The California Missions in Art - 1786 to 1890

by Norman Neuerburg



The Mexican War and subsequent occupation of California brought a number of soldiers and sailors to the region who stayed on. Some were artists of varying ability. Sketches of the missions were relatively numerous in the late 1840s and 1850s. The no longer functioning missions were something unfamiliar to the easterners and began to take on the air of the romantic and the ancient. Disintegrating missions fitted well into the prevailing nineteenth-century fascination with ruin, and they had an appearance both exotic and antique. They certainly were exotic by eastern standards, and even if they were not truly antique -- the last mission was founded less than a quarter of a century before the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 -- they at least looked old, and there was nothing like them along the eastern seaboard. This romantic view of the ruined missions did not have its greatest impact until the last decades of the century.

Among the men who came with the occupying forces were a few who had some artistic talent. They occasionally drew missions, such as the ship's surgeon Charles Guillou (1813-1899), William Rich Hutton (1826-1901), who left over a dozen sketches of missions, and the talented William Dougal (1822-1895). Alfred Sully (1820-1879), the son of the more famous Thomas Sully, drew in Santa Barbara and Monterey, married a local beauty who soon died, and remained in the army until his death. H.M.T. Powell had come over the Santa Fe Trail and settled in San Diego where he attempted to eke out his meager income by selling drawings. His oil of Mission San Diego is perhaps the second oil painting of a California mission. One of Powell's customers was Colonel Cave Couts (b.1821), who erased Powell's signature and fixed his own to two San Diego drawings. Couts, however, did have some talent as a draughtsman, and in his journal is a fine and quite objective drawing of the guards' quarters at Mission San Luis Rey in 1850. A drawing he did of the same mission is curious for its rather hallucinatory distortion, being exaggerated in its height, but it was well-enough regarded to be published as a lithograph.

During the 1850s a number of artists found an outlet for their talents as draughtsmen attached to expeditions sent to map the coastline and the borders between the United States and Mexico as well as to locate practical railroad routes. Many of their drawings, some originals surviving, were reproduced as lithographs in the expedition reports.

James Madison Alden (1834-1922), working on the Coast Survey from 1854 to 1857, executed numerous drawings and watercolors up and down the length of California. Among these are watercolors of three of the missions and the only known view of the chapel at the presidio of Santa Barbara.

Heinrich Baldvin Mollhausen (1825-1905), while working on the Pacific Railroad Survey, did a very fine view of Mission San Diego which was reproduced as a lithograph. In the same volume, the artist of an interesting view of Mission San Fernando from the hill behind is not documented.

Before 1856 artists merely depicted those missions which they chanced upon in their travels, but in that year the otherwise unknown Henry Miller set out to draw all the missions from San Francisco to San Diego and thus executed the earliest known set of mission pictures. Miller also drew a number of towns and cities, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego. These were intended to be used in the execution of a vast panorama of California, but as far as we know it was never carried out. Miller had intended to finance his trip by selling drawings along the way, but he found no takers.

Léon Trousset's painting of Mission Santa Cruz of about 1853 may be the third oil painting of a California mission.


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