The spirit of California’s impressionists lives on
HouseCalls | Michael Good
William Morris, the great 19th century designer and progenitor of the arts and crafts movement, had this advice for harried homeowners contemplating an empty room and a color chart: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it. Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
What he meant was: “Buy a nice painting.”
For the color-challenged, which is to say everyone at one time or another, a good landscape painting provides much-needed inspiration. Borrowing the color pallet of a favorite painting is a foolproof way to pull together a room. You’ll have some awkward moments dragging the canvas around with you to design showrooms, but when you’re done, you can hang the painting over the fireplace. Try that with a 763-page Behr color book from Home Depot.
Among the other reasons to start with art: fine art was always a component of early 20th century home design. If you want to create a genuine period look, an impressionist landscape says authenticity more emphatically than any wobbly tabouret. Even if painted later in the century, the sun-drenched colors will be harmonious with the earth tones of the arts and crafts pallet. And in those moments when you’re just about to lose it because your tile is on backorder, you can stare deep into your impressionist landscape and imagine yourself there beside the meadow, under the Eucalyptus tree, beneath the snow-capped mountain and far, far away from your contractor, husband and designer guy, with the broom who sweeps up every day (which for many homeowners is the same person).
To a considerable degree, we have William Morris to thank for our “fix-it” fixation. Morris founded the design firm Morris & Co., which today is still producing his fabric and wall-cover designs. He also wrote novels – one was an inspiration for “Lord of the Rings” – and political diatribes (one inspired a riot). He painted paintings, wove rugs, bound books and designed houses. You could say Morris dabbled in a lot of stuff, but he had too much enthusiasm to call it dabbling. He threw himself into things, and died at the age of 62, exhausted.
He championed the handcrafted object over the mass-produced product, and believed that art could be for everyone and everyone could be an artist. His everyone-as-Renaissance-man attitude infused early 20th-century living. Back in the day, everybody dabbled. They sewed their own clothes, made their own curtains, painted stencils and decorative murals on their walls, made furniture, pottery and, of course, they painted landscape paintings and hung them on their bungalow walls.
This spirit of self-expression found fertile soil in sunny San Diego. Perhaps because it was so new, young and full of dreamers reinventing themselves, San Diego became something of a Mecca for seekers of truth and beauty. Of the four greatest turn-of-the-century artists, Charles Fries from Cincinnati arrived first, in 1897. Hungarian born and New York educated, Maurice Braun came next, drawn to the Theosophy Institute in Point Loma. He started an art school Downtown, where he mentored Alfred Mitchell who, after service in the First World War, returned to San Diego to stay, living for a time with the rest of his family in South Park, settling in a house he designed with Richard Requa.
The last of this quartet, Charles Reiffel, arrived in 1925. Reiffel’s more emotional approach to impressionism made him both less popular and poorer than his colleagues. He died in relative obscurity in 1942. Seventy years later he’s getting his due at the San Diego Museum of Art with the exhibit “Charles Reiffel: An American Post-Impressionist.”
When Claude Monet painted “Impression Sunrise,” the first impressionist landscape, the critics were unimpressed. They thought the painting unfinished, and lacking in technique and rigor. The public felt otherwise, however, and Monet found great acceptance in his lifetime, both with buyers and other artists, who flocked to Giverny, France to see him. Working in the open air, or en plein air, Monet made painting a more communal experience. Artists were no longer hidden away in turpentine-perfumed studios. In San Diego, en plein air painters exhibited their work together, formed associations to support each other, and taught classes to mentor a younger generation. Their art institute became what we know today as The San Diego Museum of Art.
The Great Depression put an official end to California impressionism, but in San Diego the artists and their protégés carried on. Alfred Mitchell continued painting and teaching until his death in 1972. In the 1980s, when revived interest in the arts and crafts movement led to revived interest in California impressionism, Mitchell’s students – and their students – were ready. They took up en plein air again with enthusiasm, and found a home and champion in Annie Rowley and her Santa Ysabel Art Gallery.
“The gallery is very special,” said artist Joe Garcia. “It’s the best plein air gallery in this part of California. We’re really, really lucky to have it.”
For the last 17 years, Rowley has hosted an exhibition of en plein air paintings. “It’s pretty casual,” Garcia said. “Before the show, a half dozen of us will get together and we’ll go paint.” On opening day of the show, Garcia and others will spend a couple hours painting outside the gallery and those canvases, once the paint dries, join the other 80 or so canvases on the gallery walls. Beth King, a gallery employee, said they’ve sold 18 paintings in the two weeks since the show opened. If you’re a student of economic indicators, this is another sign of the recovery.
The 14 artists in the show work in a variety of styles. Garcia is more literal than your typical impressionist. He started out as a graphic designer and illustrator for San Diego, and that attention to detail shows in his work. Other painters, such as Ken Roberts and Annie Dover, are a bit looser. If you’re just getting started buying landscape art, this is a good place to get a feeling for what appeals to you.
Plein Air XVII runs until Nov. 25 at Santa Ysabel Art Gallery, located at 30352 California 78 in Santa Ysabel, Calif. “Charles Reiffel: An American Post-Impressionist” opens Saturday, Nov. 10 and runs through February 2013 at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.