California Impressionists Paint Lasting Memories

Picturesque Scenes of Early California

cove in carmel

Written by SurfWriter Girls Sunny Magdaug and Patti Kishel

Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levantImpression: Sunrise

Long after Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise captivated the art world in 1874, giving rise to the Impressionism movement, California’s own artists sought to utilize the style’s small, thin brushstrokes and open composition to depict the beauty of the beaches, valleys and mountains around them.

home in the foothills

field of flowers

Plein air painting class

In a renaissance of sorts, the state’s warm climate and magnificent scenery lured artists from their studios, taking easels, canvasses and paints into the great outdoors, eager to convey their own visions of nature.

plein-air women artists


Painting outside (as the French called en plein air) during the first part of the 20th Century, the Impressionists collectively became known as the California Plein-Air School.

Mirroring the region’s rugged individualism and desire to break away from convention and East Coast and European traditions, the Impressionists boldly embraced the freedom to shape reality on stretched canvass.

Tom Brown painting



And, with new money flowing into the state as wealthy investors and industrialists and those seeking fame, fortune and good health made it their home, the artists were able to profit from their work.

Venice Beach 1920s


HollywoodLand photo

SurfWriter Girls Sunny Magdaug and Patti Kishel love the vastness and vitality of the picturesque California scenes of undisturbed meadows, fields of flowers, bluffs over the ocean, hidden coves and towering mountains.

Poppies Granville Redmond

hills and valleys

above ocean

carmel vista

Harking back to a time when orange groves were plentiful in the OC and the Santa Fe railroad trains rolled through the fields, the plein-air paintings have both artistic and historic significance.



But, with the onset of the Great Depression and emergence of newer art movements, the California Impressionists’ art fell out of favor. And, like other treasures, it was lost…waiting to be found.

stockmarket crash

Thankfully, it was, more than half a century later, most notably by art collector and philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith. In 1992 Smith established the Irvine Museum, “dedicated to the preservation and display of California art of the Impressionist Period (1890-1930).”


With family ties dating back to the California gold rush and the founding of the Irvine Company, Orange County’s largest private land owner, Smith wanted to preserve the plein-air art that was so closely associated with California’s early Vacheron Constantin

Smith has said “looking at the pictures is like stepping back in time” and enables people to learn about the art period as well as the need to retain some of the environment in its natural state.

Louis Betts beach at coronado

You can experience for yourself the beauty of the Impressionists’ paintings at the Irvine Museum (18881 Von Karman Ave., Irvine). Its featured exhibit now, The Nature of Water, which runs through June 16, is as current as today’s news, focusing on California’s unspoiled oceans and waterways, while emphasizing the need for water conservation.


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