A Century of Art at Crystal Cove

“Near Laguna” and “Crystal Cove” (pictured) are two of the earliest known color images of the cove, and together the paintings can tell the century-long story of Crystal Cove inspiring the arts. Artists, including those from the famous colony in Laguna Beach, were among the very first visitors to Crystal Cove in the early twentieth century. The Impressionist painter William Wendt’s 1912 “Crystal Cove” captures the cove’s natural grandeur, while “Near Laguna” documents the beginning of the picturesque vernacular beach architecture that has also inspired artists and visitors over the years.

A small reproduction of Wendt’s painting is featured on the timeline in the Visitors’ Center, and “Near Laguna” depicts that same Visitors’ Center, but from 1928. “Near Laguna” also shows the diversity of ways the cove inspires. The painting’s artist, Arthur G. Rider, was in demand as a set painter, and first came to the cove as part of a film assignment. He found himself drawn to the cove’s natural and made-by-hand setting. This inspirational cross-pollination across fields is part of the cove’s continuing legacy.

“Near Laguna” captures and dates the thatched roof the Visitors’ Center had back in 1928, as well as the introduction of palm trees to the landscape. Photography, still limited to black and white back then, couldn’t capture the vibrancy of nature, so this documentation adds value to living art as historical archive.  This real-time documentation is a hallmark of the artistic tradition known as en plein air, or in the outdoors, and artists from the past and present have discovered there is no better place to be inspired outdoors than Crystal Cove.

The cottages became part of the sun-and-sea weathered landscape, and became hand-crafted architecture, with their own unique artistic or whimsical details that reflected and inspired artistic sensibilities. Some artists lived at Crystal Cove, including Alice Powell and Roger Armstrong. Their Cottage #32 is restored as “Painters’ Cottage.”

Artists were originally drawn by the secluded light-filled beauty of Crystal Cove, and are drawn even more a century later. The incomparable setting creates a virtuous cycle, where the landscape inspires the artist, and the art inspires the public both near and far. Plein Air art supports conservation of what renowned art historian Jean Stern calls “unspoiled splendor” amid spreading urbanization along the coast.

The just-released second edition of the book “Crystal Cove Cottages” which features many examples of plein air art, says “the early impressionist painters felt a need and responsibility to document the landscape for the joy and education of future generations.” Through its artistic and other creative programs, joy and education for future generations — and for the present — are what Crystal Cove continues to inspire.

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