Luminist paintings in California

Luminist paintings in California – landscape painters

Alfred C. Harrison Jr.

In the second half of the nineteenth century a number of American landscape painters created works that featured simple, often severely horizontal compositions depicting lakes, rivers, beaches, and ocean, in which realistic transcriptions of the effect of light on atmosphere became vehicles for the expression of spiritual values. These works were executed in tiny brushstrokes, reducing the presence of the artist’s hand and enhancing the illusion that the viewer was staring at a real scene. Many of these landscapes featured low horizon lines and generous expanses of sky creating a sense of a vast universe where the human presence played a minor role. A mood of tranquility and repose, the “peace that passeth all understanding,” often prevails in these paintings.

This subcategory of American art was lumped together with other landscapes of the period under the general heading of the Hudson River school until the art historian John I. H. Baur created the term “luminism” to describe it in several important essays in the 1940s and 1950s. [1] Such scholars of the following generation as Barbara Novak, John Wilmerding, and Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. extended the discussion of American luminism into the 1960s and 1970s, leading up to the landmark traveling exhibition created by Wilmerding in 1980 entitled American Light and accompanied by a splendid catalogue. [2] The exhibition introduced luminism to a wide audience and enshrined it as one of the leading cultural achievements of the nineteenth century in the United States.

American Light identified many painters who worked in this style, demonstrating that it was a popular way of painting landscapes, especially between 1860 and 1875. But the focus of the exhibition was entirely on painters living on the East Coast. A survey of early landscape painting in California demonstrates that many luminist works were also done there, both by such resident painters as Raymond Dabb Yelland, Norton Bush, and Charles Donnon Robinson, and by visitors such as John Ross Key and Gilbert Davis Munger.

San Francisco’s two leading landscape painters, Thomas Hill and William Keith (1838-1911), were not luminist painters, although Hill did paint small-scale works like Mount Shasta and Castle Lake (Pl. V) that create the tranquil mood of a luminist painting albeit in compositions that celebrate Alpine sublimity. The most important artist to visit San Francisco, Albert Bierstadt, seldom painted luminist works because he favored more dramatic mountain subjects and lighting effects that border on the theatrical. In paintings like The Sacramento River Valley of 1872-1873 (Pl. IV) he comes closest to applying the luminist aesthetic to a California subject. However, the yellow light is exaggerated beyond the luminist canon, where naturalism is the rule.

Norton Bush was the first painter in California to devote much of his work to luminist landscapes. A native of Rochester, New York, he demonstrated an artistic talent as a child and eventually went to study with Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) in New York City in 1851. Two years later Bush visited the tropics on his way to San Francisco, where he set up his studio. In his early career he painted mainly California subjects, but in 1868 he painted several tropical scenes that sold immediately Gratified by this success, he went to Central America in April 1868 to refresh his stock of tropical images. One of the major paintings that resulted from that trip was View of Panama City (Pl. Viii), which he sent to the Mechanics’ institute exhibition in San Francisco in August 1868. The painting (now destroyed) depicted a scene familiar to many Californians who had passed through Panama on their way West. In 1869 the opening of the transcontinental railroad made it unnecessary to travel through the tropics, but Bush’ s lush transcriptions of jungle scenery remained popular throughout his career.

View of Panama City has trees framing the foreground in the tradition of the classical landscape founded by Claude Lorrain (16001682) in Rome. This conventional way of arranging the landscape gives dignity to the scene and connects it to a time-honored roster of subjects worthy of being painted. The poetic handling of the early evening light also lifts the rendering above the commonplace. As is often the case with luminist paintings, man is sparsely represented, and the distant city (see P1. I.) is camouflaged for the most part by the enveloping atmosphere. Luminist artists in general curtailed evidence of human activity in their landscapes in order to present nature in a pristine state–as it appeared at the creation of the world. The English romantic poets Words-worth and Coleridge popularized the notion that solitary communication with remote corners of the natural world could cleanse the city dweller’s soul of the impurities of everyday life. Contemplation of the wilderness unsullied by civilization was t hought to have significant therapeutic powers. A landscape painting was a vicarious and less arduous way of having this experience. You did not have to swat mosquitoes in the tropics to achieve a Wordsworthian moment. All you really needed was a painting by Norton Bush.

