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by Bill Kimberlin
April 27 , 2007

     Impressionism, which is associated with the French school of painting, also had a California presence. While it is the 1874 group of Manet, Monet, Cezanne, and Degas that we think of first, by the 1920's a group had formed in the United States, and especially southern California, that practiced what was becoming known as "plein air painting".

     For both groups it was all about capturing light; registering the sometimes fleeting images of color that nature produces in abundance, in a single session. Rejecting the current "academic" style of making a painting over days, weeks, or months this new style favored painting outdoors, in nature, using a more scientific sense of color. It seemed they were just trying to capture an impression, one critic noted, and the term Impressionism stuck.

     In order to get a sense of vibrant color, the artists had picked up on a scientific paper published in 1839 by Eugene Chevreul which explained that the controlled juxtaposition of color was more important than the color itself. This was an idea born in the study of the optics of the eye. It has more to do with how our mind interprets what we see than just trying to reproduce what is there.

     Chevreul wrote that "...the apparent intensity of color does not depend as much on the inherent it does on the hue of the neighboring color" and that "The greater the difference between the colors, the more they mutually beautify each other; and inversely, the less the difference there is, the more they will tend to injure one another."

     If a painter were to paint an object in strong yellow light he should paint it's cast shadow in purple, the opposite color of yellow. "Even though the natural color of that shadow is not purple, the contrast of yellow and purple is the strongest contrast and the effect would be true" wrote Chevreul. Not only would it be true, it would be vivid.

     By the 1880's Van Gogh had almost abandoned the capture of images and devoted his paintings to what he thought was the more important role of exploring the emotional power of color itself.

     The California group was not as rigid in its' thinking as the Europeans, yet they painted in an evolving style that was strongly influenced by their counterparts in France. Between 1890 and 1930 these artists captured the natural landscape and rural lifestyle of California and many of their works can be seen at the Irvine Museum in Irvine, California which owns the largest collection of California Impressionist paintings in the world.

     When one of these artists was asked about his religion he smiled and said, "My religion? My religion is California."


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