French Light On California Hills

TODAY the art public is kept up to date by newspapers, magazines, television, and a vast number of exhibitions. As recently as 1915, however, five young painters in California were inspired by French Impressionism, an art movement that was still news to them, although it had first scandalized and then delighted Paris in the 1870s. The five young men - Selden Gile, August Gay, Maurice Logan, Bernard von Eichman, and Louis Siegriest - lived in Oakland, which was only a ferry ride away from San Francisco but very far from Paris.

After seeing French Impressionist paintings for the first time at an exhibition in 1915, they joined together to create a new way of depicting the California landscape. Their style was characterized by free brushwork and by colors chosen for expressiveness rather than realism. Above all, they were cheerful painters of a cheerful countryside.

The paintings fashionable in northern California at that time tended to be dimly lit and somber in mood. Art teachers who had formed their ideas decades earlier taught their students to emulate the night paintings of Whistler, the brown realism of Munich in the 1870s, and the genteel simplicity of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

But California was drenched in sunlight, the prevailing mood was optimistic, and people tended to live in the moment. To the five Oakland painters it seemed that French Impressionism, with its emphasis on joie de vivre and immediate sensation, offered a way to record their own experience of California.

The young men created a way of painting that was also a way of life. On weekends they went out into the countryside to paint. Emphasizing spontaneity over careful finish, they would each do two to four oil sketches a day and then go to Selden Gile's house for dinner and high-spirited criticism.

In 1917 the five were joined by William Clapp, a Canadian who had lived and studied in Europe. His greater experience and sophistication helped to validate the young painters in their own eyes; they expressed their deference by addressing him as ``Mr. Clapp.''

He became director of Oakland's municipal art gallery, and beginning in 1923 devoted several exhibitions to the work of his friends and himself. They called themselves the Society of Six, a name inspired by the Canadian artists who showed together as the Group of Seven.

Because there were almost no collectors or critics in the area, the Six did not paint with a view to sales or critical acceptance. They were their own primary audience, and during the 1920s they could paint as they pleased. Casual jobs were easy to come by.

The Depression changed all that. With millions out of work, the happy painting of Monet and Renoir and Sisley no longer seemed to provide an appropriate model for paintings of California. Even if the economic downturn had never taken place, the effects of marriage and middle age might have brought a new sobriety to the six painter's work. William Clapp continued as a very late Impressionist, but the others changed their styles to reflect the less carefree reality of the 1930s.

Seen against the background of their own time, the Six are to be thanked for liberating California painting from the constraints of turn-of-the-century genteelism. Then as now, San Francisco tended to see itself as an oasis of culture amid the savagery of the Wild West, and in that hothouse atmosphere the Six came as a breath of fresh air.

Looking back from the 1980s, we can thank the Six for renewing a landscape tradition that is still alive in Northern California. Much of the best 20th-century art has reflected the experience of living in big cities. In both painting and photography, however, northern California has remained in touch with hills and trees and grass as subject matter for modern art.

The mixture of abstraction and representation in the paintings of the Society of Six looks back to French Impressionism, but it also looks forward to a similar mixture found in the landscapes of Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, and other northern California artists who are active today.

The paintings reproduced on this page, together with about 40 others by the Oakland artists, may be seen in ``California Colorists: Paintings by the Society of Six,'' at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco through Dec. 31.

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