Santa Barbara

California Dreaming and the Car Painters of the SoCal Landscape

Soren Emil Carlsen, Autumn Landscape at SB Museum of Art.jpg

There are millions of "my arrival in California" stories. Here's one of them. Cue the wayback machine, please. It's 1900, a new century, and you're a clever young person with a penchant for art. You've traveled a bit, you can handle a brush, you've had some formal training, and you can even speak French. Parlez vous en plein air, s'il vous plait? The Huntington railroad offers you free passage to Pasadena in exchange for a few dozen scenic views, and the next thing you know, you're on the overnight special heading west out of Chicago. You reach California, take a deep breath, and buy a car. That's right, a car. You put an easel on the back of the jalopy, you drive in almost any direction, set up a parasol to keep the sun off, and you paint, as simple as that.

This scenario may sound far-fetched, but, as a new exhibition called California Dreaming: Plein-Air Painting from San Francisco to San Diego, on view now through June 16 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art demonstrates, it was not at all uncommon at the turn of the 20th century. Painters flocked to California at that time to take advantage of the fabulous scenery, the warm climate, the abundant natural light, and, above all, the chance to participate in the artistic discovery of a new world of landscape. Curatorial fellow Rachel Rossner, who put together the exhibit, recently shared with me some of her thoughts and observations about the beginnings of the plein-air landscape painting movement in California.

Clarence Hinkle, "Coast Line, Laguna," n.d. (ca. 1924). Oil on canvas. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mabel Bain Hinkle.

Your scholarly background is in Eastern European art. How did you come to this project?

In my dissertation, I looked at the later 19th century in Europe, and at the way that painting staged various perceptions of the east vs. the west, in particular among the Croatians and the Czech, between 1870 and 1920. The Croatian critical perception was similar to that of the American perception of landscape painting, meaning that it was understood as a vehicle for the truth, that the land was somehow expressing itself through this genre of art. The land is understood as compelling the painter to paint it. In this view, Impressionism is both rationalistic and pantheist.

Do you see the plein air movement in painting as having ties to nationalism? How does that observation play out in the relations between northern and southern California?

Painting en plein air becomes a symbol of the national story of the land. With Tonalism, which was more popular in the north, you get a real cohesion of style. By the 1870s, San Francisco, for example, already had an art academy--it was part of the European establishment. And this establishment makes it difficult to deviate from the program. There was a market there.

So Tonalism appealed to a more established, academic community of artists in the Bay Area. What was happening in southern California?

Los Angeles was always a different kind of settlement. What develops in Southern California seems to have been more dependent on the illustrated press and on a kind of cosmopolitan regionalism, rather than on a single academic tradition.

Colin Campbell Cooper,  "California State Building, San Diego Exposition, " 1916. Oil on canvas. | SBMA, Gift of the Family of the Artist.

What tendencies do you see as uniting northern and southern California plein-air painters?

As often as not you find that these painters were choosing not to go with the most avant-garde tendencies in the art of their time, but rather to provide documentation and even a type of propaganda for their region and its land. Many of them made images that were then given to the railroads, sometimes in exchange for fares, and that were used to advertise the west as a destination.

The Santa Barbara artist Alexander Harmer is represented by a great picture of a garlanded garden trellis. What made you choose that painting for the show?

I love the warmth of the dappled sun in the Alexander Harmer. He corresponded with Thomas Eakins, and he established one of the earliest artist's studios in Santa Barbara.

William Keith, "Loma Prieta, Morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains," 1874. Oil on canvas. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of the Bard Family in memory of Beryl Bard.

If the stereotypical rationale for dividing the state into northern and southern cultures based on sunshine versus rain is not the most useful way to think about this show, what is? Can you provide some ways of understanding the south and the north that aren't so familiar?

In southern California, the style of plein-air painting in this period is mostly popular and relatively safe, and it's not hyper-finished. In the north, m any of the plein-air artists are responding to a specific idea, Tonalism, which actually began on the east coast as a spiritual movement. The dominant colors in a picture were supposed to correspond to certain spiritual concepts. It's the influence of the Barbizon school, but it's also the idea of presenting the quiet blessings of the land. In the north, they didn't really like the Impressionists. They thought Impressionism was too loud. A painter like Carlsen was coming to landscape from having been a still life specialist, and he was painting to adorn the Gilded Age houses of San Francisco, where they typically wanted their pictures to be more quiet, contemplative, and spiritual.

So much of this work feels like it belongs to the era of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in San Diego. Is that a fair association?

There were many World's Fair type expositions in this period, and painting was very much a part of that. So it's not necessarily all about that one exposition, but rather about an era of such optimism and rapid expansion.

California Dreaming: Plein-Air Painting from San Francisco to San Diego can be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through June 18. A second, related exhibition, California Scene Paintings from 1930 to 1960, exploring the next major movement in representational painting in California, opens at the Pasadena Museum of California Art on March 10 and will remain on view until July 28. For more information about California Dreaming, visit

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Top Image: Soren Emil Carlsen, "Autumn Landscape", 1904. Oil on canvas. | Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. Scofield..

About the Author

Charles Donelan has lived in Santa Barbara since 2001. He writes about visual art, music, theater, and books for the Santa Barbara Independent, where he is the arts editor. Prior to his arrival in Santa Barbara, Donelan lived in N...
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