What is California Impressionism?

California Plein-Air Artists 

In the early 1920’s Southern California was beginning to become populated with more and more people. Los Angeles was growing; the idea of suburbs was just getting started. The era of the French Impressionist period in Europe was trending down. California artists were becoming unhappy with development that was starting all around them. The idea of painting California scenery was starting to grow with a passion because artists did not want to give up this beautiful scenery to builders of factories and housing tracts.

These artists started to be called “California Impressionists”. They wanted to memorialize the beauty of what they saw in the Southern California landscape before the destruction began. That was the opposite of how the French Impressionists saw it. They embraced change in their paintings, but the Californians saw it differently. They embraced the notion of Old-World charm where there was none in many instances. By the 1930’s many small towns were springing up on the outskirts of Los Angeles with strings of electric lights and telephone lines.

Many artists didn’t express themselves publicly about how they felt about this change; but they oil painted pastoral farm scenes and seascapes along the coast that gives one a romantic and nostalgic feeling to look at them to this day. They believed in beauty above truth in order to escape from the unpleasant reality in the changes of the time. The serenity of orchards in bloom, tree-shaded farmhouses, and sunny hillsides gave their paintings a quality of escapism in the “land of the afternoon”.

In reality, for example, farms were mostly owned by corporate monopolies. It had become very difficult to own a family farm by then. The “serene” world of farm work was done mostly by immigrant workers who did back-breaking labor in the fields. The California Impressionists preferred not to see this reality in their paintings. They painted lovely scenes devoid of people. It is obvious they had a deep response to the sprawl that was around them.

Many landscape painters came out to paint the disappearing orange groves and the coastal mountains in droves. They attempted to memorialize what they saw by putting it on canvas. Their art was a direct response to the huge sprawl that would be coming and forever change California.

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