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Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art

September 29, 2004 - January 19, 2005


(above: Charles H. Harmon (1859-1936), San Luis Rey, oil on board, 30 x 46 inches)


Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art, an exhibition featuring paintings of California's historic missions, will be held at The Irvine Museum [1] from September 29, 2004 through January 19, 2005.

When people think of romantic California, the visual image that often comes up is that of a gentle land, with rolling hills of oak trees and wildflowers, dotted with buildings of weathered adobe walls and red-tiled roofs. These and other idyllic images of old California are rooted in the romantic period. of California's past that is.associated with the missions.

Twenty-one California missions and a number of branch missions (asistencias) were founded between 1769 and 1823, yet that brief period of barely 54 years would have a lasting effect on the artistic and social fabric of the Golden State. San Diego de Alcala was the first mission in Alta California. San Juan Capistrano, the seventh in the chain, was founded in 1776. Known as the "Jewel of the Missions," it has become the most renown and most romanticized of all California missions. (right: Edith White (1855-1946), Pala Mission, oil on canvas, 12 x 18 inches)

Joan Irvine Smith, [2] founder and President of our museum; states "The Capistrano Mission represents an important part of the history of Southern California and I believe it should be preserved and maintained for the benefit of generations to come. It is undoubtedly the most portrayed architectural structure in the art of California and probably in the western United States."

After the 1840s, many of the missions fell victim to neglect and abandonment. Most destructive of all have been the effects of California's frequent and at times violent earthquakes. While the missions of California will never reclaim their historic character, their beauty and majesty are with us still. They have been immortalized by the scores of artists who captured the spirit, grandeur, beauty and romance of the old California missions.(left: Theodore Wores (1859-1939), Mission Santa Barbara, oil on board, 10 x 12 inches)

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive book that offers a selection of articles by noted writers in the field of California history, including Gerald J. Miller, Pamela Hallan-Gibson, Dr. Norman Neuerberg, and Jean Stern, [3] art historian and executive director of The Irvine Museum. The book is richly illustrated throughout by approximately 90 color plates and 40 black and white illustrations. [4]

A prior exhibition of the Irvine Museum held in 2001, titled Along El Camino Real: The California Missions in Art also covered the relationship of art to the California Missions.

John Moran Antique and Fine Art Auctioneers says of the catalogue for the exhibition:

Here's yet another beautiful and well-written book from the Irvine Museum, this time presented jointly with the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Devoted to the theme of California missions in art, it is both a guide to the missions and a history of California art from 1786-1930 as related to this theme. What makes this a particularly fascinating approach is the opportunity to see how different artists portray the same subject differently over time, and how the history of the settlement of California interacts with the art.

(right: front cover of Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art, published in 1995 by The Irvine Museum)


1. In its first decade, The Irvine Museum organized 34 exhibitions, 14 of which traveled to one or more venues, and published 12 books in conjunction with various exhibitions.

2. On May 13, 2004, the California State History Museum premiered the "California's Remarkable Women" exhibit. The California State Capitol's web site contains a brief biography of Joan Irvine Smith prepared in conjunction with the exhibit.

3. The Art Institute at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Tucson Plein Air Painters' Society will present in 2005 Plein Air 2005. One of the jurors will by Jean Stern, Executive Director of The Irvine Museum . The web site for the exhibition contains a biography of Mr. Stern.

4. Maria Hetenyi has listed 10 books concerning the California missions, including Romance of the Bells.


Resource Library editor's note:

For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

Rev. 8/27/09

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Irvine Museum in Resource Library.

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