“We rode for 12 miles from Laguna to the ranch house in rugged terrain and never once saw a human being or structure of any kind.” That’s how a guest at The Irvine Ranch® recalled a journey, circa 1880, from the coast to the 110,000-acre spread owned by James Irvine I. The area would grow into Newport Coast® and the city of Irvine, but back then the route from Laguna Beach to Newport Beach was almost pure wilderness.

So how to explain the burgeoning art scene during this period in what was then simply called “the Village”? Some artists (Alson Clark, William Griffith) were drawn to the region for the health benefits. Others showed up because it was a cheap place to live (Edgar Payne). Still others, like artist William Wendt, experienced in Southern California’s majestic landscape a spiritual awakening. To Wendt, who gave many of his paintings biblically inspired titles (Sermons in Stone, Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought), the coast was a scene right out of the Old Testament. Writes Susan Landauer in her seminal book California Impressionists, “In the hills and canyons around Santa Ana and Laguna Beach, William Wendt found his enduring metaphor and Southern California’s central myth as a place of new beginnings, where the individual was free to make himself anew.”

BY THE ROADSIDE, El Toro, 1914, by Anna Hills, The James Irvine Swinden Family Collection

In other words, Wendt— and many other California Impressionists—saw Eden in these landscapes. People were scarce but Mother Nature was everywhere: in the graceful oaks and sycamores in the hills; in swaying fields of golden poppies and purple lupines; and at the edge of the ocean, where sky met water and the capricious light show of beams bouncing off shimmering waves mesmerized artists who left behind the urban gloom of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, even Europe to see for themselves this virgin land of enchantment.

Did they know at the time that they had landed in a Garden of Eden? Without a doubt.

Unlike the work of their French cousins, who preferred to paint peasants working in the fields or holiday revelers lolling about a well-manicured park, humans are seldom featured in early California impressionist paintings. It was all about nature, isolated, fecund, glimmering. It was rare. It was rarefied. And the artists sensed somehow that, just like the Garden of Eden, it could disappear in a heartbeat. They raced to capture the magic and immortalize it on canvas.

Fred Hogue, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in 1926 that: “A score of landscapists and genre painters are writing the contemporary history of the first half of the twentieth century in Southern California. The groves they paint will disappear. The Laguna of today will not be that of tomorrow. The primitive beauty of the most enchanting spots in the Southland (will be looked on) by the generations which follow as the painted record of a departed epoch.”

The Great Depression might have marked the end of California impressionism. Many of the major artists, including Elmer Wachtel, Guy Rose and Anna Hills, had died. Those who survived had a hard time selling their work, as the market, never really respected in California anyway, all but dried up. In the ensuing decades, new styles emerged. Surrealism. Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art.

ARCADIAN HILLS, 1910, by William Wendt, The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art

“Thirty-five years ago, nobody wanted California impressionist paintings,” said Jean Stern, executive director of The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine, the greatest museum repository of California impressionist paintings in the world. “The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a big auction in 1977 and sold off almost all of their California impressionist paintings. Three years later, the Pasadena Art Institute did the same,” he said.

Ironically, Stern, who was born in France and hails from a long line of art connoisseurs, believes that this wholesale liquidation of the finest California impressionist paintings served as a spark to reinvigorate interest. “It brought a lot of attention to artists who had largely been forgotten,” he said. “Suddenly, collectors were able to get these fabulous paintings at reasonable prices, and that helped with the boom in collecting. There has never been a time when these paintings were more valuable than [they are] right now.”

RUGGED PEAKS, c.1921, by Edgar Payne, The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art

Renewed interest in the genre nudged legions of contemporary artists to venture outside with their easels. “It’s become the last great style of American painting,” said Stern, noting that the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, which didn’t exist until 1996, now sponsors an annual invitational in October that draws artists from around the country.

For many plein air admirers— artists and collectors both—the heart and soul of California impressionist art resides at Crystal Cove, the state park and historic district just south of Newport Coast where an assortment of rustic beach cottages, most built in the 1920s and ’30s, line the shore or perch haphazardly on sandstone bluffs.

“Crystal Cove is a place where plein air artists have been coming for over 100 years,” said Laura Davick, founder and vice president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Conservancy. “We do everything we can to keep the spirit of plein air painting alive here at the cove, which is why we offer multiple programs that encourage visitors to try their hand at it. Art is an important part of Crystal Cove’s history, and we’re committed to seeing that it always will be.”

THE SPELL OF THE SEA, 1920, by Anna Hills, The James Irvine Swinden Family Collection

Throughout the summer, and in December, Crystal Cove offers instructor-led plein air art classes for adults and families on the deck of Cottage #13, also known as the “Beaches Film and Media Center” bungalow because it was the setting for the 1988 film Beaches, starring Bette Midler. Absolutely no experience is necessary and the instructors provide the materials: canvas, brushes, paint, easel.

“You’ll often see artists painting at Crystal Cove, so it’s fun to come out here and give it a try yourself,” said artist and instructor Laura Rosenkranz. “We make people feel super-comfortable doing it, even if they’ve never painted before. And no matter how you feel about your painting, you’ll have had an opportunity to be by the ocean and focus on the natural beauty around you.”

While her first-time painters set up their easels last summer, Rosenkranz watched a group of children at play in the nearby tide pools. “I love coming down here to paint,” she said. “I feel like I’m participating in a legacy of recording, through the artist’s eyes, our beautiful California coast in this moment. You can go to the Irvine Museum and see paintings of this coastline from a hundred years ago and then stand here today and it looks pretty much the same. That’s so rare. And so wonderful.”

VALLEY AFTERNOON, c.1905, by Elmer Wachtel, The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art

S E E I N G — AND PA I N T I N G — I S B E L I E V I N G

Adult classes at Crystal Cove, 9 a.m.–2 p.m., are $70 for members; $85 non-members. Family classes, 9 a.m.–noon, are $65 for an adult and child (ages 8 and up), plus $30 for each additional participant ($35 for non-members). For more information, visit crystalcove.org.

To see a collection of works by local plein air artists, drop by The Store, beachside at Crystal Cove, where paintings are available for purchase. Sales benefit the Crystal Cove Conservancy’s mission of preservation, conservation and education for Crystal Cove State Park. To learn more, join Laura Davick on a Founder’s Historic District Tour, held the third Sunday of the month (no tour in December), noon–2 p.m. Meet at Cottage #35.

The Irvine Museum Collection is open Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information visit irvinemuseumcollection.uci.edu.

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