A century ago, the California Art Club was launched by a handful of European émigrés and plucky Americans who decided to make creativity their calling. In those days, being an artist was not so fashionable a profession, but the founders included many now considered the greats of early California art such as Franz Bischoff, Hanson Puthuff and William Wendt.
In this post-Modern era, the club's emphasis on representational style and academic subject matter (landscapes, still lifes, portraits) may be thought stodgy, but realism seems to be having something of a resurgence. The club — celebrating the centenary of its Gold Medal Juried Exhibition — is filling the galleries of the Pasadena Museum of California Art through April 24 with 200 selected works from 150 of its members (all the works are for sale.).
That number was twice the total membership when artist Peter Adams and his wife, Elaine, a former stockbroker, took over in 2003. Membership is now at 2,200, with seven branches and two more to come, says executive director Elaine.
"We felt there wasn't a community of artists in the traditional fine arts," she says in the library of the club, headquartered in an old house off Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena. "We found that a lot of knowledge was disappearing. We wanted to educate people and get them excited about traditional fine art." Now they have a regular schedule of talks, lectures and workshops — many open to the public — and put together some 20 exhibitions a year.
What drives the club today? Adams says it's the camaraderie of meetings and of "paint outs," in which members meet outdoors to work side by side as well as opportunities to exhibit together. They're also united by a love for the state's natural environment.
"The California landscape is one of the most beautiful in the world," says Jean Stern, one of the exhibition judges and executive director of the Irvine Museum. He also co-wrote the new Rizzoli book "California Light: A Century of Landscapes," about paintings by club members. "And the light seems to be very strong and very pure."
The exhibition reflects how strong the plein-air tradition remains — there are vistas of windswept cypresses at Pebble Beach, a sunset over Los Feliz and atmospheric beaches and harbors.