Although he was famous as a painter of tropical scenery Bush also painted views of California in the luminist style. One of the most charming of these is an oval view of Mount Diablo east of San Francisco (Pl. III). It retains a classical framing tree on the right, but here it is a California live oak rather than the tropical trees in Plate VII. Subtle handling of early evening light unifies the various greens of earth and foliage and the blue-greens of their reflection in the water. The harmony of tones created by the light transforms the scene into a metaphor for the spirituality of nature.

In 1869 Bush went back to New York City, where he experienced a measure of success with his tropical scenes while occasionally choosing subjects in the Catskill Mountains of New York State and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 1873 he went again to Central and South America to make new studies of tropical scenery before returning to San Francisco. By October 1874 Bush had painted enough new works to hold an auction preceded by an exhibition that attracted several thousand people. [3] The critic for the San Francisco Evening Post bestowed praise on paintings like Tropical River Landscape (Pl. VI), writing: “Not only is the vegetation splendidly tinted, but the atmosphere is ‘warm, soft and golden,’ the sky dreamy and poetic, and the water…as perfectly represented as can well be imagined.” The reviewer went on to note the artist’s restraint in treating his lush subject matter: “Where an artist of inferior taste and ability would be strikingly gorgeous and therefore violate the sweet modesty of nature, [Bush] is content to give a blushing beauty to the scene.” [4]

Bush spent almost his entire artistic career in California. The next painter of luminist landscapes on the West Coast, while leaving a significant legacy, lingered little more than a year. John Ross Key was born after the death of his father and raised in the District of Columbia by his grandfather Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As a teenager John Key worked for several years at the United States Coast Survey, which sharpened his ability to paint topographically accurate studies. After the Civil War he developed into a fine landscape painter who often chose luminist strategies for his works. In August 1869 he visited California at the invitation of the financier and brigadier general Henry Morris Naglee (1815-1886), whose young wife had died earlier that year in the care of her aunt, who was John Key’s mother. Naglee spent most of his time at his vineyard in San Jose, where he commissioned Key to paint views of the environs. One of the most beautiful of these is Santa Clara Valley (Pl. IX), the composition of which became the subject for a large chromolithograph of the same title published in 1873 by L. Prang and Company (1856-1897) of Boston. The painting is a view from Coyote Creek near the Naglee homestead at Eleventh and Santa Clara Streets in San Jose. As is often the case with Key’s landscapes, the time of day is early evening, when subtle sunset light tints distant hillsides a soft lavender The framing tree at the left is a typical California live oak. It balances the hills in the right distance, which are surmounted by wisps of fog in elongated triangular patterns like the crowns of the oak. As in Bush’s painting of Mount Diablo, a mood of harmony and repose is created that communicates a sense of divinity underlying natural appearances. The self-effacing brushwork persuades the viewer that he is looking at a real scene, unaltered by the artist’s hand. In fact, the artist has skillfully coordinated his composition and palette, adding a sense of order and harmony t o the realistic transcription.

In October 1869 and again in the summer of 1870 Key traveled to Lake Tahoe, where he made sketches that he used as the basis for larger paintings during the remainder of his career His Lake Tahoe 1873 (Pl. VIII), painted in his Boston studio from a sketch made in October 1869, shows the view from Tahoe City on the northwest side of the lake looking east to the Nevada side. The season is late autumn. An early winter storm has passed, leaving a dusting of snow on the high peaks and clearing the atmosphere of all impurities. Key has chosen to emphasize the deep blue of the lake, which is its most celebrated feature. The intensity of the cool lake and sky tones is emphasized by their juxtaposition to the warm earth tints and autumn foliage. The orange of the bushes is the complementary color to the blue of the water since there is no blue in orange (a blend of red and yellow). For this reason, blue and orange contrast vividly when laid side by side. In true luminist fashion the artist has kept the horizon below t he midpoint of the painting, emphasizing the sky and its reflection in the water rather than the alpine grandeur that such a subject could easily evoke in a landscape painter.

