Update: The William Wendt painting sold for $137,575–more than double its low estimate.
What you see: Flickering Light, a 1921 William Wendt painting. Bonhams estimates it at $60,000 to $80,000.
The expert: Scot Levitt, specialist in California and Western paintings for Bonhams.
Who was William Wendt? He was a plein-air painter who was one of the leaders and foremost artists of California Impressionist painting. Because it never rains in Southern California, it’s easy to prop up an easel.
Was he self-taught? No, he wasn’t. Surprisingly, there’s little info on him–no journals, no scrapbooks, and no children. He was born in a small town in what is now Germany. He hated his father and hated his work as an apprentice in a furniture shop. He emigrated to America, got a job working in cabinetry, and he started painting. He did get art training, mostly in Chicago. He was known to paint up to 20 paintings a day, because it was fun and he was good at it. He was painting like a madman.
Chicago isn’t a great place for plein-air painting. Is that why Wendt moved? Back then, there was a huge influx of people to the West Coast because the railroads opened it up. It was advertised as a land of opportunity.
How prolific was Wendt? Is there a catalog raisonné for him? There’s no catalog raisonné, but there’s a coffee table book on his works that’s a catalog raisonné of sorts. It’s by John Alan Walker, and it covers 878 paintings by Wendt. He tried to document all of them.
Does that number–878 paintings–hold up as a good number for Wendt’s lifetime output? I’d say he painted well over 1,000, but the actual number, we don’t know. One thousand is a guess.
Where was William Wendt in his career in 1921, when he painted this work? 1921 was his heyday. He had a gallery in Los Angeles, the Stendahl Gallery, which handled all the big hitters in the market back then. He was making a pretty good living in Laguna Beach. His popularity ground to a halt when the Great Depression hit in 1929. It [his style of painting] was on a collision course with Modernism. This was his older, mature period. He did numerous paintings of sunlight coming through the trees.
So this William Wendt painting is a stand-alone, but the theme of sunlight coming through trees appears often in his work? Authors have suggested the sunlight represents a God-like, heavenly spiritual body coming through, bringing beauty and energy to the world. Wendt was a religious man. They [he and his compatriots] embraced a very Thoreau-esque way of looking at the world. They wanted to glorify the beauty of nature and look at God’s creation. They tried to do pleasant homages to nature, and that’s what Wendt became famous for doing.
Is this William Wendt painting a good example of his work? It’s got a lot of detail to the branches, and a lot of variety of light. It has an abstract quality to it.
Is the scene in this William Wendt painting a real place, or is it his own invention? If it’s real, do we know where he painted it? It probably was a real place, and we don’t know where it is.
This William Wendt painting jumped out at me because it looks like it could have been painted in New England in the autumn… That’s not how it strikes me. I just don’t interpret it that way.
So the painting looks clearly Californian to you? I think so.
What is the William Wendt painting like in person? The colors are bright, and they pop. There’s really nice, sharp detail.
How thickly is the paint layered on the surface of the canvas? I’d say moderately. Not thin and not thick. You can definitely see the brushstrokes. He definitely worked quickly. It’s not labored.
What’s the world auction record for a William Wendt painting? Was it set at Bonhams? It was set with us in 2015, and it sold for just over $1.5 million. The reason why it brought $1.5 million is it was on the cover of Plein Air Painters of California, The Southland, by Ruth Westphal. It was the first of two books that became the bibles of California plein-air painting. From a notoriety point of view, I knew it would do well.
Why will this William Wendt painting stick in your memory? There are never any figures in his paintings. It has a quiet solitude about it. It looks like a very convincing scene, with that late light that comes when the sun starts to get a little low. It sort of gives you a happy feeling.
Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
Scot Levitt has appeared before on The Hot Bid, talking about a Gilbert Munger painting of El Capitan, an early Sydney Laurence painting of the mountain now known as Denali, and a casting of Frederic Remington’s famous bronze, Broncho Buster.
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