“Laguna Coast” features a view of Impressionist painter William Wendt’s old home nestled into a hill at 229 Arch St. in Laguna Beach. It shows a bit of ocean view, and the dirt road on the left side of the composition is the predecessor of today’s Glenneyre Street.
The landscape echoes Paul Cézanne’s depictions of Southern France, a region also frequented by California artists and writers, pointed out Malcolm Warner, Laguna Art Museum’s executive director, in describing the 1930 painting donated recently as a gift to the museum’s permanent collection. “This painting sums up all the good things people associate with California,” he said.
Museum board vice chair Thomas B. Stiles II and his wife Barbara, whose collection of work by California Impressionists sprouted from a visit when they still both worked on Wall Street, donated the Wendt after loaning the work to the museum in recent months. The painting will make its formal debut as the museum’s new crown jewel after the current exhibit closes, Warner said.
It was also featured in the 2009 Laguna museum exhibition, “In Nature’s Temple: The Life and Art of William Wendt.” “We have three smaller Wendts, but had always hoped for a more majestic view by him. The painting given to us is an answer to a prayer,” said Warner.
Two other loaned Wendt works included in the same exhibition, “Cahuenga Pass” and “Converging Fields,” were listed in a 2013 fine art auction catalog valued at up to $50,000 and $90,000, respectively. And last April, Wendt’s “The Old Coast Road,” was the big seller at a Bonham auction, bringing $1.6 million when it had been expected to fetch $600,000 and setting a new record for the artist.
None of the parties involved put a value on the museum’s newest donation, but “Laguna Coast” possesses two traits that impress Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, which specializes in California Impressionism. “The painting is an important work by Wendt, of the highest quality. A remarkable view of early Laguna Beach,” Stern said in a statement.
German-born, Wendt (1865-1946) was a self-taught painter who rose to become what many consider the most important 20th century artist. He first made a name for himself in Chicago where, among other works, he exhibited paintings made during his travels to California.
After marrying sculptor Julia Bracken in 1906, the couple lived in Los Angeles and, since Wendt had also bought land in Laguna Beach, they built their home here in 1918. Known as “the dean of American landscape painters,” he became a founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association, the root organization of today’s Laguna Art Museum.
Wendt Terrace in Laguna Beach is named in his honor.
The Stiles started their collection of early California art in 1980 when they acquired one of Edgar Payne’s many Sierra paintings. “We were living in New York at the time and bought the painting on a holiday business trip,” recalled Mr. Stiles. “We thought it would fit nicely into our apartment in New York.” He worked as an asset manager and Barbara in investment banking, he said.
Spurred on by their new acquisition, the couple set out to learn everything they could about early California art, closely studying two comprehensive books by Ruth Westphal, “Plein Air Painters of California: The North” and “Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland,” explained Ms. Stiles.
After owning the seminal Payne work for 10 years, they sold that painting and replaced it with other works by him, she recalled.
“We were accustomed to East Coast Impressionism but also found out that California Impressionists painted on the East Coast and in Europe,” she said. What struck them in particular was the Californians’ robust use of color and the unique pink-toned light that pervades Southern coastal views.
“We saw other early California artists in books and learned more by going through museums and galleries,” said Mr. Stiles. Today, he estimates their collection at 80 works, which embellish the home in Dana Point where the couple have lived since 1998. “ ‘Laguna Coast’ is a lovely example of Wendt’s work. It’s a painting that hung in our home, but really belongs to Laguna Beach,” said Ms. Stiles.
“Laguna Beach has such a wonderful art history, and we donated the painting because we really wanted to put our money where our mouth is. We also want to be catalysts for other donors and hope that the upcoming 100th anniversary of the museum will result in an outpouring of donations,” she added.
With an eye on the museum’s 2018 centennial, Warner compiled a hit list of artists he would like to include such as Albert Bierstadt, William Keith, Jules Tavernier, Arthurs Mathews, Charles Reiffel, Guy Rose and Armin Hansen among others.
Warner hopes other collectors will follow the Stiles’ lead in loaning or donating works for the celebratory exhibition.