Moonlight at Monterey, Oil on canvas, ca. 1914 - 1920
Beginning in the 17th century, Europeans began to depict the bounty of nature by creating elaborate botanical compositions. These works often depicted the shared traditions between hemispheres and across millennium to demonstrate the commonality of man’s experiences through the interest in flora and fauna, real and imagined. Within these subjects, cultures developed imagery independent of each other yet, at times, with similar meanings. Additionally, exchanged ideas facilitated through trade brought aspects of artistic traditions to other lands and back again. Similarly, techniques, styles and imagery developed in the east were adapted by the west to fit within its cultural confines. The oil on canvas painting entitled Moonlight at Monterey by American artist William Ritschel is a shining example of a work produced in the west that displays an eastern sensibility in both its formalities and its symbolism.
Ritschel worked in the American tradition of Tonalism, an offset-style of Impressionism, which uses tonal variations of color to form a composition. He studied in New York and Europe, yet settled in California, where he drew inspiration from the cypress-covered cliffs. Evident in this work is Ritschel’s influence from eastern art revealed through the square-shaped canvas and foreshortening of the composition, creating an allusion of two instead of three dimensions – an approach evident in Asian ceramics. Additionally, the winding and twisting of the trunks seen in the stand of trees near the forefront makes reference to the belief prominent in many eastern cultures that the most perfect of forms are those that are not straight, symmetrical, or balanced. Such trees were thought to symbolize the ideal human condition – bent, but not broken. In fact, those who had overcome the difficulties of extremely challenging lives were considered to be among the most beautiful, which certainly played into Ritschel’s reasoning for making such forms the focal point of this elegant composition.