Victor Matson: Plein-Air Painter of South Pasadena

2011/06/01 § Leave a comment

Victor Matson's "A Home in the Foothills" 18" x 24"

Victor Matson

Plein-Air Painter of South Pasadena

President of the California Art Club

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Victor Stanley Matson (1895-1972) was one of the most prominent of the second generation of California plein-air landscape painters. Matson began exhibiting his work in the early 1930’s and was a tireless advocate for the plein-air tradition, serving as an officer in virtually every Southern California arts organization, most prominently as President of the venerable California Art Club. Recognized for his scenes of the Mojave desert and the local foothills, the South Pasadena painter was also an early fine Camera Pictorialist photographer and a printmaker.

Victor Matson was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1895. Not much is known of his early life. Apparently, he attended a military school during his high school years and he may have been trained as a flyer during the First World War as photos of him in flying gear from that time period were part of his estate. He graduated from the University of Utah about 1917 with a degree in engineering. Matson showed promise in the arts and he received training in drawing, perspective, drafting and rendering during the course of his studies.

Matson moved to southern Califonria in 1922, initially settling in Long Beach . In 1924, he and his wife, Virginia, purchased a house in South Pasadena, bordering Alhambra Park and the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. In those days, Alhambra had a very active fine arts community, with Jack Wilkenson Smith (1873-1949), Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) and Clyde Forsyth (1885-1962) presiding over a small artists’ colony. The Alhambra painters all lived on Champion Place, a small, eucalyptus-lined street on the edge of a wash, bordering the San Gabriel Country Club where Matson visited frequently.

Nestled in cozy South Pasadena, Matson began work as an engineer for the City of Los Angeles and began to study art with a number of California painters. He studied with W.T. McDermitt (1884-1961)at the Businessman’s Art Institute near downtown Los Angeles, before he headed home to South Pasadena in the evenings. Matson studied privately with Trude Hascomb and Jack Wilkenson Smith. He learned printmaking from Franz Geritz (1895-1945), who taught at the University of Califrnia Extension in Los Angeles.  It was Jack Wilkinson Smith, however, who had the greatest influence on Matson’s developing plein-air work. Matson accompanied Smith and his fellow painters on many sketching trips to the San Gabriel Mountains and the Mojave Desert, north of Palm Springs , a favorite location for the Alhambra painters. Sam Hyde Harris was also a major influence on Matson and a life-long friend.

Matson became part of the declining Arroyo Seco Arts and Crafts culture based in Pasadena and Highland Park. He exhibited frequently with all of the major southern California arts organizations from the 1930’s through the 1960s. Matson won dozens of awards in local and regional exhibitions, including the Purchase Prize at the California Statewide Exhibit in both 1943 and 1946.  He had solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles Arts Center, the Alhambra City Hall, the Glendale Art Association and the Beverly Hills Women’s Club. In 1965, a special exhibition was held for Matson at the Los Angeles City Hall.  As the first generation of the California plein-air painters died and the art world changed, the museums no longer welcomed exhibitions of plein-air impressionism, which they viewed as retrograde and conservative. Thus, the painters had to rely on smaller, less prestigious venues in order to exhibit their work and attract collectors. Matson participated in many group exhibitions at the Greek Theatre, the Duncan Veil Galleries, the Friday Morning Club, Bullocks Department Store, the Pasadena City Library, the Eden Club, the Hollywood Women’s Club, the Selan Gallery, as well as local banks.

Matson and his wife, Virginia, were incredibly active in organizing exhibitions and running the various arts organizations that he belonged to.  He served on the advisory Board for the California State Fair and was President of the California Art Club, the San Gabriel Art Association and the Valley Artists’ Guild. Matson was actively painting and exhibiting until shortly before his death in 1972.

Victor Matson worked primarily out-of-doors. He began all of his work on location, even quite large paintings. Because he worked out-of-doors, he limited his largest works to about 26×32 inches. He didn’t like to paint small canvases, so works are rarely smaller than 18×24 inches. After beginning a painting on location, he would often complete the work in his upstairs studio. He augmented his location work in oil with pencil sketches and reference photographs.

Matson painted more scenes of the Mojave than any other subject, working around Palm Springs and Indio and in the Coachella Valley. He painted marines infrequently on trips to the Southern California Coast or when he traveled north to Monterey . On vacations to the eastern United States, Matson painted scenes of the fall colors and snow scenes. His palette was conservative and subdued in color and his best works exhibit the airy, atmospheric quality that is the hallmark of the plein-air style. Matson’s style of painting was honest and straightforward, never particularly mannered or stylized, characteristics which reveal the strong influence of Jack Wilkenson Smith.

Matson’s photographs have an altogether different quality, for they are primarily dreamy, diffused works that reflect the influence of the tonalist movement on the early fine arts photographers.  His books of pencil sketches show Matson’s great facility for drawing and his accurate draughtsmanship. Matson’s engineering training seems to have kindled a great affection for architectural detail, as the many of his plein-air pencil sketches depict buildings, often nestled in mountain settings.

Victor Matson played an important role in the preservation and the continuation of the plein-air tradition. His works were painterly but accurate transcriptions of what he saw on location, whether it was a house in the San Gabriel foothills, a stand of Monterey Pines on the Carmel coast or a portrait of a single smoke tree in the arid California desert.  Copyright 1992-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.

Victor Matson in his South Pasadena Studio

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