The same restraint is present in Key’s beautiful Lake Tahoe 1871 (P1. X), painted in Baltimore shortly after the artist left California. It has the same panoramic horizontal format as the later painting–the format often preferred by such East Coast luminists as Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)–and it has the low horizon and sunset tones of Heade’s Lake George of 1862 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The human presence is reduced to a tiny Wordsworthian figure reclining in the meadow at the right, staring out at the view. The white sails of the two boats pull the viewer’s eye into the distance and add a pleasing and irregular dash of white to the cloud reflections. The framing tree at the right, a Jeffrey pine of the Sierra Nevada, extends a branch toward the beautiful scene in a “lo and behold” gesture. The dark pine-clad point of land in the middle ground serves as a similar guidepost, directing the eye toward the reflection of the heavenly light in the still water. A rotting stump in the right foreground is a reminder that earthly life is transitory. The theme of the painting is clear: Follow the visual pointers and look away from the earth to the transcendental beauty of the light

Another eastern painter who set up a studio in San Francisco in 1869 was Gilbert Munger; Key’s childhood friend from the District of Columbia. At the age of fifteen Munger was hired by the Smithsonian Institution to make engravings from botanical and zoological field studies. Key and Munger served on opposite sides during the Civil War, but resumed their friendship immediately afterwards, and their artistic careers followed similar paths.

In the summer of 1869 Munger was hired by the geologist Clarence King (1842-1901) to be an expedition artist on the United States fortieth parallel survey, and he spent much of the summer in the Wasatch Mountains of the Utah region. From there Munger traveled on his own to San Francisco, where he worked up his field studies into finished paintings. In March 1870 he exhibited a painting entitled A View in the Wahsatch [sic] Valley that the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle described as “one of the best pictures that has ever been produced in California… The snowy peaks in the distance… are painted in a most masterly and effective manner, while the atmospheric effects are simply admirable.” [5] This painting is unlocated, but Munger’s large painting of 1877 entitled The Wasatch Mountains with Salt Lake City and the Great Salt Lake in the Foregroud (P1.XI) demonstrates the painter’s mastery of “atmospheric effects.” Just as Key depicted the Sierra Nevada range in his painting of Lake Tahoe, Munger ha s elogated and flattened the Wasatch range, creating a mood of tranquility with an extensive foreground of still water and a huge sky. The twilight creates a seamless harmony of related tones so intense that the viewer senses a divine presence behind the visual world.

Although painted in London, The Wasatch Mountains resembles works Munger did a few years earier in San Francisco. On June 27, 18733, a local newspaper, Alta California, mentioned Munger’s “views near Salt Lake… at earliest sunrise or just as the sun, sinking in the west, [throws] its final light up on the extreme mountain-tops with their glowing summits in strange contrast with their glowing summits in strange contrast with the grey gloom.” Munger maintained a studio in San Francisco until November 1873 with periods spent in New York City and Minnesota. California subjects appear frequently in his work of these years. One of the most celebrated is A Glinpse of the Pacific (P1 XII) 1870, which portrays a view of Ocean Beach, San Francisco, from the dunes just south of the Cliff House on the westernmost edge of the city. As in most luminist paintings, a simple composition, half of if sky, creates a sense of a vast universe in which man and his problems play a minor role. The San Francisco Call of May 13, 18 70, praised.

The dark finn breadth of the hill, so direct against the long, warm, yellow and the beach, stretching miles away against the hazy blue of the ocean… [It] gives a perspective of remarkable simple and natural beauty, creating a strength to the foreground, where… no clumps of trees, dwellings of figures have enabled the artist to give artificial force to his picture. Its entire simplicity is us power.

This sentiment was echoed by the Alta California critic, who wrote. “The scene is remarkable for its simplicity… It seems the embodinent of quiet-the antithesis of tumult.” [6]

While in California, Munger journeyed to sites in the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite, Donner Lake, and Lake Tahoe. On November 7, 1872, he wrote from “Summit Sierra Nevada” to his brother in Minnesota that he was “sketching this place with Bierstadt. We work from sunrise to sunset, muffled up to our eyebrows in furs, for the weather is intensely cold.” [7] “Summit” refers to the summit of the Donner Pass, where the transcontinental railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada on its way east. From this point Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe are easily accessible.

