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Inspiring California Impressions: “Upon a Painted Ocean” at the Irvine Museum

Whether you were born in Southern California or flocked here, you know the splendor and power of the Pacific Ocean and the beauty of the coast here. For centuries, the California coastline has inspired artists to try and represent it in realistic, impressionistic or expressionistic styles, among others. The Irvine Museum Collection has dedicated much of its existence to collecting and preserving works that celebrate our local landscape, including the ocean’s edge and surrounding natural California beauty.

Pt. Lobos, 1918 Guy Rose. Courtesy of Private Collection

On November 10, 2018, the Irvine Museum Collection will open a new exhibition specifically inspired by the California coastline and the Pacific Ocean through impressive historic and contemporary artworks. The exhibition title references Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famed poem about the sea, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from 1798, but the exhibition explores the painted ocean through the lens of the amazing painters who captured something ineffable about the ocean, something remarkable and poetic that could not be explained through words but only translated through line, form and color.

The exhibition, “Upon a Painted Ocean: An Ode to the California Coast,” features historical works by Rex Brandt, Frank Cuprien, Granville Redmond, Edgar Payne, Ruth Peabody, Arthur Rider, William Ritschel, Donna Schuster, George Gardner Symons, Elmer Wachtel and William Wendt. This exhibition also contains works by contemporary artists such as John Cosby, Rick Delanty, Dennis Doheny, Andy Evansen, Gregory Hull, Kim Lordier, Jesse Powell, Gayle Garner Roski, Jeff Sewell and Bryan Mark Taylor.

“…Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…”

Southern California Coast, George G. Symons. Courtesy of the Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine

“Upon a Painted Ocean” includes iconic works of art that transport viewers back to a time when technology and innovation came in the form of boats and trains, and the shoreline was a solemn, humbling place full of wonder and serenity. Works by Guy Rose and William Ritschel, among others, venture into the human presence and experience at these breathtaking sites and moments in our local California history. The effects of light are captured in impressionistic style and seem to glimmer and shine with a kind of visual magic that feels accurate, making viewers feel as though this is timeless truth captured behind the brush strokes of paint and a bit of cloth.

Back in the late 19th century, the California landscape and coast became a hugely popular destination for impressionist painters looking for a new home and new inspiration. Because of California’s quick-changing natural light, it made sense for the swift and avant-garde impressionist painters to flock here. By the 20th century, just as impressionism was gaining traction in the larger United States, the heyday of California plein-air painting was in full-swing and groupings of artists had started to settle in Carmel and Laguna Beach. The landscape, the seasons, the color and the weather were nothing like the East Coast or like Europe. This drastic new climate allowed artists to explore the landscape with fresh eyes and hands, but gave little fodder to critics who didn’t know what to do with these representations.

Laguna Beach, 1911 Frederick DuMond. Courtesy of the Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine

Mainly dismissed among on the East Coast and in Europe, the California Impressionist movement gained traction among collectors in the mid-1970s, then attracted curatorial and art historical attention. Today, these artworks are treasured as timeless powerful landscapes with emotive qualities and magical light.

The Irvine Museum Collection prides itself on its California Impressionist holdings, many of which deal with the majestic beauty of the California coastline. California Impressionist legend, Guy Orlando Rose is represented in “Upon a Painted Ocean,” demonstrating the power of the painted image and our coastal home. Even though this work of art was painted circa 1918, through his lifelong addiction to painting (and ultimate cause of his death by lead-poisoning) his skills had been honed so beautifully, that we are able to see, in 2018, the reality of what he saw 100 years ago. In his piece, “Point Lobos,” the light is the same, the rocks are the same, the plant life is the same plant life. This special place, the California coastline, remains seemingly untouched as we look at his painting and as we visit this place that still exists.

Cannery Row, Newport Beach, c. 1928 George Brandriff. Courtesy of the Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine

George Brandriff’s painting, “Cannery Row,” perfectly captures the hustle and bustle as well as the sublime enchantment of the Newport port in 1928. Its sketch-like urgency, its thick visible brushstrokes and its colorful water-based reflections are hypnotic. Its light and shadow play are dynamic and full of energy. Each stroke of color seems haphazard when viewing from up-close, but as we step away and adjust our eyesight, the realism comes through – peer into this painting long enough and we can smell the salt water, feel the warm sun and the cool ocean breeze as we watch the boats load and unload at the docks.

It is not difficult to love the Pacific Ocean or the gorgeous sprawling California edge that touches it. To find works of art from over 100 years ago that speak similar volumes about the coastline that we know and love today with emphatic and enamored light and color, with whimsical strokes and gestural breezes – that is the difficult part. This impressive collection of work is breathtaking on so many levels, but the honest and passionate style that can be seen in this collection of California coastline paintings is inspiring above all else. These works emphasize the beauty that we may take for granted living here, and remind us of just how powerful, old and beautiful this place is.

“Upon a Painted Ocean: An Ode to the California Coast” is on view November 10, 2018 – March 30, 2019. UCI Irvine Museum Collection, 18881 Von Karman Avenue, Ste. 100 Irvine, 92612. irvinemuseumcollection.uci.edu.