California Impressionism: Paintings from Irvine Collection at U. New Hampshire Museum

Linda Chestney
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www.artesmagazine.comDuring the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, California’s spectacular landscape was the catalyst for a profusion of light-filled paintings. Artists determined to capture its vivid colors painted the landscapes in a distinctive style that has come to be called California Impressionism or California plein air painting.

Left: Joseph Morris Raphael (1869-1950), Market of St. Catherine, Bruxelles (c. 1911), oil on panel, 7” x 7”. All images courtesy of The Irvine Museum, California.

The free exhibition of “Paintings from the Irvine Museum” is hosted by University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art (Durham, NH) and includes 35 paintings by 29 artists. An advocate of traveling exhibitions, the Irvine Museum was a museum without walls for quite some time. According to James Irvine Swinden, President of the Irvine Museum, the museum did everything backwards. He explains how the museum was formed before a building was built. Founded only 20 years ago, it has over that time presented 60 traveling shows and produced 17 books. A major premise of the museum (and consequently, its works) is the preservation and the fostering of respect for our earth and its fragile ecosystem. artes fine arts magazine

Galleries at the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire

In the foreword of the book published by the Irvine Museum, Selections from the Irvine Museum, it’s noted, “Paramount is the conviction these Irvine Museum paintings are significant and indicative of the highest standards of American art. Furthermore, their beauty is magnificent, and people everywhere will have their lives enriched by viewing them.” Indeed. The exhibition is truly breathtaking. To experience the pieces “up close and personal” is a stunning event.

The show features such well-known California painters as Franz A. Bischoff (1864-1929), Donna Schuster (1883-1953), and Thaddeus Welch (1844-1919). All of the California Impressionists were trained in academic European style or spent time working in France and found the influence captivating. Choosing to forsake the more regimented, dogmatic constraints of Realism, these artists chose to focus on paintings with brilliant and convincing effects of natural light. And they often executed brushstrokes that were choppy and quick with a resultant work that was covered with small daubs of color vs. the painstakingly executed tight painting of the realists who often took months to complete a work.

Irvine Museum’s national and international exhibitions are also a strategy to preserve the history of California. Former president of the Irvine Museum, Joan Irvine Smith, says that the best way to preserve the past is to have lived through it, and this art is an outstanding way to experience the exhilaration and vitality of this meaningful time of California’s history.

Beyond all that, it is just great American art!

Franz A. Bischoff, San Juan Capistrano Mission Yard (c. 1922), o/c, 24″ x 20″ Private Collection.

One of the California Impressionists, Franz Bischoff’s favorite subjects was the missions—structures that attracted almost all the California Impressionists attention. Most of the missions were located near railroad stations so they were easy to travel to.

Bischoff, who was born in Austria, then studied art in Vienna, eventually immigrated to New York and later moved to California. There he initially painted china vases and ultimately moved to canvas. In a lecture at the UNH Museum of Art, President of the Irvine Museum, James Irvine Swinden, explained how Bischoff’s development as an artist was profound. He was not stuck in his art and evolved greatly over his career.

San Juan Capistrano Mission Yard (circa 1922), a painting of one of the most notable structures that still remain from California’s early colonial period, is a work that gave nod to artistic license in that Bischoff painted in a profusion of colorful geraniums and hollyhocks and even a lily pad pool, although the mission was in ill-repair at the time. The bright blue sky and sun-dappled roof promotes a peaceful sense of the time.

Benjamin Brown, The Joyous Garden (c. 1910), o/c, 30 1/2″ x 40 1/2″ Private Collection.

Benjamin Chambers Brown (1865-1942), known for his use of a “French kit,” a transportable easel and tray that held his paints so he could paint outdoors, was born in Arkansas. Later he studied in Paris and then moved to California where he specialized in portraiture and still-life paintings. But due to a lack of demand for that kind of work, he turned his attention to landscape painting.

Brown was fond of painting “wet on wet” –a technique used mostly in oil painting, in which layers of wet paint are applied to previous layers of wet paint. This technique requires a fast way of working, because the work has to be finished before the first layers have dried. Brown proved to be exceptional at this technique.

