Abundance to Absence, California’s History Told Through Its Water

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William Marple, 'Mount Tamalpais from Napa Slough,' 1869. (Courtesy California Historical Society)

The leading hypothesis on the origin of the word "California" is that Spanish colonists named their discovery of what is now the peninsula of Baja California after a mythical island in a 16th-century romance novel. The island of Calafia was full of gold, populated by Amazons who controlled an army of griffins. And so, from first European contact, California was steeped in mythology and romanticism, a fitting story for a land now defined by theme parks, Hollywood and agricultural abundance.

Thomas Hill, 'Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley,' 1892.
Thomas Hill, 'Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley,' 1892.

Despite this romantic backstory, California remained a distant colonial outpost for over 300 years, eventually attracting a small number of Franciscan missionaries and cattle ranchers. But by the mid-19th century, a number of forces colluded to make the outpost known to the world: the U.S. annexation of California, the discovery of gold, the influence of romanticism in painting, and the invention of photography.

Painting and photography helped shape California’s new mythos, often by depicting its most important and at times scarce, resource. The exhibition California: The Art of Water, on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, looks at how artists’ portrayal of water has influenced the land's identity from pre-statehood to now.

When American landscape painters began making the trek West to the new state, they brought back images of a lush Eden. Albert Bierstadt was one of the most important painters of the American West; his work depicted the region with fantastical imagery that is both true to the awesomeness of the landscape and sometimes wildly embellished. His Sacramento Valley River (c. 1872-73) is more subtle than some works, but it nonetheless pictures the valley dramatically as a series of rolling green hills with a heavenly and luminous sky. The river winds tepidly through the valley, clearly a life-giver in the rich terrain.

William Keith, a contemporary of Bierstadt, was a close friend of naturalist John Muir and spent much of his career painting the Yosemite Valley, the Sierras and other California landscapes. His work is generally more naturalistic than Bierstadtk's, but his Upper Kern River (1876) and Hetch Hetchy Valley (1907-10) create images of almost magical terrains full of life and adventure. Alpine oases boast snow-capped peaks and mighty freshwater streams.

Dorothea Lange, 'Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields,' 1937.
Dorothea Lange, 'Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields,' 1937.

Keith's works read as romantic exaggerations, and that is no doubt part of the story. But artistic license isn't the only reason his paintings don’t remind us of the dry chaparral and the sun-scorched mountains with which we are familiar.


On a map of California and Nevada from 1863, the enormous Tulare Lake occupies the southern San Joaquin Valley. Now the site of dusty cropland near Visalia, Tulare Lake was once the second largest freshwater lake in the United States. Human diversion of rivers like the Kern led to the lake's disappearance. To the north, the Sacramento Valley was once characterized by riparian forests which were promptly cut down during and after the Gold Rush to fuel steamships and provide lumber for the newly booming agricultural industry.

Joseph Holmes, 'Clouds over Mono Lake,' 1975.
Joseph Holmes, 'Clouds over Mono Lake,' 1975.

And while photography in the latter half of the 19th century served a similar function to painting -- presenting the state as a land of sweeping vistas and otherworldly mountains -- in the early 20th century it helped perpetuate a new mythos of the state as an agricultural powerhouse.

Dorothea Lange was one of several photographers hired by the New Deal–era Farm Security Administration to document the struggles of Americans living through the Great Depression; much of Lange’s work was shot in California. One image shows a man in a flooded alfalfa and barley field, with muddy boots and a shovel in hand. Lange's image is typical of visual art that places the state’s bountiful soil at the center of its identity, even -- and especially -- during a time of economic hardship.

Richard Misrach, 'Diving Board, Salton Sea,' 1983. © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Richard Misrach, 'Diving Board, Salton Sea,' 1983. © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

The more contemporary works on display at the Cantor tend towards photography, exploring themes of ecological destruction and ambivalence toward industrial development increase. Photographs by Robert Dawson and Joseph Holmes, both from the 1970s, might appear to be apolitical images of the lunar landscape that is Mono Lake, with its tufa castles dominating the peaceful surroundings. But it is difficult to imagine a “natural” site in California imbued with more political history, controversy and conflict (though Hetch Hetchy Valley comes to mind).

Mono Lake was a focal point of the so-called California Water Wars, which occurred when the city of Los Angeles quenched its thirst for water by diverting the rivers that fed the Owens and Mono lakes, wreaking environmental havoc on the bodies of water. Dawson and Holmes' images are reminders that nowhere on earth is untouched by human action. Every site is like a series of tree rings, telling stories about the past and present.

For better or worse, California is a land of mythology. The works in California: The Art of Water show how the role of water, the central character in much of this mythology, can shift over time: from heroic natural force to economic resource to threatened commodity. In recent years, Californians have paid special attention to water as we struggle with drought, and the timing of this exhibition is no coincidence. How we respond to these challenges will influence the stories we tell about the state and its resources in the years to come.

California: The Art of Water is on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through Nov. 28, 2016. For more information visit museum.stanford.edu.