Edgar Alwin Payne
Payne was born in Washburn, Barry County, Missouri, in the heart of the Ozarks. Washburn is in southwest Missouri, only nine miles from the Arkansas border. But that wouldn’t stop this turn-of-the-century Missouri teenager from seeing the world. Before Edgar was done he would crisscross the United States, travel to Mexico, Canada, and Europe, and even spend the summer in the Alps. But, like John Muir before him, and Ansel Adams after, it was the American West that most appealed to his heart.
Leaving home at age 14, Payne painted houses, signs, portraits, murals, and local theater stage sets, to pay his way. First traveling through the Ozarks, then around the Southeast and Midwest of the U.S., and then on to Mexico, he finally wound up in Chicago, and enrolled to study portrait art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He remained only two weeks at the institute, finding it too structured. He preferred instead to be self-taught, relying on practice and his own sense of direction.
Struggling at first, he soon exhibited a group of landscape works, painted on a small easel, at the Palette and Chisel Club. During this period he also obtained the occasional mural work to supplement his income.
He made his way to California for the first time in 1909, at the age of 26. He spent several months painting at Laguna Beach, then headed to San Francisco. In San Francisco he met other artists, including commercial artist Elsie Palmer (1884–1971. He returned to California for a second time in 1911. When he returned to Illinois that fall, he found that Elsie had taken a job as commercial artist in Chicago. This cemented their already growing interest in each other. On the morning of their wedding day about a year later, 9 November 1912, Edgar noticed that the light was “perfect", and had Elsie postpone the ceremony until the afternoon. Luckily the artist in her offered some understanding.
As a couple they became well known in Chicago’s art circle. Elsie helped Edgar with his mural work, and soon he had an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Arguably their greatest collaborative effort happened in 1914 with the arrival of their daughter, Evelyn.
The following spring they took Evelyn to see her maternal grandparents in San Francisco. They would also attend the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The following year Edgar would make his first trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This trip would again be a big moment in his life, and he would return again and again to paint the beauty of the unspoiled Sierra, these paintings would be one of his hallmarks.
He earned his first major commission in 1917. In a bid to attract tourist, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad asked him to paint the Southwest, along the railroads' trek from Albuquerque to California. This commission would solidify, not only his reputation as an artist, but it would also forever link him to Western America. Although he would paint in Europe, he is most remembered for his work from the Four Corners area, on the Navajo Nation Reservation, to that of Yosemite, and the California coast. That year He and Elsie would spend four months painting, exploring, and taking in Canyon de Chelly. This area, from Taos, New Mexico to the Grand Canyon, would become one of Payne's two main inspirations for the next twenty years.
The Santa Fe Railroad commissions were the turn of the century brainchild of William H. Simpson, chief of the railway's advertising department. Starting in 1892, with Thomas Moran, Simpson would exchange travel on the train, along with lodging at railroad hotels and meals at railroad restaurants, and even sometimes cash, for paintings, photographs, pottery, and jewelry. This endeavor would last for decades, make the Santa Fe one of the largest collectors of southwestern fine art, and most importantly, give America a valuable lasting treasure.
When the Santa Fe commission expired the couple returned to San Francisco. Edgar received a commission from the Congress Hotel in Chicago for a mural of 11,000 square yards of muslin. The mural would cover several floors of the hallways of the hotel. He would need to rent a warehouse in Glendale, California, and hire other artist to help him, including Elsie, to complete the work.
In 1918, Edgar and Elsie would make their home, with studio in Laguna Beach. He would organize a local art association, the Laguna Beach Art Association, and become its first president. They would spend the next four years painting their way throughout the southwest, and to places like Canadian Rockies in British Columbia, and Alberta, Canada, and then exhibiting in the Los Angeles area. Sometimes their trips would be hiking into the backcountry, looking for undisturbed places of raw, and rare beauty, to paint, sometimes for weeks. After finding success during this period, the trio took a two-year “painting tour” of Europe, 1922-1924. Painting in Brittany, Paris, Provence, Switzerland, and Venice. Of course his favorite place in Europe was the Alps, painting The Great White Peak of Mont Blanc, which in the spring of 1923, the Paris Salon gave "an honorable mention".
Upon returning the U.S. in the fall of 1924, they first stayed in Chicago, then back to Laguna Beach, and then on to New York City in 1926. Always on the go, they would move and paint in Arizona, California, the California Sierras, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, and Utah. They would spend the summers crossing the country, painting as they went. They returned to Europe to paint the harbors of Brittany, and Chioggia, in 1928. The following summer they painted Lake Louise, Alberta.
After the financial collapse of 1929, and the subsequent Great Depression, commissions didn’t come as easily, so the Paynes returned to Southern California on a more permanent basis, purchasing a new Los Angeles, studio-home, in 1932. During this time, Evelyn would marry, and Edgar and Elsie would become separated that same year. Edgar moved to Hollywood, to a small studio-home on Seward Street. However, he would spend a great deal of his time in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, painting his favorite subject.
His lifelong obsession with the Sierras would lead him to produce a documentary film, “Sierra Journey”. In 1941 he wrote "Composition of Outdoor Painting", a comprehensive book on composition and composition forms. The book also explains landscape painting techniques, color, repetition, rhythm, and value. The seventh edition printing of the work was completed in 2005.
After a 14-year separation, Elsie returned to help Edgar in 1946, upon learning that he had cancer. She stayed with him until he died, 8 April 1947.
There is a bronze relief sculpture of Edgar at the Laguna Beach Art Museum, done by Elsie in 1952. She championed his work until her own health, and degradation of eyesight, caused her to stop in 1959. She moved in with Evelyn and her husband, in 1969, in Minneapolis. Elsie died peacefully 17 June 1971.
You can find works of Payne's that are of Italian harbors, the Alps, landscapes of Laguna, but Edgar Alwin Payne is most remembered for his work of American Indians of the Four Corners area, and, of course, the paintings of his beloved Sierras. In the Sierras, high up in Humphrey's Basin, you will find the lake named for him, Payne Lake.
His work was an influence on Bill Wray and other painters.
Galleries and collections with Payne's works
- Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah
- Chicago Art Museum
- University of Nebraska Galleries
- Fleischer Museum (Scottsdale, Arizona)
- Indianapolis Museum of Art
- Laguna Art Museum, California
- Edgar Payne Gallery, California
- National Academy of Design Collection
- National Collection of Fine Arts, Senate Building (Washington D.C.)
- Pasadena Art Institute
- Pasadena Museum of California Art
- Southwest Museum of Los Angeles
- Springville Museum of Art (Springville, Utah)
- The Redfern Gallery, Laguna Beach, California
- Edgar Payne Artwork, Laguna Beach, California
- The Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California
- The Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Allied Art Association
- American Artists Professional League
- California Art Club (President, 1926)
- Carmel Art Association
- Chicago Society of Artists
- International Society Art League
- Laguna Beach Art Association
- Palette and Chisel Club
- Salmagundi Club (NYC)
- Ten Painters of Los Angeles
- Stern, Jean. Edgar "Artists in Santa Catalina Island Before 1945; Impressionism in Southern California". Director of The Irvine Museum in Irvine, California. (c/o Traditional Fine Arts Organization)
- Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940. San Francisco, California: Hughes Publishing Company. 1989. ISBN 0-9616112-1-9
- Paintings from the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts
- Edgar Alwin Payne - at Artcyclopedia
- Edgar Alwin Payne biography at California Art Club
- “Fifth Lake” ca. 1928 - at Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Edgar Payne - on AskART.com