What's it all about?

Exhibit Overview

In Nature’s Temple: The Life and Art of William Wendt was the first full-scale retrospective on the art of William Wendt. In 1912 William Wendt was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design, the same year that he built a studio-home in Laguna Beach. In many ways, Wendt represented the essential nature of California Impressionism both stylistically and ideologically. No other California Impressionist so consistently essayed the sweeping, romantic grand landscape view as Wendt, and no other painter so strongly equated his work with the ideology of Nature as Creation, and Nature as a spiritual path. Dapper, distinguished, and much admired by his many followers, Wendt functioned as a very visible example of what an artist should aspire to, and his ongoing career summarized the idealism that was the foundation of California art in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

California Impressionism-a hybrid style of painting that retained clarity of forms overlaid with the brilliant French Impressionist palette-was once critically unquestioned and regionally preeminent. It nearly disappeared in the maze of 1950s California hard-edge painting and abstract expressionism, 1960s pop and funk art, and the deluge of kinetic and performance art forms of the 1970s. However, to fully engage and understand the evolution of American painting, we need to understand the nuances of this hybrid approach to image making, as California was, of all the States, perceived as the real land of opportunity and reinvention and was destined to become the nation’s most populace and economically powerful member. And, to understand California Impressionism, we need to fully examine its central practitioner, William Wendt.

The resurgence of interest in California’s early painters over the past two-plus decades has resulted in a number of academically rigorous studies. The Oakland Museum of California Art’s landmark exhibition and catalogue, Impressionism: The California View (1981) was perhaps the first attempt to contextualize California art within the spectrum of American studies, followed by William H. Gerdts still seminal book, American Impressionism (1984), that recognized Wendt and a host of other American artists previously consigned to regional as opposed to American status. A torrent of regional studies of American art followed in its wake, the majority of these dealing with some aspect of California art history. One of these was a compendium of documents on Wendt’s life privately published in 1992 that, although useful, is limited in interpretive scope and compromised by a narrow methodology.

To date, the most referred to work on Wendt is Laguna Art Museum’s 1977 catalogue written by noted scholar, Nancy Moure, for an exhibition of that same year. While this was a careful and focused study of Wendt, it came before (indeed, helped to instigate) the era of intense scholarship noted above. Given Wendt’s enormous contribution, the time has come to build on Moure’s early work. Until an exhaustive study of Wendt exists, a major piece of California art history, and thus American art history, remains missing.

The most obvious reason no detailed monographic study of Wendt has been undertaken in recent years is the daunting lack of primary research material: the artist left no diary; no scrapbook; and precious few letters. He left no children, and thus not even the prospect of family oral histories. The challenge now is to reconstruct Wendt’s biography taking advantage of all the recent relevant scholarship in the field as a whole and to reassess his art in the same light. The exhibition addressed this challenge with a full-scale retrospective, accompanied by a book detailing to the fullest extent possible his life and achievement. Wendt died in Laguna Beach on December 29, 1946.

Organized by Laguna Art Museum, the exhibition was guest curated by Dr.Will South, chief curator at the Dayton Art Institute, and will be accompanied by a color book featuring a 50 page essay by the curator.

Support and Grants

Major support for this exhibition generously provided by:

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles, II
Elma and Earl Payton
City National Bank
Ranney and Priscilla Draper
Kelvin L. Davis
Gail and Peter Ochs
Edenhurst Gallery, Thom Gianetto, Dan Nicodemo, Don Merrill

Additional generous support provided by:

Simon K Chiu; Ray Redfern, The Redfern Gallery; Marcel Vinh and Dan Hansman; Josh Hardy Galleries; Historical Collections Council; Historical Art Council of Laguna Art Museum; Daryn and William L. Horton and the Macton Foundation; George Stern Fine Arts; Susie and Jack Kenefick; Mrs. Yvonne Boseker; Mary and Matt Lawson; Kurt and Jenny Listug; John and Patty Dilks;Greg Dollarhyde; Allen and Dorothy Lay; Joseph L. Moure and Mr. and Mrs. John Strauss.

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