Brown’s signature paintings were his poppy and lupine paintings. His, The Joyous Garden (circa 1910), in this show, is a rare formal garden painting set in front of a house in Pasadena where he lived. Rows of red, pink, and white geraniums dazzle the eye in the bright California sun.

An avid Impressionist, he spoke loudly and authoritatively about other art movements—and not very kindly. A New York art dealer who admired his work suggested he open a studio there but not mention he was from California. Brown was incensed at the suggestion and from thereon in his career would sign his work and always add “California.”

Alson Skinner Clark, La Jolla Seascape (1924), oil on board, 35″ x 47“, Private Collection.

Painter, photographer, illustrator, muralist, and lithographer, Alson Skinner Clark (1879-1949) was from Chicago. At age 11 he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later he moved to NYC and studied with William M. Chase. Eventually he painted in Giverny, France with Guy Rose and other Impressionists, whose influence brightened his palette.

In La Jolla Seascape, Clark exhibits his “lighter palette” in a serene rendering of a beach and cloud-dotted horizon. Painting plein air on a blustery day, Clark’s painting is speckled with sand. Swinden (President of the Irvine Museum) shared in a lecture that a restorer had seen the work and offered to remove the grit from the painting. The offer was refused, of course, because it’s part of the character of the piece.

Donna Schuster, Girl in the Mirror (n.d.), o/c, 26″ x 20“, Private Collection.

Donna Schuster (1883-1953) was a Midwesterner, born in Milwaukee. A very attractive woman who remained single throughout her life, she was the daughter of a wealthy cigar maker. Schuster studied at the Boston Museum School under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson. In 1912 she joined William M. Chase on a painting tour of Belgium. She later moved to California and built a house in the Los Angeles hills overlooking a park. Her subject matter included landscapes, figures studies and Cezannesque water lilies.

Her work started as a typical Impressionist style and moved on to Fauvist then almost to a Modernist style. She died in a fire trying to save her pets when she was 70.

A stunning self-portrait, Girl in the Mirror, is delicate at times (soft pink roses on a whitewashed vanity behind her) and then exhibits stark contrasts with a glaringly white blouse with black cuffs and skirt. Her hair is also dark, almost black with a breezy hair style that could almost pass as contemporary. The painting is breathtakingly executed.

Alfred Mitchell, In Morning Light (1931), oil on Masonite, 44” x 56”, The Irvine Museum.

I hesitate to say that Alfred Mitchell’s (1888-1972) In Morning Light was one of my favorites of this exhibition as there were so many magnificent pieces, but nonetheless, it captured my attention. Maybe it was the minimalist color blocking effect or the serenity of the scene or the sense of drama, but it was a standout. The splash of color in the center of the piece—small dinghies with swashes of red and blue—bring your eye back to the center of the piece. The weight of the oblique shadow line in the foreground sand balances off the darker tones of the cliffs in the background. The gentle surf adds the final “ahhhh.”

Born in Pennsylvania, Mitchell eventually settled in San Diego. His early works were Impressionistic but his later pieces were strongly realistic and often show an emotional presence.

Thaddeus Welch, Bolinas Bay (n.d.), 14” x 36”, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum.

Thaddeus Welch (1844-1919) was a fellow Midwesterner—born in Indiana. My home state is South Dakota, even though I’ve been on the East coast just north of Boston for 30 years, I am still a Midwesterner at heart. Thaddeus’ work—particularly the piece is this show, Grazing Along the Coast, Bolinas Bay, makes me nostalgic for home. The gentle rolling hills, the cows grazing in the thinning grasses, and the landscape speckled with occasional struggling vegetation, are nostalgic for me.

Welch actually crossed the plains with his family in a covered wagon at age 13 and settled in Oregon, later moving to San Francisco. He studied art in Europe on a full scholarship, eventually returning to the US—and to California—with his wife. Poverty stricken, they camped out in the hills until they found a cottage nearby. There in rural Marin County, he began painting pastoral scenes that brought him eventual success and freedom from financial worry.

The West Coast Impressionists have graced the East Coast and we’re the better for it. While this is an abbreviated report of the exhibition, I’d encourage you to take it in if possible. It is one not to be missed. It’s a real gift to have these historically, and artistically significant works in our midst. I hope you are able to check it out.

By Linda Chestney, Contributing Writer

California Impressionism, now through March 28, 2013 at the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

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