Not Just Foodsgiving
Thanksgiving is a no-nonsense holiday because—as much as we try to take it as a moment to reflect and honor the things in our lives that we are thankful for—the holiday is perhaps most-loved as an opportunity to gorge ourselves on foods that are enough of a pain to make that we only cook them once, maybe twice, a year. In the spirit of Turkey Day 2019, however, this Bowers Blog post is making an earnest attempt to look at a genuine gift of thanks that was offered by an artist to a couple that had helped him along the way. The artist was Edgar Alwin Payne, one of the founding members of the Laguna Beach artist colony, and the patrons were Sherman and Martha C. Stevens, who in turn the Bowers must collectively thank for having donated the Bowers’ largest multi-artist painting collection.
Palmer Minds Prevail
Edgar Alwin Payne was born in Washburn, Missouri in 1883—a small, indistinct town which has not grown much in size since Payne’s birth. From a young age Payne was very interested in painting, taking every opportunity to do so including designing sets for theater productions and painting murals for homes. When he left home to travel at the age of 14, he took straight to getting paid work painting, not stopping to even for a formal arts education. Although it should be noted that Payne studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for a whole two weeks. This meant that unlike many of the other painters to eventually settle in California, Payne had almost no formal training. Late in the first decade of the 1900s, Payne first began travelling out to California and it was in San Francisco that he first met his wife-to-be, Elsie Palmer. After three years of courtship the pair married in 1912. Later in that decade the Paynes moved to Los Angeles, and in the spring of 1918 set up a studio working in Laguna Beach.
Plein and Simple
Travelling between this new coastal setting and a home in Los Angeles, Edgar Payne became one of the most important of the early California plein air painters. Certainly, part of this was a result of how he positioned himself in a burgeoning art community in Laguna. Though he was a shy man, Payne—likely supported by his outgoing and at least equally talented wife—was pivotal in establishing the Laguna Beach Art Association. As its first president he became one of the best recognized name in California impressionism for a time. His style was intriguing, though it bore a resemblance to other artists from the area, his lack of formal training likely enforced his unique impressionistic style of thick brush strokes and sparingly applied paint.
The Paynes took two marathon painting trips through Europe. The first of these began in 1922 and was a two-year romp across the beautiful Swiss Alps, the streets of Paris and an assortment of quiet harbors. The second in 1929 was equally captivating, but it was during this latter trip that Edgar and Elsie’s funds ran out. Edgar Payne knew Sherman Stevens, a Tustin local and patron of the arts, and wrote him a letter explaining that he would be coming home sooner than expected. Without so much as a second thought or request for anything in return Stevens cut the Paynes a check for $1,000, no small sum in 1929. This allowed the couple to continue their travels on to Brittany in the west of France where Edgar created some of the finest works in his career. Later on, as a show of thanks Payne gifted Stevens Marine, Boats in Brittany, this post’s banner painting, with the inscription:
The Payne in Painting
Edgar Payne passed away in 1947 in Hollywood with he and his wife Elsie having separated about 14 years prior in 1933. Though it is unclear by looking in our records exactly how the painting made its way back to his ex-wife Elsie Palmer, it was she that donated the painting to the Bowers Museum in 1950. It is apparent this was done with some help through the Stevens, as a letter from Elsie dated March 25, 1950 that says that it was done with the “understanding heart of a generous gentleman and friend.” It was a relationship born of mutual thanks, Edgar Payne for Stevens’ help in his time of need, and Stevens for the wonderful paintings created by Payne.
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