My favorite California story also happens to be my weakest California story. The details are hazy: I was listening to an interview on the radio- or maybe I read it? An artist was talking about leaving So-Cal after living here for years. From his new home, the artist watched the infamous live telecast of OJ Simpson’s white Bronco ambling up the 405 and cried. Was he crying for the victims, for the fallen superstar, or the Knicks game being interrupted? No. He was crying for the light. The artist saw the golden rays alighting on that Bronco, a gentle light that is so specific to California, and was overcome by it’s beauty.
Plein-air painter Edgar Payne was similarly stricken by the California light on his first visit here in 1909. Though a native of Missouri, Payne set up a little framing shop in Laguna Beach and spent his free time painting the California coast. This body of work would become the cornerstone of California Impressionism. The Pasadena Museum of California Art is currently exhibiting a gorgeous retrospective, Edgar Payne The Scenic Journey through October 14th, 2012. Admission is free this Saturday along with a party celebrating the museum’s ten-year anniversary.
The comprehensive show includes Payne’s breathtaking portraits of the Navajo Nation as well as his European studies, but my favorites are the California series. I love the way he captures the dappled light on the silvery eucalyptus trees. Apparently the trees were a popular enough subject amongst painters as to merit their own following coined, “The Eucalyptus School,” which is perhaps the west coast’s answer to The Hudson River School. PMCA presents the show boldly with a palate of deep jewel tones on the walls which nicely complement the dynamic works.
And now since you’ve indulged me with the OJ story, perhaps you’ll allow me a further divulgence: my father is a plein-air painter and he’s been talking about this show for weeks. Sadly he won’t get to see it as his terrain is the craggy rocks of New England. We can never take his car because the back is permanently crammed with an easel, palettes and still-wet canvases. There isn’t a dilapidated barn or beached tug boat that lost it’s tug that escapes my father’s quick eye. If a setting strikes him he’ll pull off the road, throw up the easel and and just sketch away.
I write all this to honor a beautiful art tradition that is fading in popularity though not in power. Impressionism is obviously associated with the French, but what could be more American than getting out into the land, being open to all the elements, and capturing the beauty of the pastoral landscape with canvas and brush? Tonight as I watch the golden light set on the thicket of trees outside my window I’ll think of a little of Payne, and probably my father, and I’ll likely tear up, as I have before, so grateful for the simple gifts of living here.
Cover photo from Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey, published by Pomegranate Communications, Inc. and the Pasadena Museum of California Art via; Eucalyptus Majesty c. 1930 via; and Laguna Coast c. 1918 via.