The California Missions in Art - 1786 to 1890

by Norman Neuerburg


In response to a threat from the Russians, the Spanish Crown decided to initiate colonization of Upper California in 1769, more than two centuries after the land was first seen by Europeans in 1532. The main thrust of this colonization was carried out by Franciscan missionaries who founded twenty-one missions between 1769 and 1823 (four presidios or forts, and three pueblos were founded by military and secular authorities during the same period) with the purposes of saving the souls of the native peoples by converting them to Christianity and of integrating them into a European-based civilization by teaching them trades that were not a part of native culture. The missions were vast and largely self-sufficient establishments centered around a church, but they also included workshops, storerooms, and residential buildings as well. Though only occasionally designed by an architect or master mason, the buildings were often of surprising magnificence. Adobe was the most common building material, but some of the more ambitious were of stone and brick, and roofs were usually of red tile. Until their secularization in the 1830s, they were the principal centers of agriculture, cattle raising and manufacturing in California. Once they were secularized, their lands and building were sold, though the land should have reverted to the Indians. Buildings that were not turned over to new functions gradually fell into ruin.

Because all the art at the missions had served a devotional or didactic purpose or was simple decoration, there was no motivation for the residents of the missions to record their surroundings graphically; but visitors found them objects of curiosity. The earliest known record of artistic rendering was at the time of the visit of the Frenchman Lapérouse in 1786. At San Carlos (Carmel) Mission, Gaspard Duché de Vancy (d. 1788) did a small painting, which he left at the mission, of Lapérouse's welcome there. The original has disappeared, but three copies of it were made by artists of the Malaspina expedition which came in 1791. They also drew sketches of the mission itself and of the presidio at Monterey. These -- along with a drawing of an Indian dance at Mission San Jose by George Heinrich von Langsdorff (1774-1852), who had come with the expedition of Count Nikolai Rezanof, and a water color of an Indian dance in front of the mission church in San Francisco (Dolores) by Louis Choris (1795-1828), who came on the expedition of Otto von Kotzebue in 1815 -- are the only pictures related to missions before the end of Spanish rule.

After Mexican independence was achieved, California became more accessible to foreigners, and there was much trade in the 1820s and 1830s. Some of the ships carried draughtsmen or amateur artists. In 1826 and 1827 Richard Brydges Beechey (1808-1895) did sketches of the San Francisco and Monterey areas and of the missions there along with William Smyth (1800-1877) . Not long after, Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly (1790-1849) drew a picture of Mission San Luis Rey which subsequently was reproduced in the account of his voyage around the world. In 1828 Alfred Robinson (1806-1895) visited California. Lithographs based on lost drawings of his of four of the missions were published in his Life in California in 1846. An amateur artist, Ferdinand Deppe, had been in California in 1828 during one of six trips working for the merchant Virmond, and four years later he did a painting of Mission San Gabriel while staying in Mexico City. This is the earliest known oil painting of a California mission. In 1839 during a voyage around the world, the French artist Francois Edmond Paris (1806-1893) did a fine watercolor of Carmel Mission. In 1842 the Swede Emmanuel Sandelius, the "King's Orphan," drew a number of very amateurish pictures of California, including several missions.


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