Joslyn Art Museum

Omaha, NE




Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915


Exploring three centuries of the changing imagery of the California Dream, the special exhibition "Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915" continues through April 30, 2000. By juxtaposing paintings that have served as icons of the California Dream with prints, photographs, maps, books, and printed ephemera, the exhibition investigates how idealized portrayals of California worked to align the land and its people with the motives of those who had a stake in its development from the Spanish explorers of the 17th century to the urban developers of the early 20th century.

Since the arrival of the Spanish explorers in the 16th century, California has been thought of as a land of promise and opportunity. At first it was appreciated for its strategic location in relation to trade with Asia, its rich soil, and its rumored mineral wealth. Later, in the first half of the 19th century, those who traveled to California extolled the region's abundant stock of game and marine life, the valuable lumber of its redwood forests, and the pleasant Mediterranean climate that seemed to invite agricultural enterprise. With the discovery of gold in the Sierras in 1848, optimistic predictions about the extraordinary potential of the region appeared to have become a reality.

Despite California's auspicious entry into the Union in 1850, its incorporation into the economic and social systems of the United States was far from complete. The geographic isolation of the state from the rest of the nation, its arid climate, Spanish history, and perceived connection with the Old World made the region seem foreign and forbidding to those in the rest of the nation. In addition, unlike the majority of the Western territories, which were settled relatively slowly by farmers migrating from states nearby, California experienced an influx of English speakers as a result of the Gold Rush. Those who flocked to the state during this period were prospectors, urban merchants, and real estate speculators.

Through the notoriety of the Gold Rush settlements they established, California acquired a reputation as a place unfit for permanent residence. Indeed, for most Americans, the state represented cultural values diametrically opposed to the ideals of hard work, community solidarity, and religious observances on which the nation had been founded. During the second half of the 19th century, idealized images of California disseminated in paintings, prints, and photographs sponsored by local developers acted as a powerful antidote to the fears generated in the American public by the Gold Rush. These pictures showed the state as a land of agricultural plenty, of cosmopolitan sophistication, breathtaking natural beauty, and, above all, a place that rewarded Yankee ingenuity and self-reliance with tangible economic benefits. In addition, such images addressed American concerns about the "hybrid" aspects of California society by demonstrating that those who were inherently subordinate in the new order - Native and Hispanic Americans and Asian immigrants - would be kept in their place.

Pacific Arcadia presents a compelling array of masterworks by artists working in early California and incorporates culture analysis into their presentation. The exhibition includes approximately 185 objects divided into six thematic categories:

Terrestrial Paradise - European mapmakers in the 17th and 18th centuries, relying upon the optimistic reports of the first expeditions to travel in the territory, often pictured California as a great island flanking the west coast of North America. This island shape encouraged associations with fabulous treasure islands described in literature of the time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, visual inventories made by artists traveling with Spanish, French, and Russian expeditions helped perpetuate the idea of the region's natural abundance first introduced in the insular maps, picturing fertile valleys, rich strands of lumber, deep harbors, and docile native peoples ready to help with development. This introductory section of the exhibition presents some of the earliest known representations of California by expeditionary artists such as Jose Cardéro, Tomás de Suriá and Georg von Langsdorff, as well as the work of mapmakers Nicholas Sanson, Hubert Jaillot, Herman Moll and others.

The Golden Dream - When large quantities of gold were discovered in the Sierra foothills in 1848, California seemed at last to have fulfilled the expectations of early explorers and colonial administrators. Paintings, drawings, and prints of activities in the gold fields celebrated the successes of lone prospectors, equating the American ideals of personal freedom, economic success, and democratic government with the society of gold rush California. Artworks featured in this section include Charles Christian Nahl's Saturday Night in the Mines (one of the most important works of the California gold rush period); paintings by Ernest Narjot and A. D. O. Browere; prints by Currier & Ives; and photographs by Carleton E. Watkins.

Cornucopia of the World - Sponsored by patrons enriched by the gold rush and its subsidiary industries, artists in California turned to pastoral themes during the mid-1850s and afterward. With the days of easy mining long finished, business leaders in the state hoped to encourage agricultural enterprise and permanent settlement. Landscapes of California's rich central valley, still lifes of outsize local produce, and portraits of upstanding middle class residents played an important role in shifting the focus of the American public from the rough and ready days of the gold rush to more conventional types of development. Such images, by inviting comparisons with the countryside and rural communities of New York, Massachusetts, and other eastern states, worked to align California with the cultural traditions of the rest of the nation. Paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Samuel Marsden Brookes, and John Ross Key will be featured in this section.

