In recent years, artists from around the world have flocked in droves to America’s West Coast. Reasons for migration abound, including better light, bigger studios, and a certain proximity to all things oceanfront. A new exhibition, “Masters of California Impressionism,” at Heather James Fine Art reminds us that this westward drift is no new phenomenon.
In the first years of the 20th century, Impressionism had taken hold as the dominant approach to painting. Championed by French masters Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the movement’s enchanting manner of capturing the vagaries of light and color spread throughout Europe, influencing art created in other parts of the world. Artists traveled to Giverny with the dream of studying with Monet and rendering their own interpretation of his famed lilies. Then, as the Great War loomed, many painters—like Guy Rose, William Wendt, and E. Charlton Fortune—made their way back to the States and to California, in particular.
Guy Rose’s lustrous Sunshine and Firelight (1909) was painted soon after the artist left a long stint in Giverny (and the close mentorship of Monet) for his native Los Angeles. It stands as one of the earliest and strongest examples of figuration in California Impressionism and depicts a soft nude, dually lit by a glowing fire and sunlight from an unseen window that cast diamond-patterned shadows across the subject’s ivory body.
Rose was a member of the California Art Club, a group of Los Angeles- and Laguna Beach-based artists founded by William Wendt, known as “the dean of California painters.” Wendt’s richly toned landscapes, painted en plein air, capture the sublime, salubrious effects of the coast. In Houses at Arch Beach (1930), Wendt reveals a slice of bright blue water against a bucolic grouping of trees and little houses that slope toward the sea. It is an escapist, optimistic scene from an era marked by the Great Depression.
One of the lone female painters of the group, Euphemia Charlton Fortune created work that offers a glimpse into Northern California Impressionism from the same era. Produced from hilltop perches in San Francisco and Monterey, Fortune’s scenes of the bay are rendered with lively, loose brushwork and rich tonality that feel almost Dickinsonian in their birds-eye approach to natural splendor.