Described as a “seeker” and an “adventurous wanderer,” Edgar Payne (1883–1947) was more reserved than his travels or paintings would imply. He was modest and quiet, succinct and focused. Always striving to “mix brains with paint,” he chose his words carefully, just as he assiduously selected the compositional elements for his paintings. Art was the most important thing in his life, and he worked hard and consistently at it.

Fig. 1: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Sunset, Canyon de Chelly, 1916
Oil on canvas, 28 x 34 inches
Mark C. Pigott Collection.

Although Payne intimately understood the California landscape and earned a national reputation as one of the West’s premier Impressionists, he did not actually visit the Golden State until he was twenty-six years old (Fig. 2). By that time, he had already traveled widely, having left home in his teens. His parents were from Virginia and settled in the Ozarks, first in Arkansas and then Missouri. Edgar was their second child (born March 1, 1883), the first son among eight children.2 His formal schooling ended in the fifth grade, when the family returned to Arkansas and settled in Prairie Grove. It was there that the lanky eleven-year-old made his first attempts at painting. He would remain largely self-taught except for a brief stint at the Art Institute of Chicago, where on April 1, 1907, he enrolled in a portrait-painting class. The formality of the classroom caused him to drop out after just two weeks.

Fig. 2: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Hills of Altadena, 1917–1919
Oil on canvas, 36 x 45 inches
Steven Stern Collection
Fig. 3: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Edgar and Elsie Payne, 1913
Photographer unknown
Courtesy of DeRu’s Fine Arts

On his first California trip, in 1909, Payne met Elsie Palmer, a commercial artist, in San Francisco. Payne was taken with the pretty, fair-haired artist, and in the course of his three-day visit managed to take her sketching and to dine at her family’s home (Fig. 3). Although she would later marry him, Palmer was not immediately enamored with Payne and found his art and color sense “dull.” The couple’s mutual friend, Gordon St. Clair, explained, “To your California bred eyes, I guess his colors are dull. He’s used to these silvery tones around Chicago. But don’t worry, he’ll get it.” 3

The transformation did not take long. After encountering the West, Payne began to exploit the possibilities of California’s sunshine, atmosphere, and terrain, thus distancing his work from that of other Chicago painters (Fig. 4). Art critic Antony Anderson explained later that “at first our tremendous scale of light bothered the Chicago painter somewhat, for he was accustomed to the mists from Michigan, but when he got his bearings . . . he began to paint strong and colorful things that show he understood California scenery and southern light.” 4

Payne soon took joy not only in color, but also the application of pigment, which he believed to be an important component of beautiful painting. The animated daubs and swipes of his brush were contrary to the nearly invisible brushwork of previous California painters, and as Payne’s career progressed, these grew bolder, and sometimes mosaic-like (Fig. 5). Like the French Impressionists, Payne avoided black, creating neutral shades by combining complementary colors even for the darkest shadows. And for him, California’s topography held more brilliance than did landscapes abroad.

Fig. 4: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Sycamore in Autumn, Orange County Park, ca. 1917
Oil on board, 32 x 42 inches
Private collection
Courtesy of The Irvine Museum
Fig. 5: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Untitled [Eucalyptus Landscape, California], n.d.
Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 inches
Private collection
Fig. 6: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Pack Train in the High Sierra, 1930s
Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Collection of Gilbert and Nancy Waldman
Courtesy of John R. Howard Fine Art

For reference purposes, Payne occasionally used photographs, but he never copied them directly, and he often sacrificed his long-held adherence to truth in favor of a more powerful composition.5 Although his landscapes are certainly believable, he took considerable artistic license in creating them, and many departed significantly from the actual surroundings and vegetation depicted. Payne’s ability to record and then alter such grand vistas was attributable to the fact that he could make the first part of his journey via automobile and then hike or use pack animals to reach otherwise inaccessible locales (Fig. 6).

As Payne’s landscape painting progressed, he came to believe that the higher and more remote the locale, the better. His favorite area was the Big Pine Lakes region, which included some of the Sierra’s most towering and rugged slopes (Fig. 7). Although the preference among Impressionists internationally was for domesticated landscapes over wilderness and for visual sensation over religious message, this was not the case for Payne and several of his Southern California colleagues, including William Wendt, Maurice Braun, and Hanson Puthuff, each of whom recognized and depicted the divine presence of the Creator in the mountains. Payne was determined to rediscover a broad and epic landscape that captured and conveyed what he called the “unspeakably sublime.” 6

Fig. 7: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Fifth Lake [High Sierra], ca. 1928
Oil on canvas, 40⅜ x 50¼ inches
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 1957.10.6. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, N.Y.
Fig. 8: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
The Rendezvous (Santa Cruz Island, CA), 1915
Oil on canvas, 33 x 42 inches
Private collection

During the years of World War I, Payne’s style became increasingly tumultuous, which seemed to mirror the conflict and unrest of the world at large (Fig. 8). He admitted that there was more to his paintings than met the eye, and certainly the many coastal scenes he painted during this period echoed the war’s ominous voice in the pounding tides. His 1916 Restless Sea, which he completed in his Chicago studio from sketches made at Laguna Beach, features a churning, dynamic composition of the ocean and rocky coast (Fig. 9).

