Biller on Art: Springtime Desert Expressionism
By Steven Biller, Palm Springs, CA

Source: LAQUINTA ARTS FOUNDATION  October 5, 2015

Southern Pacific routes on the Pacific Coast, 1885

Southern Pacific routes on the Pacific Coast, 1885

Owens River Valley, 1929 by William Wendt

Owens River Valley, 1929 by William Wendt

Native Americans can rightfully claim that the earliest artists in and around the Coachella Valley came from within their tribes. Their petroglyphs and objects remain in the landscape and in institutions like the Palm Springs Art Museum and Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

But the first wave of fine artists, mostly painters who worked in the Impressionist style, came to the desert when the Southern Pacific Railroad Company laid its steel rails through the Coachella Valley in 1876. The company invited artists to ride to the West in exchange for the landscape paintings they created along the way. The Southern Pacific used their pictures to tempt East Coast travelers to explore life on the other side of the Mississippi River.

Ultimately, these artists introduced California to the light-infused Impressionist style that started in France and Italy in the 1860s and moved westward around the globe around the turn of the century. William Wendt, “the dean of Southern California landscape painters,” and George Gardner Symons painted the earliest California Impressionist works near Los Angeles in the 1890s.

Paintings by Agnes Pelton, Agnes Pelton Society

Shortly thereafter, painters like Paul Grimm, John Frost, Agnes Pelton, Gordon Coutts, and others came to the Coachella Valley to take advantage of the spectacular landscape and seasonal wildflowers. They mostly painted en plein air, or outdoors, as many of them did in places like Giverny. And, unlike their East Coast counterparts who often painted gray and snowy scenes they saw windows, the California Impressionists interpreted the style as bright, colorful, and upbeat.

 Painting by Gordon Coutts

Geography plays a vital role in Impressionist painting, scholar William H. Gerdts told me when I interviewed him for a story about the California Impressionists for Palm Springs Life magazine. A professor of art history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and author of numerous books on American and California Impressionism, Gerdts said, “The early painters working in Giverny and Grez had neither the coast nor the mountains to explore and pictorially exploit as did the Californians. The earlier painters in the Northeast usually chose intimate landscapes — often their own home environment — rather than the expansive landscapes of the West Coast.”

 A Fishing Village – St Ives by George Gardner Symons

In 1930, the Los Angeles Times reported about a new gallery on El Paseo and a seasonal art school, and suggested that Palm Springs would evolve as an artist colony. By some measures, the newspaper was on the mark. However, the style fell out of favor with the rise of Modern art and the proliferation abstract and conceptual art from the late-1930s to mid-1960s.

Mercury, 2012 by Deborah Martin

Mercury, 2012 by Deborah Martin

Over the past 30 years, however, interest in works by Wendt, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose, Maurice Braun, and others has increased in lockstep with American art in general. And many notable paintings depict the Palm Springs and the surrounding desert towns.

Today, the Impressionist tradition continues with desert landscape painters such as Mary-Austin Klein, William Scott Jennings, Deborah Martin, Niles Nordquist, Andrew Dickson, and others.


Many of these artists exhibit in the Coachella Valley, including annually at the La Quinta Arts Festival.

Diane McClary

Steven Biller is editor of Palm Springs Life ART+CULTURE and a contributing writer for art ltd.