The California Missions in Art - 1786 to 1890

by Norman Neuerburg



Ford's place as the leading artist in Santa Barbara was taken by Alexander Harmer (1856-1925), who had married into an old California family and settled in that city in 1893, shortly before Ford's death. In the late 1880s, however, he had done a number of fine oils of both San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano missions. Having been a student of Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia, he was the first professionally trained artist to paint the California missions seriously. These works are straight-forward, accurate renderings of what he saw. After settling in Santa Barbara, he turned to portraying a very romantic view of early California of the sort which had become popular after the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona.

The 1880s saw the appearance of a number of articles on the missions in national publications and the first books on the subject. As a result, a large number of artists did one or more mission paintings, though few attempted series. We find artists such as William Keith (1838-1911), Thomas Hill (1829-1908), J. Henry Sandham (1842-1912), and a host of other artists of lesser renown doing occasional paintings of missions. Many of these, and others, prepared drawings to be reproduced as illustrations, especially before the reproduction of photographs became widespread. Numerous amateur painters, frequently women, painted missions, and they continued the tradition. Miss Jane Hunt, a niece of the brothers Richard and William Morris Hunt, the noted architect and painter, did a large number of watercolors of the missions during the years 1888 to 1894. Eva Scott Fenyes (1846-1930) also did a very large number of watercolors of the missions and old adobe houses between 1896 and 1926.

After the railroad came to San Juan Capistrano in 1887, painters arrived in large numbers to paint its mission. Over the years possibly no other mission had so many paintings done of it. Some artists even rented space as studios in the unruined parts of the mission buildings. In 1894 Judge Egan commissioned Fred Behre to paint a reconstruction of the San Juan Capistrano mission with a wildly improbable steeple over the entrance of its Great Stone Church. It was incorrectly believed to be the way the church looked before the 1812 earthquake. Excavations in 1938 showed that the steeple placement shown in the painting was impossible. The landscape in the background of this painting was modified by Gutzon Borglum (1861-1941). He began to frequent the mission along with his first wife Elizabeth Collins Borglum (1848-1922), who had actually been his teacher. Charles Arthur Fries (1854-1940) lived in the mission in the late 1890s. His famous painting Too Late, which adorned doctors' waiting rooms across the country, is set in the old dining room of the mission. By that time the mission had become a special and favorite subject for artists of the plein-air school, which came into its own in California in those years.


About the author

The late Dr. Norman Neuerburg was an expert on art of the California missions and historical consultant for several of the mission restoration projects. He was the author of numerous texts concerning the missions including "Painting in the California Missions" American Art Review July 1977 (Volume IV, Number 1) and books including The Decoration of the California Missions (1987), Architecture of Mission La Purisima (1987) and Saints of the California Missions (1989). He received a posthumous Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from California State University Dominguez Hills in 1998.

In honor of Dr. Neuerburg, in 1999 the California Mission Studies Association created the Norman Neuerburg Award to recognize outstanding contributions towards the study and preservation of California's missions, presidios, and ranchos.


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