One of the first things that strikes you listening to James Irvine Swinden, W’76, speak about California’s Impressionist artists is his grasp of history. Take the backstory on Granville Redmond that he shared. Redmond was left deaf and mute after suffering from scarlet fever at age 3, but he later achieved admission in the Paris Salon in 1895 (an amazing feat for any artist at the time, let alone an American) and earned the friendship and support of filmmaker Charlie Chaplan.
Another California artist, Alson Skinner Clark, served as an aerial surveillance artist during World War I and lost his hearing in one ear leaning out of planes—too close to the engine—to sketch what he saw below. He was dedicated to plein air, or outdoor, painting, and sand can still be found embedded in his piece in the exhibition.
Female artists, particularly when they were involved with male artists, were “relegated” to watercolor, Swinden also explained. Oil painting, which could bring in bigger dollars and greater prestige, was left to the men (though women then enjoyed greater artistic freedoms because they could explore multiple styles). Female and male painters came to California in the first place, in many cases, because the railroads were hiring artists to essentially create murals and advertisements to attract travelers to the West Coast.
Swinden can also clearly articulate his appreciation for art. In talking about Redmond’s “Nocturne” painting, for instance, Swinden conveyed the impact of its blend of Impressionism and Tonalism—and how the quiet scene of a pristine Newport Beach illuminated in blue moonlight depicts Redmond’s “inner soul.”
Yes, if you had been a Penn student lucky enough to attend Swinden’s personal tour of the Arthur Ross Gallery on a late September Friday, you would have been treated to many such gems of insight. The gallery inside the Fisher Fine Arts Library Building is temporary home to California Impressionism, a traveling exhibition of 35 paintings from The Irvine Museum, for which Swinden serves as president.
The paintings were completed from the 1890s and the 1920s and portray the rugged and primordial beauty of California. Among the other artists featured are Franz Bischoff, Colin Campbell Cooper, Anna Hills and Guy Rose.
Though Swinden might not be available to give every guest a personal tour, visitors can explore California Impressionism on their own at the Arthur Ross Gallery until Oct. 28.