A rediscovered Munger painting of Lake Tahoe in November (Pl. XIII) looks east from Tahoe City like Key’s painting in Plate VIII. Light behind the mountains in the east indicates that it is sunrise. Perhaps this stands for a new day dawning in America because of the recent discovery and annexation of the great wilderness of the West, symbolized by Lake Tahoe. At the time Munger was painting this picture, Bierstadt was at work on the final studies for his major painting of 1873, Donner Lake from the Summit (New-York Historical Society, New York City), which depicts sunrise on that lake about fifteen miles from Lake Tahoe. In Bierstadt’s picture dawn is a metaphor for the start of a more civilized era ushered in by the railroad.

Munger’s painting creates a mood of quiet expectation that often prevails in nature early in the morning. He achieved this through his realistic approach to the scene, capturing its essence with a wealth of Illusionistic detail. In this way, realism becomes not a hindrance to, but a facilitator of a metaphorical interpretation of the work.

Munger left California in November 1873, and by 1877 he had moved to Europe, when he remained until 1893, painting with considerable success in the popular Barbizon style. Munger’s place as a luminist in California was taken by Raymond Dabb Yelland, who arrived in December 1873 or January 1874 Born in England as Raymond Dabb, he added Yelland to his name for reasons unknown when he moved to California. He had been brought to New York City as an infant, attended the National Academy of Design in the late 1860s, and was hired as an instructor there as soon as he concluded his studies.

In California, Yelland embarked on a long career as an art teachers, first at Mills Seminary (now Mills College) in Oakland and then at the California School of Design in San Francisco. He also became a major landscape painter on the West Coast. A versatile artist, he traveled widely, making drawings and oil studies that formed the raw material for his exhibition paintings. His most celebrated works were quiet coastal scenes in the luminist style such as the one in Plate XIV. This large canvas has as its subject a beach, braking waves, and ocean, as simple and empty in composition as Munger’s Glimpse of the Pacific (Pl. XII). Like many of the late paintings of John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872). Yelland’s work appeals to the emotions entirely because of his treatment of light. The reflections of the rosy clouds in the water owe a debt to the technique of Yelland’s colleague James Hamilton (1819-1878). Philadelphia’ leading marine painter, who went to San Francisco in 1875. Unlike Hamilton, whose sunsets are l uridly theatrical, Yelland has muted the sunset colors, producing a mood of delicate melancholy As the critic of the San Francisco Evening Post wrote of Yelland’s painting: “In the general treatment there is delicacy and power, rendering the scene far more attractive than if it were given an exclusively vigorous handling.” [8] Yelland has treated the waves with similar restraint. Whereas Bierstadt’s waves dramatize the terrifying power of nature, Yelland’s are frozen in mid-break, exhibiting a lacelike beauty all their own. In nature, this beauty is so transient that it passes almost before it can be perceived by the human eye. The poet John Keats (1795-1821) included “the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” [9] as a natural phenomenon that would inspire melancholy in the beholder because of its evanescent beauty. The artist, on the other band, can create permanent beauty out of the transient nature of the waves. The same applies to twilight, the most beautiful time of day, which lasts only a few moments but is pr eserved forever in a work of art.

Another Yelland work that embraces the same theme in a brighter mood is Point Bonita from Point Lobos, Golden Gate (P1. XV), painted in the early 1880s. By then fashions in landscape had shifted from the meticulously detailed realism of luminism toward the looser, vaguer pictorial strategies of the French Barbizon painters Yelland was aware of this change in taste, and as early as 1878 he painted works that have the flavor of Barbizon landscapes. However, he continued to paint luminist works like Point Bonita that earned him a critical scolding in the press. A writer in The Californian of December 1881 criticized a Yelland painting in these terms: “The almost equal elaboration of every part of the picture detracts from the imaginative coherence of the whole. We feel that we are in the presence of physical facts rather than suggested mysteries.” [10]

Point Bonita is a conscientious transcription of a real scene, looking north across the entrance to San Francisco harbor (the Golden Gate) from the San Francisco side toward Mann County with its Point Bonita lighthouse in the distance. But the scene is treated in such a way that it immediately evokes an emotional response from the viewer that no photographic inventory of physical facts could ever do. The interpretive element here is subtle, obviously too subtle for the writer in The Californian. A critic in The Argonaut, reviewing another Yelland coastal view, came close to verbalizing the charm of this kind of painting: “[The painting] is at once a perfectly accurate and very poetic statement of fact. It is a subtile and refined interweaving of the literal rendering of rocks, sky and water, with the romance, the essence of it.” [11] The realism, in other words, makes the poetry–the harmonious blending of tones–more credible.

