William Wendt: The Sculpted Landscape
2011/05/18 § 1 Comment
The Founding Father of California Impressionism
Founder and President of the California Art Club
by Jeffrey Morseburg
In the history of California Impressionism, William Wendt (1865-1946) was the one indispensable figure. Because of the quality of his bold, masculine landscapes and his many abilities as a leader, the art scene in southern California coalesced around the figure of the quiet, sober German immigrant. William Wendt’s mature style reduced the elements that he saw in nature to broad forms. His short, vigorous brushstrokes gave a heroic solidity to the hills and rocky outcroppings that he favored in his work.
Wendt’s works were rarely panoramic, for he liked to get close to paint. When he painted a hill near Laguna Beach or Morro Bay, the size of it in relation to the size of the composition gave the image an iconic quality. It was this ‘big picture’ approach of Wendt’s that made his the artist that eastern or western viewers thought of when the considered the California landscape.
Wendt was a deeply religious man and his love of nature was reflected in each and every painting, and a number of his works were given religious titles. With little deviation, Wendt took his compositions directly from what he saw on location. He was not one who felt he could ‘improve’ on what God created. The ‘style’ that we know him for today was not a labored attempt at finding a mannered way to paint but the natural outgrowth of his unique artistic voice.
William Wendt was born in Bentzen, Prussia, in 1865- soon to be a part of the re-unified Germany. He attended rural schools and worked unhappily as a cabinet-maker’s apprentice before immigrating to America at the age of fifteen. Wendt joined an uncle in Chicago, where he attended school and began working as a commercial artist.
With only a few evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago for formal training, Wendt began painting out-of-doors in his spare time. His earliest works was in the tonalist style, then favored by leading American painters. In 1893, he won the Yerkes prize in the Annual Society of Chicago Artists Exhibition, an event that helped launch his professional career.
Wendt made extended painting trips to California with fellow painter, George Gardner Symons (1862 – 1930) in 1894 and 1896. At the request of the Rindge family, he painted a series of canvases on Rancho Malibu in 1897. In 1899, he held an impressive show of his works of California in conjunction with its 12th Annual Exhibition.
It was clear that Wendt had fallen in love with the California landscape, but it was not until 1906 that he put down his roots in southern California, purchasing Elmer and Marion Wachtel’s home in the Highland Park district. He brought his new bride, the sculptor, Julia Bracken Wendt (1871 – 1992), home with him to California. Wendt forged a successful career in the Golden State and was one of the few California artists to build a following in the Midwest and the east.
Wendt was instrumental in the founding of the California Art Club, the organization most responsible for the dissemination of the Impressionist aesthetic in southern California. He served as president for six terms, a record in the early years of the organization. Wendt opened his Laguna Beach studio I 1912 and helped form the Laguna Beach Art Association eight years later. It was Wendt’s skill and reputation that helped popularize plein-air Impressionism in California eighty years ago, and he remains its most original voice today. Copyright, 2001-2011,Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.