Christmas arrived early at the Laguna Art Museum, which received a gift of a 1933 landscape painting by one of Laguna Beach’s best-known early Impressionists, William Wendt, who also helped establish the Laguna Beach Art Association that became the museum.
Robert and Shirley Foster of Montebello, Calif., had inherited the painting among other mementos from the estate of Janet W. Wood, a family friend. Even though the Fosters are not art collectors and have no connection to Laguna Beach or the museum, their research revealed the important role Wendt played in its history, explained Janet Blake, the museum’s curator of collections and an expert on early California art. “This was one of those serendipitous events when they e-mailed me out of the blue,” she said.
The 16×20 painting is untitled and in good condition, said the museum’s executive director Malcolm Warner, who plans to add it to the current exhibition of permanent collection highlights that he curated once it has been cleaned.
“In 1933 William Wendt painted in the vicinity of El Toro or Trabuco Canyon since he had become irritated by Laguna Beach’s increasing development and he found it too crowded,” said Blake. “When they started paving major roads, he escaped to camp and paint in Malibu and in the foothills of the Cleveland National Forest.”
Given that he left no notations or labels on the painting’s stretcher bars, its exact location is a mystery, added Blake.
This latest untitled Wendt joins “Landscape,” painted in 1912, “Spring in the Canyon,” 1926, and “Owens River Valley” 1929 in the museum collection.
The quartet offers insight into the evolution of Wendt’s style which early on cleaved close to established California Impressionist plein air style, but that became more loosely brushed but still highly controlled, as he matured. Two Wendt paintings, larger but somewhat similar in composition, “A Vista Towards Mt. Baldy” (34×39) and “The Brook” (29×39), reportedly sold this year at Bonham & Butterfield auction for $56,250 and for $47,500, respectively.
A self-taught painter who emigrated from Germany in 1880, Wendt first lived in Los Angeles but moved, with his wife, sculptor Julia Bracken, to Laguna Beach. He helped found the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918.
In 2008, the museum staged “In Nature’s Temple: The Life and Art of William Wendt,” a comprehensive retrospective curated by Will South. While Wendt preferred to paint landscapes devoid of human presence, he occasionally snuck in evidence of it in form of a small cottage or here, a road leading to the distant hills. The palette is mostly green, unrelentingly green, as Warner put it, but as Blake explained, Wendt was an early environmentalist who preferred to depict nature as pristine with the sky, scattered boulders or water providing color variances.
During a recent lecture covering highlights of the permanent collection, Warner revealed that the museum has a wish list that includes works by Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Anna Hills, William Griffith and Guy Rose.
Blake also wishes for Millard Sheets paintings, both oil and watercolor and both land- and cityscapes by Emil Kosa.