This sophisticated and informative exhibition offers the museum visitor an unusual opportunity — how often do you get to travel from San Francisco to San Diego and back in the space of an hour? Try matching that time in your Gulfstream G550. The show, titled California Dreaming, consists of landscapes painted en plein air in California in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it displays images of our state created when it was first opened up to a significant number of travelers by way of the great railroads.
Trained in many instances by the European masters of impressionism, and further schooled in the many academies of art that sprang up in America’s big cities at the time, these adventurous souls took their brushes, palettes, canvases, and paints deep into the countryside to capture what was at the time America’s last seemingly unspoiled frontier. The result was a diverse array of approaches that can now be seen to reflect regional differences not only between California and the other United States but also within the state, between distinctly northern and southern plein-air painting traditions.
California Dreaming, cunningly installed in the adjacent Emmons and Romberg galleries, takes full advantage of the relative intimacy of the two spaces and of their orientation toward one another. On one side, there is the Romberg Gallery, here hung to represent the Northern Californian contributions. In the Bay Area, a technique known as “tonalism” prevailed, as can be seen in such works as Soren Emil Carlsen’s big “Autumn Landscape” (1904). Carlsen was director of the California School of Design in San Francisco, and his image of two large trees in a stony NorCal field is an exquisite exercise in color saturation. Yellows and blues dominate the work’s expansive picture plane.
At the end of the Romberg Gallery, a giant horizontal work by William Keith, “Loma Prieta, Morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains” (1874), faces out and can be seen through the doorway. This gorgeous, softly meditative scene depicts a handful of people on a small stone and timber bridge overlooking some cows drinking contentedly from a dazzlingly pure mountain stream. It was certainly morning in California when this fine and traditional image came to life, and it has lost none of its vigor or impact in the intervening decades. Nearby, the master tonalist George Inness is represented by “Landscape, East Durham,” a playful blending of diagonals that keeps its palette securely within the range dictated by the decorum that characterizes the entire Northern California school of painting.
Across the hall, a much different, more festive, and Mediterranean mood prevails as the Southern Californian influence takes over. Directly opposite the Romberg Gallery’s magnificent Keith, Clarence Hinkle’s “Coast Line Laguna” occupies the back wall of the Emmons Gallery. This bright, almost expressionist take on the coastal landscape genre may be premodern in the sense that its emphasis on bold brushstrokes, high contrast, and unmediated, unnatural color choices seems to anticipate the flowering of abstract expressionism that was soon to come.
Fans of Santa Barbara artist Alexander Harmer will revel in the intricate, celebratory beauty of his “Arbor at Rancho Camulas” (1886), with its deeply receding perspective, impressionistic treatment of direct and reflected light, and brilliant offset composition. But, through the presence of the highly articulated grid of the arbor’s frame, the picture would seem to anticipate the upcoming advent of geometric forms and radically repetitive design principles. With California Dreaming, the roots of an entire regional aesthetic can be seen entwining with other, more international echoes of both the past and the future.