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Women in Plein View

Exhibit of California Female Painters From Early 1900s Reveals Impressionistic Landscapes That Shine and Sulk

February 17, 2001|KINNEY LITTLEFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Psychologically, women may very well be from Venus and men from Mars. But our mind-sets from opposing planets merged briefly in Southern California in the early 20th century--when artists of both sexes painted the local landscape with equal dazzle, strength and grace.

Like male artists throughout history, the men of Southern California's plein-air and impressionist movements of the 1900s-30s tended to gain greater fame. Now an eye-easy exhibit called "A Woman's View: Paintings by Women Artists" at the Irvine Museum aims to give the distaff side its due.

"I defy anybody to see a difference," museum Executive Director Jean Stern said, comparing gender sensibilities. "The remarkable thing about their work is that nothing distinguishes" the men's work from the women's.

On view through May 19, the show features more than 60 oil and watercolor paintings by Anna A. Hills (1882-1930), Elsie Palmer Payne (1884-1971), Donna Schuster (1883-1953), Marion Wachtel (1876-1954) and more.

Most are landscapes. Many shimmering vistas of the Southland--and moodier Northern California climes--show the influence of French Impressionism.

Several scenes of Orange County are included. Ponder the wind-tossed trees of Hills' 1920 painting, "The Spell of the Sea (Laguna Beach, Near Moss Point)." They bring Guy Rose's impressionistic "Indian Tobacco Trees, La Jolla"'--not on view but in the museum's collection--to mind.

Indeed, as this period in California art history goes, a twisted tree is a twisted tree, regardless of which gender rendered it.

This visual rut is why art critic Merle Armitage disparagingly dubbed local landscape painters "The Eucalyptus School" in an article published in 1928.

At the same time, female artists frequently took a back seat to their male colleagues in one fundamental respect--the paint itself.

When both spouses painted, as did Edgar and Elsie Payne and Marion and Elmer Wachtel, the wife often suffered from a serious pigment gap. Edgar painted in oils while Elsie used more humble watercolors.

"They had an agreement that seemed to be common at the time," Stern said. "The wife would get the lesser, more difficult-to-exhibit-and-sell, water-based media, while the husband painted in oils, which were generally requested for exhibition venues."

In 1935, the Paynes separated but did not divorce after an argument not about paint but their daughter's wedding. As for the Wachtels: Marion, a former student of her husband, worked in watercolors until he died in 1929. Then she turned to oils.

Still, when it came to capturing the Golden State in paint, men did not necessarily lead the pack. Famed painter George K. Brandriff took art lessons from Hills in Laguna Beach, starting in 1923.

"California was a new art locus then," Stern said. "I think the sense of starting new in a new environment fostered equality among men and women artists.

"And actually, California was relatively unique in having a large number of women artists. The same cannot be said of New York or Taos, N.M., at the time--or the Hoosier Salon, a large group of plein-air painters in Indiana that was much like the Laguna Beach Art Assn."

If Hills, who helped found the Art Assn. in 1917, was one of the most respected painters of her time, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971) was one of the most distinctive. Botke was an Art Deco painter who specialized in intricate studies of birds and flowers embellished with lush gold leaf. About a dozen of her highly stylized works hang in "A Woman's View."

And Schuster was one of the boldest. As Impressionism waned, she became prominent in the growing progressive movement of the teens and '20s. Schuster's canvas, "On the Beach," is an up-close-and-personal portrait of a young woman and her parasol, fashioned from sharp, eye-shocking strokes of hot orange and blue paint.

"Many of the progressive painters were women," Stern said. "They had modernist tendencies and used color and form for emotional impact. They added more meaning to the painting than the impressionists would want.

"Instead of just painting what they saw, they painted what they felt. They used the more conceptual way of working that eventually led toward abstract art."

SHOW TIME

"A Woman's View: Paintings by Women Artists," Irvine Museum, 18881 Von Karman Ave. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Through May 19. (949) 476-2565.

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