The California Missions in Art - 1786 to 1890

by Norman Neuerburg

 



 

The 1860s were a rather dry period for representations of the missions. The sole major exception is the group of sketches by the Bavarian Edward Vischer, which he began in 1861, almost two decades after his first visit to California in 1842. The series, which includes multiple views, was completed only in 1878, the year of his death. Vischer was self-taught but added considerable life to his views, which often included the landscape setting. Photography of the missions had begun in the 1850s, but it only began in earnest in the 1870s, and Vischer occasionally based his sketches on photographs when little remained of the original appearances of the buildings. Perhaps the most influential photographer was Carleton Watkins, who did the first photographic series of the missions in the years 1876 to 1900.

The 1870s were a critical period for interest in the missions. During the research trip of Hubert Bancroft and Henry L. Oak in 1874, they encountered Lemuel Wiles (1828-1905) at work painting at San Juan Capistrano. He also did paintings of San Luis Rey and San Gabriel during a sojourn in San Diego that year. Edwin Deakin (1838-1923), an Englishman, settled in San Francisco in 1870 and did sketches and paintings of the mission there. His next mission pictures were done at San Buenaventura and Santa Ines in 1875, but he did not decide to do a whole set until 1878, and that was not finished until 1898. He actually did three sets, two in oil and one in watercolor. He also did a number of views not belonging to those sets. He was the first artist to romanticize the missions and the first of these artists with a very recognizable personal style, emphasizing paint texture and atmosphere, though many of the representations are less than accurate.

An artist more concerned with an accurate recording of the appearance of the missions was Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894). Already successful as a landscape painter in Chicago, Ford came to California in 1875 for reasons of health and did his first mission sketch in San Francisco. He soon moved to Santa Barbara and exhibited two paintings of the Santa Barbara mission in his first exhibition that year. As the first professional artist in Santa Barbara, he began to supply paintings, both in oil and watercolor, to winter visitors, much as Guardi and Canaletto had done in eighteenth-century Venice for visitors on the Grand Tour. In 1878 he spent the summer in Yosemite and met Carleton Watkins, whose series of photographs of the missions may have inspired Ford to undertake a complete series of paintings. In 1880 he went south and did numerous sketches, watercolors and oils of the missions south of Santa Barbara. The next year he went north. He kept almost all of these works to be used as models for replicas. In fact, he produced one set almost immediately for a client from Boston. Because of the good reception of these paintings, he decided to reproduce them in a more economical form for less wealthy visitors. At first he expected to have these reproduced in chromolithography, but instead prepared a portfolio of etchings. This included twenty of the missions (he had been unable to obtain any view of San Rafael, which had disappeared almost immediately after its secularization) plus the asistencia of San Antonio de Pala. Three of the missions were represented by two views, making a portfolio of twenty-four prints. These were the first etchings of the California missions. They were actually made by him in New York, but subsequent printings of these and other mission views of his were printed in California. He continued doing both paintings and etchings of the missions along with other subjects. He did a complete set including San Rafael (after he was able to get a drawing from General Vallejo) in watercolor which was shown at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That set was subsequently sold to Mrs. Stanford. Ford prepared a manuscript of a book on the missions which he intended to be illustrated with his own views, but he died before it was published. He was a very realistic renderer of the missions, and his etchings are perhaps the most widely reproduced of artists' renderings of the missions.

 

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