Arts & Theater

A gift of 41 ‘close friends’ beefs up Crocker’s early California collection

John Marshall Gamble, “A Spring Morning, Poppies and Bush Lupine,” circa 1915.
John Marshall Gamble, “A Spring Morning, Poppies and Bush Lupine,” circa 1915. Crocker Art Museum

Christmas came early to the Crocker Art Museum this year.

After many years of consideration, Bay Area collector Wendy Willrich chose the Crocker Art Museum as the recipient of 41 early California paintings she acquired over the last 50 years.

A transformative gift, it adds to the museum’s extensive collection of early California paintings begun by E.B. Crocker and his family in the 19th century, which today, says Associate Director and Chief Crocker Curator Scott Shields, is the state’s premier collection of California painting.

The Willrich gift primarily features landscape paintings from the northern, central and southern part of the state created between the 1870s and 1940s and exemplifies the close connection the artists who made them felt with the land. Even the two still life paintings in the show - a lovely watercolor of flowers and bees in a garden by Paul de Longpre and a rich oil painting of plums by Edwin Deakin - reflect the importance of the state’s natural beauty and bounty.

Many of the artists in the collection were not native Californians but transplants from other parts of the country or world who had trained elsewhere, among them English-born Thomas Hill, regarded by many as the quintessential 19th century California artist. The exhibition begins with three detailed Hill paintings of iconic Yosemite sites - Bridal Veil and Vernal Falls, Budd Lake and Cathedral Peak - and a magical woodland scene of a deer in a birch forest done in 1882 after Hill’s return to San Francisco from the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

They are followed by paintings of mysterious Mount Shasta near the Oregon border and Yosemite’s Mount Lyell by Scottish-born William Keith that provide a transition from the Hudson River School aesthetic he shared with Hill early in his career to the quieter, more spiritual Barbizon approach Keith adopted later. You can see the shift in the looser, rougher brushwork of the foreground and the more detailed rendering of the mountain in the background in the painting of the Yosemite peak, done around 1880.

Moving into the early 20th century, the Hills and Keiths give way to rustic, idyllic Barbizon-inspired landscapes by Thaddeus Welch, including “Cattle Watering, Marin County,” a bucolic scene with magical red-winged blackbirds in a foreground bush, that was the first early California painting Willrich bought in 1965 after taking a docent-training course at the Oakland Museum (now the Oakland Museum of California).

As the exhibition progresses, it features plein-air, Impressionist scenes, such as John Marshall Gamble’s lovely painting of poppies and lupine on a spring morning, circa 1915, and Hungarian-born Maurice Braun’s “Mountain Vista,” circa 1920, painted in the back country east of San Diego.

Some of the most vibrant are Guy Rose’s moody, dramatic “Gathering Storm, High Sierra,” circa 1916, and bright, sunny, vivid “Monterey Cypress,” circa 1918, in which he applied Impressionist techniques to typical California landscapes.

Rose was a native Californian who grew up on a ranch near Pasadena and studied first at San Francisco’s California School of Design and later at Paris’s Academie Julian. After spending the 1890s in New York, he returned to France in 1899 to live in Giverny, where he became friends with Claude Monet, applying what he had learned from the famous French Impressionist to California scenes after he returned to his home state in 1914.

The final section of the show introduces post-Impressionist works by two members of the Society of Six, California’s most notable artists influenced by that movement. The Willrich Collection includes four scintillating paintings by Canadian-born William Clapp, the first director of what is now the Oakland Museum of California. Done between 1930 (“Tree in Blossom”) and 1942 (“Road in the Woods”), they are characterized by passages of bright, often unexpected colors, broken brushwork sometimes verging on Pointillism, and intense light.

Selden Connor Gile’s “Desert Bridge/Holbrook,” 1926, is the most radical work in the show. It’s a small, nearly abstract image, made with thick, broad, rectangular brushstrokes and bold complementary colors (green and red, blue and orange) applied with Fauvist fervor.

It should be noted that there are also some fine watercolors on view by Percy Gray, including the moody, other-worldly “Oaks and Fog,” 1921, and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel’s ‘California Landscape with Mountain,” circa 1915, a scene of hazy mountains in the distance and a tall stand of Eucalyptus trees with hanging boughs created with nearly abstract, formless swathes of color.

Willrich has described these paintings that she has lived with for 50 years as “close friends.” She selected the Crocker as their new home because she felt it was important that they be displayed in Sacramento, the capital of California, and was gratified to know that her collection would add to the value and depth of the Crocker’s early California collection.

If you go

What: California Paintings from the Wendy Willrich Collection

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St.

When: Through Dec. 31. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays.

Cost: $12 to $6; free for members and children, 5 and younger. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: (916) 808-7000,