California's physical beauty takes center stage in "Nature's Gifts" exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum

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California's physical beauty takes center stage in "Nature's Gifts" exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum
Guy Rose, Monterey Cypress, circa 1918. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 24 in. Crocker Art Museum, Wendy Willrich Collection, 2017.52.2.

SACRAMENTO, CA.- The Crocker Art Museum announced an ongoing exhibition of 41 landscape and still-life paintings created by California artists from the 1870s to the 1940s. The exhibition, titled Nature's Gifts: Early California Paintings from the Wendy Willrich Collection , includes detailed depictions of California’s majestic Sierra Nevada scenery, quieter Barbizon-inspired and Tonalist landscapes in both watercolor and oil, and plein-air Impressionist and Post-Impressionist scenes of mountains, desert, and sea.

All of the works in this exhibition are gifted by art collector Wendy Willrich to the Museum’s renowned permanent collection of California art, the core of which was assembled by E. B. Crocker and his family in the early 1870s.

“I selected the Crocker because it is important to have my collection in Sacramento, the capital of California,” said Willrich. “Moreover, I know that my collection adds great value and depth to the excellent collection of California paintings that already exists at the Crocker.”

Most art created in California between the 1870s and 1940s (the span represented by paintings in the Willrich Collection) manifests a profound sense of place. As with American art generally, the best California art of this period was founded upon a close communion between the artist and the land.

From its beginnings, California art has been separated from the mainstream by distance and topography, though this should not imply that its artists have been unaware of national and international aesthetic movements or trends. Historically, a vast number of the Golden State’s artists have not been native, but transplanted from other parts of the country or world, and many perfected their craft by training elsewhere.

From early in the state’s history, California’s artists struggled for recognition against their eastern and international counterparts. However, there were dedicated supporters. Crocker Art Museum founder E. B. Crocker and his family firmly believed in the beauty and merit of California art. The Crockers were visionary in recognizing the contributions of California’s artists early on, and thus compiled the core of what is today the state’s premier collection of 19th-century California paintings.

While public enthusiasm for early California art wanted in the mid 20th century, the 1960s and 70s ushered in a period of reappreciation. Wendy Willrich was inspired to collect by a 1965 docent-training course at the Oakland Museum (now the Oakland Museum of California). She acquired her first artwork a year later — a bucolic scene by Marin County painter Thaddeus Welch, which she still owns. Other paintings followed, purchased from dealers and at auction. Because very little scholarship yet existed on the artists whose work she was buying, Willrich followed her instincts as she came to know California artists and developed favorites.

The collection begins with detailed images of California's majestic Sierra Nevada rendered in the style popularized by the East Coast's Hudson School. These include four paintings by Thomas Hill, two by William Keith, and one by Frederick Schafer.

Keith’s paintings in particular provide a transitional bridge in color and paint handling to quieter, Barbizon-inspired and Tonalist landscapes by Thaddeus Welch and Charles Dormon Robinson. These in turn give way to plein-air Impressionist scenes of mountains, deserts, and sea by artists John Marshall Gamble, Maurice Braun, Edgar Payne, and Guy Rose.

There are also examples of Post-Impressionism, practiced most notably in California by the Society of Six, the Willrich Collection boasting a boldly colorful work by Selden Gile and four Pointillist-inspired paintings by William Clapp.

The collection also includes a strong group of watercolors, a medium that Willrich enjoys for its translucency and depth. There are multiple works by Percy Gray and Sydney Yard, who worked in central and northern California, as well as Marion Kavanagh Wachtel and Paul de Longpré, who painted in the Southland. The de Longpré is not a landscape, but a still life of flowers and bees. The other still life in the collection, by Edwin Deakin, depicts plums.

As the Crocker welcomes the Willrich collection into its holdings, the Museum acknowledges the role of the art in Wendy Willrich's life; she describes these paintings as close friends, having lived with some of them for more than 50 years.

Now open for view, this exhibition is organized by the Crocker's associate director and chief curator, Scott A. Shields. Many of the works will remain on view as part of the Museum's permanent collection beyond an extended period of display.

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