Payne included human beings in relatively few of his California paintings, and when he did they were typically shown in harmony with nature, a minor footprint in the landscape. Figures became a regular and integral part of Payne’s compositions only in the desert Southwest (Fig. 10). There, humanity remained small and unobtrusive when set against the vast loneliness of the terrain, and Native Americans in particular seemed at one with the environment. His fascination with the Southwest was encouraged in 1916 when he accepted an assignment from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company to paint western scenery. Provided with transportation by the railroad, he arrived in Gallup, New Mexico, with his wife and young daughter in June 1916. The family immediately set off by car, heading west to Ganado, Arizona, and then to the Canyon de Chelly (Fig. 11).  Using a wagon to go from site to site, Payne lived on and near Navajo and Hopi reservations for the next four months, sketching and painting the spectacular scenery. He would not visit the region again for many years, but painted there again regularly beginning in 1930.

Fig. 9: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Restless Sea, 1917
Oil on canvas, 43 x 51 inches
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Gift of Mrs. James Sweetser (17.66)
Fig. 10: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Navajo Riders, after 1929
Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 inches
Collection of Charles D. Miller

Though he continued to maintain a Chicago address through 1923, Payne moved to Glendale, California, following his initial trip to the Southwest. In Glendale, he rented an abandoned piano factory, which he used as a studio in order to fulfill a large mural commission for the Congress Hotel in Chicago. When the project was finished, he moved to Laguna Beach, which was fast becoming an art colony of national importance. He quickly became a central figure in the community and was instrumental in founding the Laguna Beach Art Association.

After completing his term as president of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1920, Payne moved his family to Los Angeles. He spent much of the summer of 1921 sketching in the Sierra, but the artist’s restless nature then led him to plan an extended trip to Europe.
The family began their two-year journey by sailing from New York to Paris in July 1922. They remained in Paris throughout August and then drove through the Haute-Savoie and French Alps toward Marseilles. They spent a month on the French Riviera (Fig. 12) before crossing into Italy and heading for Rome. In the early spring of 1923, they visited other cities in Italy and then went to Switzerland (Fig. 13). Finding it too cold for painting, they opted instead for Venice, then Chioggia. The paintings that resulted were a “splendid record” of their itinerary with “something of the big resonant thunder of the Odyssey Epic.” 7 In the summer, the Paynes sketched in the Loire Valley, in Brittany, and along the Brittany coast. They visited London before returning to the United States in 1924.

Fig. 11: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Blue Canyon, after 1929
Oil on canvas, 34 x 34 inches
Private collection
Fig. 12: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Along the Riviera, Menton, France, 1922
Oil on canvas, 29 x 29 inches
Collection of James Taylor and Gary Conway

Back in Chicago, where the family spent several months, Payne showed mostly European subjects, “very American in character.” 8 The Paynes finally drove back to California in the spring of 1925. It wasn’t long before Payne returned to the Sierra, once again selecting the highest peaks as subjects for new work, but his repertoire now also included fishing boats of France (Fig. 14) and Italy. For a time reviewers showered him with accolades, but then Arthur Millier called for a change. “Payne is unusually adroit at making a highly decorative picture out of somewhat worn material. He can combine the same kind of boats and sails and white-walled houses with the same kind of harbor water in a manner almost kaleidoscopic, and the result is invariably a very acceptable picture, colorful and well composed. A reviewer, of course, is always aching for something fresh….” 9

Payne recognized truth in Millier’s words; he too was becoming restless in the search for new inspiration. In the fall of 1927, he moved his family to New York City and opened a studio on Broadway. There he became an active member of the New York art community, joining the Salmagundi Club and the American Artists Professional League, while at the same time exhibiting in Illinois, California, and Utah.

Fig. 13: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Alpine Village—Switzerland, ca. 1922
Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches
Weinstein Family Trust

Even as painting styles advanced, Payne remained steadfast in his commitment to landscape painting. He advocated equal exhibition privileges for those artists choosing to work in a more traditional manner and felt keenly the threat posed by modernism and abstraction. On October 4, 1939, he met with other Southern California artists to form a Los Angeles branch of the Society for Sanity in Art, which aimed to encourage art “based on sound, fundamental principles.” 10 Promoting quality and craftsmanship, the organization sought to foster realism through exhibitions, lectures, and activities.

In 1941, Payne self-published Composition of Outdoor Painting, “a short and concise handbook on the essentials of outdoor painting for the practical student.” 11 In it, through essays and illustrations of his own paintings and those by others, he promoted traditional practices, communicating to a broad audience what he had learned over the course of his career.

As Payne neared the end of his life, he slowed his nomadic lifestyle. In 1946, he was diagnosed with cancer; in 1947, he died. Memorial exhibitions followed in tribute to his accomplishments. But as the artistic vanguard in California and elsewhere moved beyond Payne’s deeply held adherence to representational painting, his reputation languished. And yet, it was only a matter of time before California artists returned to the local light and terrain. As they did so, a new generation turned to Payne’s book, which went into its third printing in 1957 and has sold consistently ever since. This book, and to a greater extent Payne’s beautiful, powerful, and colorful paintings, ultimately fostered a renewed appreciation of his accomplishments and his incredible scenic journey.

Fig. 14: Edgar Alwin Payne (1883–1947)
Breton Tuna Boats, Concarneau, France, ca. 1924
Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches
Private collection

Portions of this essay are excerpted from Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey, an exhibition catalogue published by Pomegranate Communications, Inc. and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The exhibition opened at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, Calif., traveled to the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, Calif., and concluded at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Okla.

Scott A. Shields, Ph.D., is associate director and chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, Calif. Since publication of this article in 2012, Scott Shields is the associate director and chief curator at the C rocker Art Museum.

This article was originally published in the 12th Anniversary issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at AFA is affiliated with Incollect.