San Diego has played a prominent role in the history of art in California. Through the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, San Diego was home to a group of artists whose names today are associated with the flourishing of a style of painting known as California Impressionism. The diversity and beauty of the San Diego landscape fired the imagination and fueled the creative output of artists both living here and passing through. Capturing on canvas the beauty of the region and the quality of its light, these painters interpreted Nature as their individual artistic vision dictated. Their work is the subject of Capturing the Light, Visions of the Land.
This exhibition continues the Historical Society’s efforts to bring the full spectrum of its collections to the attention of the public. Drawing from the Society’s Fine Art collection and augmenting with loans from area lenders, Capturing the Light celebrates the San Diego landscape as perceived and painted in the work of 17 artists.
A landscape painter’s dream, San Diego lies within a manageable distance of several distinct types of countryside. The ocean offered the possibility of studies of dramatic motion and change. The marriage of sea and land along with the varying moods of the California coast-from rugged cliff to bather’s cove-provided equally diverse scenes that became important to area artists. The pastoral scenes of the inland valleys and the gentle vistas within the man-made landscapes of city and park contrasted with the rugged backcountry mountain scenes of farm and ranch, and the desolate majesty of the inland deserts. The sheer diversity, this inexhaustible supply of inspiration, assured that landscape and depictions of nature would take a primary place among the subjects chosen by area artists.
The quality of light in Southern California, like that in the south of France, is attractive to painters. Under these skies, the clear and ever-shifting light with its attendant shadows and combined with other atmospheric conditions of mist, fog, and haze bathes and transforms the landscape. Distant mountains seem close at hand and islands only miles away disappear into the mist. Some days, the San Diego sky literally glows as particles of dust in the atmosphere reflect and diffuse sunlight.
In addition to the richness of the local landscapes, San Diego has a number of unique natural landmarks that, since the 19th century, have played an important role in the making of the city’s image. These depictions served to publicize and popularize the region to outsiders and residents alike. The blunt promontory of Point Loma so evocative of a surfacing whale, the proud stone face of El Capitan in El Cajon, the dramatic cliffs of Torrey Pines or the sweep of La Jolla Shores have become such icons. San Diego is also home to man-made landmarks such as the California Building (now the Museum of Man), Cabrillo Bridge, or Mission San Diego de Alcala that take their place within nature and entwine with the landscape, becoming as symbolic as their natural counterparts.
Some may think the landscape never changes. Nothing is farther from the truth; the landscape is always in flux. From one moment to the next under the shifting aspects of light, from one season to the next, our landscape is constantly different. Whether the change is caused by the hand of Nature or the heavier hand of man, the landscape fixed on canvas is not the landscape we see today. As such, these paintings form a record of our region, documenting a particular moment in time. In addition to their appreciation as art, they may also be construed as documents of the past. They are reminders of who we were and what we had, and, by comparison, who we are now, what we have, and what we have lost.
But landscape painting is more than just an objective record of physical facts. It also explores a subjective relationship between man and nature, and as such reveals as much about the artist and viewer as subject matter. Each artist approached the concept of landscape differently. One may have sought to portray the harmonious balance between man, nature, and the divine while others tried to evoke the vitality of nature pulsing all around them. The viewer’s reaction to the work is equally significant. We may respond with a sense of wonder at the natural beauty of the region, or perhaps a sense of regret or nostalgia at its passing, or appreciate the direct aesthetic appeal of color, brushwork, and composition. The images and the impressions they invoke are the springboard by which we can examine our personal relationship to San Diego, its land, and the change inherent with the passage of time. In Capturing the Light we invite you to approach the work on all these levels-as art, as history, and as experience.
The San Diego History Center’s collection was augmented by the gift of Maurice Braun’s California Tower, 1915, from the Thomas W. Sefton Trust. This remarkable work came at a fortuitous moment, as exhibition ideas were beginning to gel, and exemplifies those qualities of light and beauty in the San Diego landscape, and the masterful execution of an artist at the height of his creative powers that were the guiding lights of our selections. We are grateful to the Sefton Trust for this significant contribution to our collections.
Every exhibition is the product of the love and labor of many individuals. We would like to express our gratitude to the lenders to the exhibition for sharing their treasures with the public. They are as passionate about San Diego, its artists, and its landscape as the Society. The descendants and family of Fries, Braun and Mitchell brought forth family treasures and shared their memories of these San Diego masters. We are thankful for their inspiration, involvement, and contributions to the Journal of San Diego History. The generosity of our exhibition sponsors gave us the remarkable opportunity to celebrate this chapter of San Diego history and the unflagging efforts of the San Diego Historical Society staff in all departments captured the light and realized the vision. Special thanks to Carina Woolrich and Jill Berry for their sensitive and creative work on this Journal. We thank you all.