, they move me in ways that other Impressionism doesn’t always. I have a very visceral response to them. I feel very lucky to own two beauties, but wish I had started collecting them sooner….never tire of looking at the two I have.

  4. Susan Tiner says:

    Another wonderful post! I am a big fan of the Hudson River School for the reasons you noted and see the similarity of treatment of light in the California Plein-Air paintings shown here. I think I’ve seen some of these or similar paintings at the Oakland Museum of California and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

    • David Leeds says:

      I too, Susan, am a fan for the same reasons. The Hudson River School was such a unique and influential movement, and such a clear expression of the cultural, political, and philosophical temperature of its time.

  5. Robin Berrie says:

    Hi David-I love impressionism and love to paint in impressionistic style…
    Here are a couple of my impressionist painting I would like to share..
    Ooops…tried to post them but no luck! Love your posts….very infomative and educational

  6. David, another fabulous post on some artists I knew very little about. I have always admired the California Plein Air painters, but didn’t know them individually. How interesting to know that they were all entranced by the California light. It makes sense. This post made me want to travel to the areas these painters depicted. The paintings you included are really beautiful. I just read that there is an exhibition of Edgar Payne’s works at the Crocker museum in Northern California. I would love to see this now.

  7. David,

    This is a wonderful post. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. I am also an admirer of this group of painters. We had a wonderful exhibit of their work here in Boca Raton, FL a few years ago that I wrote about here>

    I’m also happy to have found your blog. It’s beautifully written and thoughtful and I look forward to reading more.


  8. Felina says:

    Very commendable, how I wish I got such a exemplary work.
    I wonder how much does it cost for each of it? I bet it will be truly expensive.

    Feel free to visit my website, kindly click here.

  9. Mahira Khan-Rea says:

    Hi David,
    How lucky for you to be an artist in such an exquisite landscape. Thank you for the article above. It is like having a view into the past and you express it so well. The light in your state is delightful.



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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard