Bright and Beautiful

California shines in latest Dayton Art Institute exhibition

California has always been a glorious dichotomy between the altruistic sharing of the earth and the unobtainable mega-lifestyle. Still smarting from the eternal battle between natural preservationists and ruthless developers, there is a dramatic monumentality about California that encapsulates the American Dream and struggle.

So much a part of our native consciousness, California is still a distant land at the antipodes of the American continent. Presenting a pristine face of natural beauty where primeval mountain ranges fall or roll into the Pacific Ocean, the Golden State attracted many visionary souls and creative artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.

For American artists there was an idealization of European art, particularly the highly advanced French Impressionists. So strong was this conviction that many Americans traveled to France to be at the feet of artistic giants like Monet and Renoir in Giverny and Paris. This flood of artists incorporated their training in homegrown academics and the lessons of the Hudson River landscapists, now infused with new color and light married to a faithful portrayal of nature, captured plein air.

With lessons learned in France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy, artists west of the Atlantic-bound intellectual centers were motivated by the San Francisco earthquake to move to Southern California. Also becoming a tourist center where many Easterners wanted to bring back a touch of the wild Western beauty, this area now provided art sales and teaching opportunities for these new resident American Impressionists.

Still, into the 20th century, the cognoscenti mostly valued the Eastern Impressionists like Childe Hassam and paid scant attention to the achievements of the California group. In fact, it was not until 10 years ago that the exhibition called “All Things Bright & Beautiful,” now on view at the Dayton Art Institute through Sunday, June 13, was staged at the National Academy Museum in New York City.

One artist, Guy Rose (1867-1925), was a native Californian who left for further studies in Paris in 1888 and joined the burgeoning art colony around Monet in Giverny from 1890-91, eventually purchasing a house in Paris. After temporarily suspending his painting career in 1897 due to lead poisoning, Rose concentrated on pure landscapes and became, with his painter wife Ethel, one of the few American personal friends of Monet.

Rose and other California Impressionists had no tolerance of modernists, spurned Cubism and had no interaction with the later federal art projects. Their “movement” featured hundreds of painters working outdoors, many reviled by even California critics as being formulaic, and with the importance of regionalism during the Depression period of the 1930s, nature as a subject lost its importance.

In 1993 the Irvine Museum became the only museum in California dedicated to preserving California Impressionism, or Plein Air painting, and the DAI exhibition brings together 60 important paintings from the Irvine Museum collection. DAI’s chief curator Will South, himself one of the most prominent authorities on California Impressionism, worked with the Irvine Museum’s vice president James I. Swinden to bring this precious and delightful exhibition to Dayton.

“The 44 artists represented in this exhibition have begun to receive recognition just in the past few decades,” says South, “and they are now taking their rightful place among better known painters from the East Coast.” This exhibition will change viewers’ understanding “of what kind of art was made in the American West at the turn of the century.”

South has organized “All Things Bright & Beautiful” into five major categories: Landscape, Architectural, Figural, Still Life and Seascape. Several major locations emerge as popular subjects, replete with history or natural beauty, like the rough coast of Point Lobos and the Monterey Peninsula or the rustic arcade of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, one of many missions founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776 and considered to be California’s oldest building.

Arthur G. Rider (1886-1975), whose studies in Spain led him to find parallel colors in California, captured the mission’s burgeoning garden and pool around 1929; Pasadena-based artist Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949) painted the glowing light on the “Ruins of the Chapel” (1919), destroyed by a violent earthquake in 1812; and the pool full of water lilies around an angel statue is central in primarily floral painter Franz A. Bischoff’s  (1864-1929) “San Juan Capistrano Mission Yard” (c. 1922).

California’s rugged coast takes many faces for these artists. William Ritschel (1864-1949), with his Winslow Homerish cragginess, painted Purple Tide” around 1915; the sweeping curve of Monterey Bay and its ragged shoreline stand out against purple hills in “The Summer Sea” (1915) by Bruce Nelson (1888-1952); another artist compared to Homer was Paul Dougherty (1877-1947) with works like “The Twisted Edge”; and Guy Rose expressed the dramatic split of rocks at “Point Lobos” around 1918.

Many other images recall the pristine coastal landscape before its future division and development, becoming valuable records of original beauty. William Wendt’s (1865-1946) mountainous landscape “There is no Solitude, Even in Nature” was painted in 1906; Joseph Raphael (1869-1950) memorialized his working between Paris and a Dutch artists colony with the curving trees and church arches of “Market of St. Catherine, Bruxelles” (c. 1911); Arthur Hill Gilbert (1894-1970) preserved the “Land of Grey Dunes, Monterey” on canvas; Donna Schuster (1883-1953) produced an image of a glamorous redhead under a blue Japanese parasol in “On the Beach” (c. 1917); full swirling sails fill with wind on the beached “The Spanish Boat” (c.1921) by Arthur G. Rider; and the almost minimalistic “In Morning Light” (1931) by Alfred Mitchell (1888-1972) captures coloristic cliffs by a San Diego area beach, rendering in broad and elegant planes of color.

The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North. Admission to the exhibition is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for youth (aged 7-18), and free to members and children 6 and under. Every third Thursday is free. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and 12 to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information call (937) 223-5277 or visit www.daytonartinstitute.org

Reach DCP visual arts critic Jud Yalkut at contactus@daytoncitypaper.com

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