Editor's note: The following 1995 essay was written by Jean Stern, Director of The Irvine Museum, for the 128 page illustrated catalogue Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art , ISBN 0-9635468-5-6 (cloth). The essay is located in pages 73-83 in the catalogue. The essay is re-keyed and reprinted with permission of The Irvine Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact The Irvine Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Art in California: 1880 to 1930
by Jean Stern
The earliest images of the California missions occur in the late 1700s as rare paintings and sketches made by visiting explorers or artists who had endured a long and arduous voyage to reach California. With time and changes in political jurisdiction, the missions became more attainable to artists, especially after California became a part of the United States in 1850. By the 1880s artists were regularly painting and sketching the more accessible missions, which by then were in ruin or abandonment. The crest of popularity for the California missions in art came in the first part of the twentieth century, between 1910 and 1925. Those years saw California experience tremendous growth in population and, with that, unprecedented increase in numbers of tourists, many of whom were fascinated by the missions. New roads and affordable travel had made these historical monuments easily accessible for day-trips. At the same time, awareness of the historical role of the missions and the need to save and restore them sparked an intense concern in the circumstances of the missions. Artists of this period found the missions to be romantic and heroic subjects for their paintings, at the same time realizing that tourist demands for mementos of California made mission paintings quite salable. The results were large numbers of beautiful and historically accurate renditions of the California missions in the artistic style that defined California art at the time.
In the 1860s and 1870s, at the time that Impressionism flowered in France, California was yet a distant, isolated region, hazardous and time-consuming to reach. The initial transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific, was completed in 1869 with its western terminus at San Francisco. Prior to the completion of the Union Pacific, the only approaches to California were overland by horse and wagon through hostile territory or around South America or by ship from Panama. The pre-canal Panama route necessitated docking on the Atlantic side, crossing the isthmus to the Pacific side and boarding a ship to continue to California. From the onset, San Francisco was the center of American social and intellectual presence in California. The first influx of American artists in California came with the Gold Rush. They produced narrative works of life in the gold fields as well as still-life and topographical views of San Francisco. Eventually, they found patronage with the social elite of San Francisco, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century the dominant art style in California was French inspired, with landscapes that relied heavily on influences from the Barbizon School. The best known of these San Francisco Barbizon painters was William Keith (1839-1911), whose paintings are often moody, late-in-the-day pastorals with somber tones and darkening shadows of deep browns.
Starting with the late 1880s and continuing into the early part of the twentieth century, artists working in California produced an artistic style which focused primarily on the boundless landscape and unique light of this Golden State. This style, which is often called California Impressionism or California plein-air painting, after the French term for "in the open air," combined several distinctive aspects of American and European art.
As a regional variant of American Impressionism, the California plein-air style is an amalgam of traditional American landscape painting with influences from French Impressionism. It is part of the continuum of American art's passion with landscape, a lineage that began with the early years of the American Republic and, during most of the nineteenth century, found its greatest expression in the works of a group of artists known as the Hudson River School. This group of landscape artists, led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), ventured into the "wilderness" of upstate New York. They were in awe of the beauty and grandeur of nature and developed a popular and long-lived style that centered on landscape as a primary subject. At the same time, America nurtured a vigorous school of painters who recorded the "ordinary things" of American life. These genre painters, most notably Winslow Homer (1836-1910), specialized in scenes of everyday life in a country that, at the time, was perceived as a land of farms and small towns.
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