The early California Impressionist painter Robert Wood (1889-1979) is an inspiration to many landscape painters, not only for his sensitivity to light and color but also for the role he played in promoting plein air painting and a traditional approach to the landscape. Jeffrey Morseburg—the owner of Morseburg Galleries, in Los Angeles—has become an expert on Wood, having learned of the artist through his father’s personal and professional relationship with Wood, as well as having organized two retrospectives and a website devoted to him. Here Morseburg shares an article he wrote on the life and work of this great American landscape painter.
by Jeffrey Morseburg
ca. 1952, oil, 30 x 40. Private collection.
In the history of American art, Robert W. Wood (1889-1979) painted more of the United States than any other painter. For more than 60 years, the artist had his finger on the pulse of the American landscape and, at his best, painted it as well as or better than any of his contemporaries. Wood tired of neither painting nor sketching, and many of his small works were plein air sketches done on location. It was the time that he spent outdoors that imbued his works with the quality of natural light that made them ring true to a wide audience.
Wood’s finest works are truly memorable images of America’s most picturesque and beautiful locations. The artist was instinctively drawn to subjects that had wide appeal, and he favored classical landscape compositions. This love of the picturesque and the conventional way that he composed his paintings made him a favorite of millions of Americans and led many art critics and historians to dismiss him as being “too commercial.” During the 1960s, Wood’s sheer popularity also made him a convenient target for those who did not favor traditional art, and they denigrated his work as being “picture-postcard views.”
Today, more than two decades after his passing, enough time has passed to allow a more balanced assessment of Wood’s life work. He was a conventional painter who painted the American landscape in a straightforward way. However, many of his works– his plein air scenes in particular–were not classically composed, but these more unconventional works were not chosen for reproduction and have not been widely seen. Because Wood was so prolific, there are always paintings on the market. This steady market for his works helps to create interest in his life and artistic career. However, it also means that his inferior efforts are also widely seen, and these lesser works can at times obscure the status he deserves based on his superior paintings.
|Springtime, California Coast
ca. 1920, oil, 12 x 18. Private collection.
Wood saw art as a vocation, not an avocation, and applied himself to it fully and completely. It’s important to see that the artist was a popular rather than critical success. During his lifetime, the small coterie of critics that makes up the art world were championing the work of the early American modernists, the painters of the American scene, the Abstract Expressionists, and the Pop Artists. Wood was aware of the new crosscurrents in American art and had contact with these ideas, but he elected to travel a solitary path and stay true to his own vision of what constituted the American landscape. In retrospect, it is now possible to see that in spite of these challenges, traditional art never wavered or died; that despite a lack of critical attention, artists like Wood continued to paint and thrive.
Wood was most successful with that broad swath of the American public that did not care what the mandarins in the cultural capitals of New York and Los Angeles championed. The very artistic facility that made him suspicious to art critics was a source of wonder to many Americans, who reveled in the sheer painting ability that Wood possessed. The artist’s prowess in painting subjects that were widely popular was not calculated but instinctive. It was just that his love of beauty and his ability to capture the sublime qualities of the American landscape resonated with a vast cross section of the public.
Wood’s early mature works show the influence of the English landscape school that he was familiar with from his youth, as well as America’s own Hudson River School. There is a great degree of detail in these paintings from the 1930s, as well as a delicacy and subtlety. The work of the 1940s is characterized by a broader technique and the elimination of extraneous detail to achieve a stronger pictorial drive. In the 1950s, his work began to take on a looser, more painterly quality, and by the mid-1960s, he was working in a higher key, with even broader brushwork and colors. Although most Americans remember Wood for his later, more impressionistic works, painted when he led the print market in sales, many collectors prefer his earlier works. As he grew increasingly popular with the publication of large quantities of reproductions, Wood began to concentrate on paintings of the Eastern landscape in all its seasons. He started painting with more impasto, building up the areas of intense color with large daubs of carefully mixed pigment. In Laguna Beach, California, Wood reached the zenith of his popularity. The Laguna paintings are broadly painted with a bravura technique that allowed him to paint en plein air, capturing the essential elements of the beach, sea, and sky. There were times, especially during the Laguna festivals, that Wood could paint too fast in trying to keep up with the sheer popularity of his work. At the same time he was painting rugged landscapes of the mountains of Western America, but now with a greater emphasis on color and contrast.
ca. 1959, oil, 24 x 36. Private collection.
It is not difficult to see why Wood’s paintings hit a responsive chord in so many viewers. A modest man, Wood did not expend time or energy in promotion or seeking recognition from the critics or the art community. He felt his work spoke for itself and wanted the average person to enjoy his work. Wood came from the old school in which an artist put in countless hours outdoors and at his easel to learn his craft, a never-ending process.
Today, those who may have purchased Wood’s reproductions 20 or 30 years ago are now collecting his original works. Collectors who grew up around Wood’s paintings or prints enjoy them because they are reminded of beautiful locations, pleasant memories, and simpler themes. His works are notable for their truth and clarity. Wood will always have a place in the hearts of those who appreciate traditional art and have an affection for the unspoiled American landscape.
Jeffrey Morseburg, a second-generation art dealer and owner of Morseburg Galleries, in Los Angeles, writes and lectures frequently on 19th- and 20th-century art. He studied with Theodore N. Lukits (1897-1992), the academic master plein air painter, and is on the advisory board of the California Art Club.
To learn more about Robert Wood through the words and research of Jeffrey Morseburg, visit www.robertwood.net. For more information on paintings by Wood that are in the collection of Morseburg Galleries.