"Hills at Laguna Beach" by William Lees Judson
“Hills at Laguna Beach,” a landscape painted around 1915 by William Lees Judson, is representative of California Impressionism. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum

The rugged natural beauty of Laguna Beach – just minutes from UC Irvine – is on display in a Langson Library exhibit titled “Open Air & Light,” which celebrates the town’s history as an artist’s colony.

Laguna Beach is best known for a style of painting called “plein air,” which translates to “in the open air.” The exhibit focuses on the period from 1906 to 1941. Local artists can still be seen perched on the bluffs, paintbrushes in hand, capturing the coastal landscape.

The area’s ocean views, sandy beaches and rolling hillsides are hallmarks of California Impressionism, made famous by such artists as William Wendt, Isaac Jenkinson Frazee, George Gardner Symons, Edgar Payne and Guy Rose.

Curated by public services librarian Steve MacLeod, the exhibit illustrates how broad support from the community contributed to Laguna Beach’s rapid emergence as a center for the arts. On display are historical materials from UCI Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives, as well as photos and prints loaned by The Irvine Museum, Laguna Art Museum, the Laguna Beach Historical Society and Bowers Museum.

“This exhibit is unique in that it tells the story of how Laguna Beach inspired artists from all over the world and played an important role in the development of California Impressionism,” MacLeod says. “Many museums show art from this era, but this exhibit really explains the local connection.”

By 1917, more than 30 noted artists were working in Laguna Beach, and the Laguna Beach Art Association was founded in 1918 to advance interest in art. The Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters – the city’s signature arts event – was established in the 1930s.

The exhibit’s opening reception drew art lovers and patrons from throughout Orange County, including James Irvine Swinden, president of The Irvine Museum. He gave a talk at the event, noting how the area’s “unbelievable light source” made it possible for artists to work outdoors all year – an impossibility on the East Coast.

On display in Langson Library’s Muriel Ansley Reynolds Gallery, the exhibit runs through April 2014.