California Scene Painting

Women Artists at the Hilbert Museum

written by Liz Goldner

images are courtesy of and owned by the Hilbert Museum of California Art

The most renowned female artist in Southern California during the 1940s was Mary Blair. Besides working on animated features for the Disney studios, she painted watercolors in her spare time, and these personal artworks became part of a movement known as California Scene Painting.

With its perfect climate, scenic beauty and growing opportunities in tourism and the burgeoning film industry, Southern California was truly a golden place when Blair began her career. It was within this idyllic setting that the movement was born.

American Scene Painting, the realistic art style that gave rise to the California variety, was popular in the early to mid-20th century. Artists in this movement depicted landscapes, urban settings and the daily lives of people at work and at play. Not surprisingly, the movement’s artists were mostly men and included Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.

During the same period, “Los Angeles probably had more artists working than in any city in the world,” explains Mark Hilbert, founder of the recently opened Hilbert Museum of California Art in the Old Towne neighborhood of Orange. “Movie studios were voraciously hiring artists for set design, backdrops, animation, poster design and advertising.” And among these hired artists, there were several women. Moreover, California, with its egalitarian perspective generally regarded the work of female artists as equal to that of men.

The Hilbert Museum owns paintings by several dozen of these women artists, and this summer, many of these empathetic and technically proficient pieces will be on exhibit in their full glory. They reflect the museum’s mission, which is to present works of California Scene Painting and other styles of California representational art with their depictions of everyday life in the city, in the countryside and along the coast.


Mary Blair, The Circus, Watercolor, 14x19.5 inches

Blair (1911-1978) is one of the artists that the Hilbert will be exhibiting this summer. She grew up in California, attended the Chouinard Art Institute here, married artist Lee Blair and began working for Disney in 1940. She did preparatory work for Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, Fantasia and other features, often on location. And while at these sites, Blair painted her own works. An example of this kind of effort is her expressive oil The Circus, which she painted at an arena as she prepared scenes for Dumbo. And as Disney’s favorite artist, she later created Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride.

Writer/curator Susan M. Anderson describes the style used by Blair and her fellow artists. “The Disney cartoons and the California School watercolors share formal features,” she writes in American Scene Painting: California, 1930s and 1940s; “they eschewed realistic detail and preferred well-defined outlines, undulating curves and serpentine lines.”


Dorothy Sklar, Toonerville Watercolor, 21.5x 27.5 inches

Another artist working for the studios was Dorothy Sklar (1906-1966), who grew up in Southern California and studied with Millard Sheets and Stanton Macdonald Wright at the Chouinard. Along with creating costume and stage designs for the movies, she was a prolific watercolorist, painting scenes of everyday life and exhibiting widely. Gordon McClelland, art historian and curator at the Hilbert, explains that Sklar often drove around Los Angeles looking for appropriate scenes, parked, and then painted on an easel attached to her steering wheel. Her depiction of working-class people enjoying themselves in a fun zone, Toonerville, demonstrates her bold use of color.


Loren Barton, The Garden, Watercolor, 20x 30 inches

Loren Barton (1893-1975) was not so well known. As one the more peripatetic artists working in the style, she grew up in Los Angeles, traveled throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe, and lived in Rome for a period. She painted classically influenced street scenes, harbor views, landscapes and portraits. Her watercolor In the Garden, which portrays a mother and child, is exceptional; its facial features and details, created only with paint and not with preliminary drawings, are meticulously defined.


Burr (Berenice) Singer, “Touch-Up,” Oil, 22.5x16.5-inches

The works of Burr (Berenice) Singer (1912-1992)—with their Social Realist aspects, evocative of traditional American Scene Paintings—represent a different aspect of the California School. Her Touch Up, a depiction of a young African American woman in a 1940s Los Angeles nightclub, is a departure in subject matter from most other work set in the city at that time. The artist was born in the Midwest, married and settled in L.A., and focused on portraying minorities and people from the lower classes. According to McClelland, the city’s art world re-discovered her poignant paintings in the late 1970s.


Alexandra Bradshaw, Diver’s Cove Watercolor, 17x 21

Alexandra Bradshaw (1888-1981), another important artist in the California School, followed her own muse in style and painting method. She also grew up in the southern part of the state, attended Stanford, UCLA and Columbia University, was a member of the California Watercolor Society and the Fresno Art Association, and taught at Fresno State College. Having studied modern painting techniques, she employed their bright colors and sharp brushstrokes in her artwork. And as a part-time Laguna Beach resident, she also depicted the community’s people and beaches. Her Divers Cove is a stunning example of work from that period.

Hilbert Museum of California Art; Chapman University;; Tues.–Sat. 11 –5

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