Rush for the Wilderness - Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans had expressed their pride in the magnificence of the national landscape, often claiming that it had no rival in Europe or, indeed, anywhere. Portrayals of California's natural wonders - the Yosemite Valley, the noble Sierra Nevada, the groves of giant redwoods - gave new weight to this argument and strengthened the bonds between California and a nation that defined itself through the presence of a vast frontier. Images of spectacular mountain ranges and immense, glacier-carved valleys alluded to the timeless accumulation of natural resources and demonstrated that the state still offered extraordinary opportunities to newcomers. Such images asserted that California could still be considered the Pacific Prize - the providential reward bestowed on those who had conquered the great expanse of the continent. Featured works include several of Albert Bierstadt's most beautiful paintings of California and a selection of Carleton Watkins' mammoth plate views of the Yosemite Valley, among other works.

Spanish Arcadia - The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made a journey to California a viable and patriotic alternative for Americans considering a grand tour of Europe. During this period, idyllic images of the nation's "Mediterranean Shores" beckoned to residents of the East and Midwest. Local artists showed California missions as the New World counterparts of the Roman forum and the ruined temples of Agrigento and Paestum. These artists also composed nostalgic visions of old rancho days in California, showing bold vaqueros and dark-eyed señoritas who passed their days in the pleasurable indolence of fandangos and fiestas. In addition to mission paintings by Juan B. Wandesford, Henry Chapman Ford, and Edwin Deaking, this segment also features Charles Christian Nahl's splendid portrayal of early California, Fandango.

Urban Visions - Images of metropolitan life in California completed the visual package offered to those in the East and Midwest. Views of San Francisco's well-kept neighborhoods, bustling markets, and stately government buildings demonstrated that the state's abundance was processed through social mechanisms that made it available to ordinary Americans, not just those willing to risk a prospecting venture in the goldfieids. With an eye to the great cities of the east, artists in California presented San Francisco as the Pacific counterpart to Boston, New York, and Chicago. Their paintings described the mansions of the Nob Hill elite, the hundreds of ships anchored in the San Francisco Bay, and grand hotels ready to accommodate visitors. They also portrayed the exotic pleasures of Chinatown, alluding to San Francisco's important role as the nation's gateway to Cathay and the lucrative Pacific trade. Prints and photographic panoramas of the city gave investors, vacationers, and prospective immigrants the impression that California had opened its doors for business. This portion of the exhibition presents works by Ernest Narjot, Eadweard Muybridge , Arthur Frank Mathews, Theodore Wores, Arnold Genthe, and others.

Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600- 1915 has been organized by the Canter Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. This exhibition and its national tour are made possible with generous support from The Ford Motor Company, The Honorable Laurence W. Lane, Dr. A. Jess Shenson, and The Bernard Osher Foundation. Local presentation of Pacific Arcadia has been made possible in part by the Union Pacific Foundation. Additional sponsorship has been provided by the Stanford University Alumni Association. Support for educational programming has been provided in part by The Kind World Foundation with additional support from KTCY radio, 106.9 FM The City.

The exhibition premiered at the Canter Center for Visual Arts in April 1999 and traveled to the San Diego Museum of Art in October 1999. Joslyn Art Museum is the final venue on the exhibition tour.

A 242-page, fully illustrated catalogue, published by Oxford University Press in collaboration with the Canter Center for Visual Arts, accompanies the exhibition. Written by Dr. CIaire Perry, the Canter Center for Visual Arts' curator of American art and organizer of the Pacific Arcadia exhibition, the catalogue is divided into six sections: Terrestrial Paradise, The Golden Dream, Cornucopia of the World, Rush for the Wilderness, Spanish Arcadia, and Urban Visions. It fills a significant gap in the literature dealing with the cultural history of early California. The catalogue is on sale in Joslyn's Museum Shop.

See earlier stories and pictures from this touring exhibition at:

You also may enjoy Oakland Museum's Art of the Gold Rush.images and our story on the exhibit: California, Art of the Gold Rush (11/97)

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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