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Weekend Escape: Laguna Beach

Painting the Town

Off to recapture views that entranced California's own Impressionists

August 23, 1998|JEAN PENN | Penn is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Monica

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — In the late 1960s, my friend Susan Leeper and I had our first jobs working for competing newspapers, and we shared several rentals here. In our determination to be hip, we would have sneered at the artists who painted here at the turn of the century--if we'd heard of them.

In subsequent years, however, we came to appreciate their work, which captured the essence of the early 20th century California landscape as faithfully as the French masters had captured theirs in the 19th century. Now, on a lovely summer weekend, Susan and I were in Laguna to wallow in art and memories, not necessarily in that order.

Many of the leading California plein-air artists (those who painted subjects directly from nature, outdoors), including William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose and Anna Hills, worked in Laguna. Back in 1910, there were about 40 living here, in what was a little bohemia by the sea. Behind the town, population 300, and the strip of South Coast oceanfront, open land stretched for miles, most of it owned by the Irvine ranching family.

Today, heiress Joan Irvine Smith collects these paintings as memoirs of what has been lost forever, and she features some of them alongside contemporary artists in her Laguna Beach gallery. The core of her 3,000-piece collection is in the Irvine Museum, which she founded and which, strangely, is located on the 12th floor of a glass office tower in Irvine.

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For a long time, the California Impressionists were dismissed as out of touch with the real art world, and their contemplative landscapes were seen as corny imitations of the French. In the late 1970s, a painting by one of these artists could be had for $1,000. Later in our Laguna weekend, we would discover that the prices on these buoyant and poetic postcards from the past reflect a new respect: For $95,000, we could have taken home Granville Redmond's "Morning Poppies."

First, Susan and I visited the Irvine Museum for an overview. We browsed through room after room filled with paintings of the honeyed hills and canyons and deserted coastline. They were in sharp contrast to the views from the museum of clogged freeways and housing tracts.

We admired Clarence Hinkle's 1920 painting of Victoria Beach, Wendt's Crystal Cove (1912) and Hills' Van Gogh-like rendering of a beach near Moss Point (1920).

"Why don't we take a look at some of these spots and see what's left," I suggested.

"We can try to photograph them from the same vantage points," Susan proposed.

As we drove into Laguna Beach, we were delighted to see that time had stood still in the downtown neighborhood of charming cottages and front yards ablaze with flowers.

Our destination, the Carriage House B&B on Catalina Street, was built in the New Orleans style early in the century. Our upstairs suite--an apartment, really, with two bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and bath--overlooked the fountain-splashed patio where guests may take breakfast. It was, we decided, "so Laguna."

Our weekend waltz down memory lane continued at the beach where we once blissfully burned our bodies without a thought of wrinkles. At Thalia Street, we stood at the top of the steep stairs leading down to the sand, gulped deep breaths of sea air and sighed over those lost summers. "Why did we ever leave?" I wailed.

"There weren't many people our age here then. And there weren't many career opportunities," Susan said.

And not much in the way of good restaurants, either, I remembered later, as we headed to Five Feet, a downtown eatery that has found success with what the menu calls "Contemporary Chinese Cuisine." In our day, Laguna was strictly surf 'n' turf. We enjoyed the seared tuna medallions and tempura-cooked soft-shell crab, but Susan's choice of appetizer was too strange: goat cheese wontons with raspberry coulis.

There is a little curve of coastline north of Laguna toward Corona del Mar that used to make my heart sing every time I drove it. I would have been ecstatic if I'd seen the private little beach colony hidden from view there. I first heard of Crystal Cove from the late Karl Hubenthal, the former editorial cartoonist for the Hearst newspapers and father of a friend of ours. It was always one of the most popular painting spots, Karl told me; he had often scrambled down the rocks to paint there himself.

Early the next morning, we were simply agog when we found our way into the enclave of funky shacks. To do so, we ignored the "Private" and "No Trespassing" signs and parked above the beach. We began snapping pictures frantically, afraid someone would tell us to leave. Soon we found--or so we imagined--the spot from which William Wendt, one of the first Laguna artists, must have painted Crystal Cove in 1912.

We moved on to the Laguna Art Museum, disappointed to find only a few California Impressionists. Happily, there was no shortage of works by plein-air painters at galleries that Karl had recommended, all within a block and across from the landmark Surf 'n' Sand hotel.

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