Irvine Museum

Experience Plain Air

Cup your eyes and scan our undulating hills, timeworn trails and ever-changing horizon. Strike the modern roadways and edgy buildings and watch as a snapshot develops to reveal expansive, pristine Southern California, circa 1900. One can almost feel the early settlers’ sense of limitless possibilities. While imagination serves us well, the Irvine Museum offers a more tangible way to appreciate the vibrancy, promise and essential spirit of turn-of-the-century California: Impressionist, or plein air, paintings.

Hidden in plain sight off the unassuming lobby of a structure known as the Airport Tower, the Irvine Museum houses some of the finest California Impressionist, or plein air, art in the world. The current exhibition, Independent Visions: Women Artists of California 1880-1940, celebrates painters such as Donna Schuster (1883-1953), Anna Hills (1882-1930) and Euphemia Charlton Fortune (1885-1969).

plein air

[pleyn-air; French ple-ner]

Pertaining to a manner or style of painting developed chiefly in France in the mid-19th century, characterized by the representation of the luminous effects of natural light and atmosphere as contrasted with the artificial light and absence of the sense 
of air or atmosphere associated with paintings produced in the studio.

“Los Angeles Harbor” by Donna Schuster (1883-1953), Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum.

“By the Roadside Near 
El Toro” by Anna Hills (1882-1930), Private Collection, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum.

Once through the thick glass doors, visitors are enveloped in a calm, cool ambiance and drawn into a softly lit space showcasing expertly curated oils and watercolors. At the same time, one is struck by the powerful impact of the art. Schuster’s “Los Angeles Harbor” packs a punch with large, bold brushstrokes and 
a vibrant blue and gold palette that washes the canvas in equal parts hot morning fog and flat, gleaming water. M. Evelyn McCormick’s “Sherman House, Monterey” is a triumphant study in light in which cool purple shadows offset the sun-drenched whites, rendering a scene so approachable that one momentarily forgets that it’s a painting and not the house next door.

Independent Visions covers a range of time periods, styles and techniques. The unnatural light depicted in 
an early 1880’s landscape painting stands in stark contrast to the more realistic treatment of light in works of the early 1900’s, while abstract pieces, influenced by Europe’s early cubist, surrealist and modernist movements, highlight the period’s varied stylistic and creative influences.

The collection feels sensuous, lavish, bold and daring—artists bravely challenging the status quo. Even though some of these women signed with just a first initial and last name to hide their gender, the works frequently went unsold.

With public interest in plein air painting by both men and women waning in the economically depressed 1930’s, the genre languished and artists were left to fend for themselves, grabbing whatever work they could find and pursuing their craft purely as hobby. Only recently has a resurgence of interest inspired west coast painters to pick up the pieces and carry on the plein air tradition.

“Sierra Divide” by Edgar Payne 
(1883-1947), Oil on Canvas, Private 
Collection, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum.

“Incoming Tide” by Guy Rose (1867-1925), Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum.

Growing up in Pasadena, Joan Irvine Smith spent her summers on The Irvine Ranch® and took an early interest in preserving rare views of Southern California’s unspoiled landscape. She opened the Irvine Museum in 1992, kick-starting the venture with a donation of 600 of her own pieces. Through the years, gifts and acquisitions have doubled the size of the collection. Under Smith’s watchful eye, the museum has published 
16 art books on the plein air movement, all featuring paintings from her personal archive and from other museums and collectors.

Since its founding, Irvine Museum shows have found their way to more than 60 museums in the U.S. and abroad, each time at no cost to the host. The museum also provides the entire set of books free of charge to any educational institution that sends a written request. To further increase public access, the museum maintains a free admission policy and organizes educational and community outreach programs for school-aged children.

Executive Director Jean Stern believes that at its core, California Impressionist painting represents nature, 
so everyone can understand and appreciate it. “Nature is inside all of us,” said Stern. “Gazing into a painting is like taking a deeply relaxing mental vacation.”

Southern California, notes Stern, is home to an art tradition that went largely unrecognized until 20 years ago. 
“This was a center for one of the major American Impressionist movements,” he said, “and finally, it is being acknowledged as an important part of American art history. There is beauty here, and we need to see it and appreciate it,” he said. “Love at first sight exists with art.”

Assuming that is true, the Irvine Museum provides an intimate and relaxing hideaway where each of us can fall in love with California’s past and present.

The exhibit, Independent Visions: Women Artists of California 1880-1940, runs through January 21st. The Irvine Museum is located at 18881 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, CA. For information, visit  

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