California Plein Air Landscape

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California Plein Air Landscape by Unknown Artist. Oil on canvas on board. Date unknown.

When my neighbor Frederick died a few years ago at age 87, his heir, wanting to live in Frederick’s house with as few possessions as possible, spent several months divesting himself of nearly all of his benefactor’s belongings. I had not thought to ask for or even to desire anything, and I knew there were some horror stories: two very longtime friends of Frederick’s arrived soon after his death and, while the new owner of the house left the room for a few minutes, savagely ripped a large painting from its frame with a kitchen knife and departed with the rolled-up canvas amid indignant declarations that they were not about to be deprived of their property–apparently they had given the picture to Frederick many years before. So when asked if I wanted anything, I said that I really did not, but a quick tour around the house did indeed find me coveting a small picture perched precariously atop a table in a forgotten corner of the living room. It had no frame and I had never seen it before, and Frederick’s heir was all too happy to place it in my hands and send me on my way. I keep it here in the room where I have most of my books and look at it several times per day. I like the way the light falls on the brush strokes. There is something very warm and inviting about it.

Frederick was the grandson of a noted Scottish sculptor known for his great civic monuments and public art in Edinburgh, though he claimed that his own father was practically illiterate. His mother was of Scottish ancestry too, though her forbears had had a rather longer sojourn in California, and I suspect that the little California plein air painting reproduced at the top of this post came from her. She was interested in painting, in any case, though I don’t think she ever did any of her own. There is something quite summery and luminous about the painting, something decidedly southern about its mood, and I’m nearly certain it was not painted in our northern part of the state. Frederick grew up in San Diego, which is another indication to me of its provenance. I can’t identify the trees which grace the hills with their golden grass, but they look like eucalyptus, one of the favorite subjects of the early 20th century plein air painters here because of their sweeping sway of branches and exotically barked trunks in pale pastel tones. The hills themselves look like something one would see in the hinterlands beyond Los Angeles and San Diego, one of the few regions of that populous area that is still somewhat untouched. There are ranches there, in fact, and Indian reservations, where you can fancy for a few luxurious hours as you pass through them that you have been transported back to the days of the Spanish hacendados. And, given the many tens of millions of humans who now occupy our state with their highways and subdivisions and shopping malls, that is something very rare to be able to imagine indeed.

Toward the end, Frederick told me he felt he had had something of a charmed life. Never rich, he yet had never wanted for jobs, cars, houses and enough spare dollars put by to see him through in case anything ever went seriously wrong. He was glad to have discovered San Francisco when still a young man, right after the Second World War, and to have successfully made his home here. He had twenty good retirement years before a rapidly growing internal cancer took him from this life, and during those years spent much of his time weeding his garden, helping his neighbors and reading various daily newspapers and monthly journals from cover to cover. Whenever I turn the corner on which his house still stands, I half expect to see him emerge from behind the garden gate, watering can or shovel in hand, and am always somewhat surprised when I don’t. I can’t imagine what he thought of the little plein air painting which now graces my life, but I thank him for it, and am so glad he kept it as long as he did. 

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