Plein Air in plain sight: Landscape painters highlight Northern California’s beauty

Plein Air in plain sight: Landscape painters
highlight Northern California’s beauty

by Roberta Werdinger

It’s no surprise that Northern California painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century would choose to adopt the plein air (French for “in the open air”) style and work outdoors to capture the stupendous, and still largely unspoiled, natural landscape that surrounded them. It’s also no surprise that the results would capture the lyrical majesty and fertile grace of the valleys, mountains and chasms the artists frequented and lived in. Yet what’s most fascinating is how two Northern California artists chose to respond to the times they lived in differently, one incorporating the latest trends, the other quietly continuing in a more muted, traditional style.

Viewers will have a chance to consider both such responses when a dual exhibit, “Meadows and Mountains: The Art of William F. Jackson,” curated by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and “The Landscape Sketches of Grace Carpenter Hudson,” curated by the Hudson Museum’s own Marvin Schenck, opens at the Grace Hudson Museum on Saturday, July 2. Opening day will include a free lecture and slide show at 2 pm by Harrison, owner of the well-regarded North Point Gallery in San Francisco. A reception will follow; Harrison will be available to sign catalogues.

William Jackson (1859-1936) may be the most talented landscape painter you never heard of. After settling in Sacramento at a young age, he launched his artistic career as a portrait painter and photographer, but was soon roaming the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains with his mentor, painter William Keith, creating portraits of rock faces and waterfalls as articulately rendered as his earlier human subjects. At this time the two were painting in the Tonalist style, an American adaptation of the French Barbizon School that incorporated influences from the Hudson River School as well. Tonalism, according to curator Schenck, “incorporates plein air painting, a muted palette based on plant, earth, and grayed atmospheric colors, and an emphasis on landscape images that are either devoid of human habitation or feature figures in dramatic isolation.”

Shortly after the turn of the century, Jackson’s palette brightened considerably to reflect the rising influence of the French Impressionist School. Northern California’s infinite shades of forest greens, summer golds, bright orange poppies, and springtime pinks and purples all sprang to life in updated, color-drenched landscapes. Yet Jackson’s paintings retain a delineation of detail not often seen in the Impressionists’ more free-form, “broken brushstroke” technique. The result is that many works hover confidently between Impressionism and Realism.

In 1896, Jackson was asked to curate and guide the formation of the Crocker Museum in Sacramento. He agreed to do so for a year and ended up holding the position until his dying day, fifty years later. In that time, he built the museum into a world-class institution for California art and mentored many young artists, perhaps at the expense of promoting his own work.

The life and work of Ukiah Valley’s own Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) forms an instructive contrast. Known more for her portraits of the Pomo people that reflect a faithful documentation of their lifestyle, Hudson also painted watercolor and oil landscapes in the plein air style her entire life, starting from the age of fifteen. She left many of these landscapes unsigned and undated, perhaps reflecting her greater interest in her portraits or belief in their commercial viability. Whatever the case, the landscapes contain a charm and an underlying serenity that bear the distinct stamp of her personality. Schenck believes that “each original landscape sketch was a renewing, meditative interaction with nature for Grace. She chose not the grand vistas, but quiet, peaceful compositions: a rustic well, ferns by a pool, a path in the woods, or a solitary tree trunk.” Many of these landscapes were clearly the basis for backdrops she created for her better-known portraits: their loose brushstrokes and subdued colors amplify the more sharply detailed subject in the painting’s center.

Unlike her contemporary and fellow Northern Californian William Jackson, Grace Hudson never adopted the highly charged palette of the Impressionists but continued painting in the Tonalist style. Perhaps the more restrained style and sober colors best reflected a realistic vision of her Northern California surroundings. Or perhaps, as Harrison writes, referring to the Barbizon school that Grace also studied under, “these simplifying measures contributed to the emotional power that a landscape could convey.” Anyone who has paused to take a breath in the middle of a busy day can appreciate “Path Thru Battima,” where slim tree trunks rising out of a brown-red foreground rise to meet a canopy of light green leaves, while delicate sprouts of new growth next to the mother trees appear to be dancing in a light wind.

“Meadows and Mountains: The Art of William F. Jackson” and “The Landscape Sketches of Grace Carpenter Hudson” will be on display until Sept. 25, 2011. The exhibit will also feature a free tour for docents and museum members at noon on Tuesday, July 5, led by Museum Curator Marvin Schenck. A plein air painting class and another public tour will also be offered. The Grace Hudson Museum is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah and is a part of the City of Ukiah’s Community Services Department. General admission to the Museum is $4, $10 per family, $3 for students and seniors, and free to members or on the first Friday of the month. For more information please go to or call 467-2836.