Landscape paintings can be, well, boring at times – showing vast panoramas of unknown spaces with great artistic skill, but not always providing a direct connection for the viewer. However, the landscapes featured in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s most recent exhibit provide California’s art lovers with more than good technique and tranquil scenes – they serve as a tribute to the beauty of the state and rich history of art on the west coast. “Artists at Continent’s End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907” is the equivalent of a John Steinbeck novel-a creative interpretation of California’s geography.
Even before the rise of photography, artists obsessed over the picturesque landscapes of Monterey Peninsula. To capture the view, artists flocked to this epitome of California beauty, eschewing the mountains of Yosemite National Park for the rocky cliffs and crashing waves of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Using simple compositions, a narrow, dim palate and moody atmospheric effects, the artists not only recorded a history of the region but also established their own style. Rooted in impressionism and tonalism, the style is an abstract representation of nature, rather than a literal translation – a technique that allows the artists to highlight and channel the relaxed and comfortable lifestyle of the towns by the sea they picture.
Beginning with Jules Tavernier in 1875, the movement persisted through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Tavernier set the standard for the group with his intimate views and dusty landscapes-a deviant from the popular landscape style of his predecessors Albert Blerstadt and Thomas Hill. One of his first paintings features the Carmel mission set centrally against pink, twilight clouds, which seem to dance across the sky. He saw the region as alive, so he instilled a sense of movement in even the most motionless scenes.
But obviously, the most common scene in these works could never be motionless – the waves. Pounding strongly against the lighted cliffs, the waves symbolize the power of the ocean while highlighting its humbleness in the environment. Some artists look down upon the blue water while others shuffle along the sand to catch a glimpse. Particularly well-balanced is Mary DeNeale Morgan’s “Point Lobos”. The small painting draws from the impressionist style with its use of light and somewhat abstracted view, but remains true to the landscape, emphasizing the blues, greens and yellows of the ocean and crags.
From the basic style of Tavernier, artists diverged to either hyper-realistic interpretations of the light and colors like Morgan did, or the dark, nocturnal paintings by Charles Rollo Peters. His paintings of a farmhouse, adobe cottage and moonlit landscape even border on eerie – but ultimately, the lack of illumination and use of shadowing pull the viewer into the scene.
Since the exhibit takes up the two main galleries, it may appear daunting to focus on each individual piece. So for a full grasp of the Monterey Peninsula be sure not to miss a delicate, little triptych in the center of the second gallery. Secluded in a glass case, the piece by Arthur Vachell depicts the Carmel river facing the mission. The bright pastels accentuate every element of the peninsula: water, sky, hills, trees and mission. It’s something you’d imagine Steinbeck would write about, if only Carmel was closer to the central valley.
The exhibition runs through January 21, 2007, when it will travel to the Monterey Museum of Art.