Although Yelland was occasionally derided as a plodding copyist of nature, he took a different view of his approach to art. He once told an interviewer that art “is not an imitation of nature, so much as the expression of one’s own feeling. If you haven’t any feeling, so much the worse for you and your art.” [12] Yelland’s emotions find an almost perfect visual outlet in San Francisco from Goat Island (P1. XVII) of 1881. Here the point of view is from an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay looking due west toward the Pacific Ocean. The considerable realism includes the high-rise towers of the Selby Shot Tower and Temple Emanuel in the city depicted in the distance at the left. But the realistic touches merely give credibility to the sumptuous treatment of the light. Tranquility, repose, rest from labor–all these qualities that we associate with the end of the day are present. Even the commuter ferryboat, a pedestrian sight at the time the painting was done, evokes emotions connected with going home to rest.

If Yelland was the leading luminist painter in San Francisco, other landscape artists periodically produced excellent work in this style. Charles Dormon Robinson was foremost among them. He received his first art lessons from Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878) as a child in San Francisco, and as a teenager he studied in the East with, among others, William Bradford (1823-1893) and George Inness (1825-1894). He returned to San Francisco in 1874 and began to exhibit the marine paintings of San Francisco Bay that established his reputation. In 1885, the year before he painted Looking across the Golden Gate (P1. XVI), the San Francisco Chronicle noted of another such scene: “Robinson has struck a happy vein in his latest marine–the familiar ‘Golden Gate.’ There is a vim and dash in the treatment of waves and foam, the sky effects are very clever, and there is a good feeling along the shore.” [13] The sky effects in the painting shown here are particularly interesting, with the wisps of fog set against high cirru s clouds, giving the sky a rare animation. Also notable is the cool palette of blue, gray, and green, evoking the fresh feeling of a typical day by the bay.

Luminism was a significant aspect of landscape art in the West just as it was in the East. Wherever nature provided lakes, rivers, and ocean, painters captured their particular charm in realistic landscapes that were also deep expressions of the artists’ souls.

ALFRED C. HARRISON JR. is the president of the North Point Gallery in San Francisco.

(1.) John I. H. Baur, “Early Studies in Light and Air by American Painters” Brooklyn,” Museum Bulletin, vol.9, no. 2 (winter 1948), p.3; John I. H. Baur; “Trends in American Painting, 1815-1865,” in M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815 to 1865 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1949), pp. xv–Ivii; and John I. H. Baur, “American Luminism, A Neglected Aspect of the Realist Movement in Nineteenth-Century American Paintings,” Perspectives USA, vol.9 (Autumn 1954), pp. 90-98.

(2.) Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1969), pp. 105-106, 112-113, 122; Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1975), pp. 105-110; and John Wilmerding et al., American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs (National Gallery of Art, washington, D.C., 1980).

(3.) San Francisco Alta California, October 29, 1874.

(4.) San Francisco Evening Post, October 27, 1874.

(5.) San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 1870.

(6.) Alta California, June 5, 1870.

(7.) Quoted in Saint Paul Daily Pioneer, November 15, 1872. I am indebted to Michael D. Schroeder, the expert on Munger, for calling this to my attention. The citation originally appeared in Isaac Oliver Peterson, “Art in Saint Paul as Recorded in the Contemporary Newspapers” (master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1942).

(8.) San Francisco Evening Post, December 1, 1877.

(9.) John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats, Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (Oxford University Press, London, 1967), pp. 219-220.

(10.) The Californian, December 1881, p.26.

(11.) The Argonaut, March 15, 1879.

(12.) San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 1886.

(13.) Ibid., April 4,1885.

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