The terms California Impressionism and California Plein-Air Painting describe the large movement of 20th century California artists who worked out of doors (en plein air), directly from nature in California, United States. Their work became popular in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California in the first three decades after the turn of the 20th century. Considered to be a regional variation on American Impressionism, the painters of the California Plein-Air School are also described as California Impressionists; the terms are used interchangeably.
The California Impressionist artists depicted the California landscape — the foothills, mountains, seashores, and deserts of the interior and coastal regions. California Impressionism reached its blossoming in terms of quality and production in the early to mid-1920s. The California Plein-Air painters generally painted in a bright, chromatic palette with “loose” painterly brush work that showed some influence from French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. These artists gathered in art colonies in places like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Laguna Beach as well as in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Organizations like the California Art Club, The Carmel Art Association, The Laguna Beach Art Association, Crocker Art Museum played a key role in popularizing the work of the Plein-Air Painters of California.
Many of the Early California Impressionist artists studied in Europe, at the Academies in Paris, and were disciples of the French Impressionists. One of the top artists in the school, Guy Rose, in fact, painted with Monet at Giverny. While abroad they toured Europe, producing a body of work there. Returning to California when it was just being settled their technical training combined with their great passion for the beauty of the pristine, untouched landscape created a distinct, enduring period in art history of great depth and high quality. It took as its foundation the French Impressionism, the method of painting outdoors in the open air, “en plein air”, painting quickly to capture and convey the impression of the light and atmosphere, and made it a more American interpretation, with a stronger sense color and brushwork. Within the school, there is a Northern and Southern group of artists, the dividing line being Santa Barbara, whose work reflects the differences in light between the two regions. The North, with its cooler climate and seasons of coastal fog, has a cooler color palette. The South by contrast with its hot climate and bright sunlight, produced works with warmer, often muted tones. Seeing paintings from both schools provides us with a marvelous look back in time to how California appeared a century ago, and thus has established a devoted collector base following worldwide.
Most of the Plein Air painters came from the East, the Midwest and Europe, and only a few of the early artists such as Guy Rose (1867–1925) were actually born and raised in California. Some of the most prominent names associated with the Plein-Air school are the aforementioned Rose, William Wendt (1865–1946), Granville Redmond (1871–1935), Arthur Cane (1865-1949), Edgar Payne, Armin Hansen (1886–1957), Jean Mannheim (1861–1945), John Marshall Gamble (1863–1957), Franz Bischoff (1864–1929), William Ritschel (1864–1949), Alson S. Clark (1876–1949), Hanson Puthuff (1875–1972), Marion Wachtel (1875–1954), and Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873–1949). Most of these artists were already trained in art when they moved to California, arriving between 1900 and the early 1920s.