“Though the painter may have the greatest possible talent, excellent training, and the most noble ideas or concepts, he is dependent to a great extent upon Nature. To her he must always go to for ideas to be translated.” —Edgar Payne, Composition of Outdoor Painting, 1941
The early California painters were well aware of the vast treasure of landscape features available to them: the mountains, deserts, scenic beaches, and rolling hillsides. One such landscape that attracted painters was the Sierra Nevada Range. You can see one such example of this in William Keith’s masterpiece Mount Shasta and Spirit Lake (1874), evoking a forbiddingly dark forest with a mystical peak hovering in the distance.
A painter of the next generation who is today especially renowned for his Sierra scenes is Edgar Payne (1883-1947). Since his first foray into the Sierras in 1921, Payne and his wife, Elsie, traveled extensively throughout the region and the Southwest, outfitting their car with camping gear, food and art supplies, for their weeks-long painting excursions. Friends such as notable artists Conrad Buff and Franz Bischoff occasionally joined them.
After his return from a two-year tour of Europe in 1924, during which he spent a period painting the majestic Alps, he revisited the Sierra scene, carving his slopes like a sculptor, with hard edged, slab-like brush strokes. And unlike his Victorian predecessor, the viewpoint of his mountain scenes was captured in the manner of his contemporaries: intimate and inviting. Take a moment to study this painting, Sierra Lake (c.1920). He invites you to enter into the landscape by way of a soft bed of grass and a cool lake in the genteel, pastoral foreground. Once in, you are forced to draw your gaze up in wonder at the craggy, imposing mountain peak that cradles this little scene. He almost dares you to attempt the climb.
His use of light in his paintings even manages convey the thin air of these impossibly high altitudes. Perhaps that’s what drew Payne there time and time again: it is a remote eden that is so challenging to reach that you will find no other living soul or human imprint. It allows for an escape from the noisy world of politics, industry, and human concerns. It is quiet. It is Nature untamed. It is solitude.