The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930

by Jean Stern



The most gifted of California's impressionist artists, Guy Rose (1867-1925) was the only artist of the early period to be born in Southern California. His father, L. J. Rose, owned the Sunny Slope Ranch, located in the San Gabriel Valley about ten miles east of Los Angeles. The Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was a familiar landmark to Rose, who grew up within the "sound of its bells." Rose studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1886 and 1887 before continuing his studies in Paris. In France, Rose adapted well to Impressionism and, like scores of other art students and young painters, visited Giverny, the small village where Claude Monet lived. He returned to Giverny in 1904 and lived there with his wife Ethel, also an artist, until 1912 when they returned to the United States. Sources vary as to the extent of the friendship between Rose and Monet, whose influence is clearly evident in Rose's work.

Back in America, Rose worked in New York and returned to Los Angeles in 1914, settling in Pasadena. The seven year period between 1914 and 1921, when he was disabled by a stroke, confines his California works. In that brief time, Rose painted in La Jolla, Laguna Beach, San Gabriel, Pasadena, the Carmel-Monterey area, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert.

San Gabriel Mission and San Gabriel Road, both painted about 1919, are the only known paintings that Rose painted of any California mission. In both cases the mission takes a secondary role as a framework for an interesting little outdoor still-life of pots in the mission yard, or as a barely discernible backdrop for the view of houses and trees along San Gabriel Road. Curiously, no paintings of the Mission San Juan Capistrano are known to have been painted by Rose. The Leading Lady (page 14) is set within the ancient arcades of San Gabriel mission. It is a portrait of Lucretia del Valle, a well-known actress of the day, in the role of Señora Josefa Yorba, a character in The Mission Play. This pageant, written by John Steven McGroarty in 1912, was held annually at the San Gabriel mission.

Rose was the most impressionistic of all artists in California, pursuing a delicate and elegant brush stroke coupled to soft, harmonious colors. He was the only one of our artists who had a direct association with the French Impressionists, and his work is highly evocative of Monet's. In 1894 Rose suffered a debilitating bout of lead poisoning, the result of constant exposure to oil paints. For several years, he rarely worked in oils, turning instead to pen and ink or watercolor illustration work for major periodicals. By 1904, his first year of residency in Giverny, he had sufficiently recovered to paint on a frequent basis. He did not paint from 1921, the year of his stroke, until his death in 1925.

Franz A. Bischoff (1864-1929) was a fully trained European artist when he came to America in 1885. His specialty was porcelain painting, and he excelled at the rendition of flowers, particularly roses. Prior to coming to California, he lived in Dearborn, Michigan, where he taught porcelain decoration and watercolor painting. In 1905 he visited San Francisco with the aim of moving his family. The earthquake of 1906 forced him to reconsider his choice, and instead he built a home and studio in South Pasadena. Thus, he began a second career as a landscape painter.

San Juan Capistrano Mission Yard (page 1) was painted about 1922. It shows the fountain at the entry of the mission with the "mission revival" gable and the campanario in the background. The fountain bears a statue of an angel in the center, a feature which has been changed several times over the years. Always a flower painter, Bischoff focuses on the hollyhocks and geraniums around the fountain and creates a vivid and brilliant statement of California's light.

One of the greatest colorists in California art, Bischoff's work glows with light and color. Capistrano Mission treats what would otherwise be a commonplace scene of the courtyard and pepper tree into a glorious statement of brilliant light and color.

German-born William Wendt (1865-1946) came to the United States in 1880 and settled in Chicago. Largely self-taught, he immediately took to landscape painting, winning many prizes in numerous exhibitions in Chicago.

During the late 1890s, Wendt visited California on several occasions. He was enchanted by the landscape, and in 1906 he and his wife, the sculptor Julia Bracken Wendt, bought a studio-home in Los Angeles. A few years later they relocated to Laguna Beach where they lived the rest of their lives.

Wendt was a frequent visitor to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. He painted the mission on many occasions, including one work (page 66) that he presented to the resident padre with the special dedication just above his signature beginning, "To my friend Father O'Sullivan..."

Wendt is often described as the most spiritual of California's landscape painters. His works are intimate and personal views of the land and the environment. Many of his works bear poetic titles, some drawn from the Bible or other works of classical literature. His nostalgic view of Capistrano in moonlight is entitled Of Bygone Days.. Keeping with the nostalgia and romance of Old California, another Capistrano painting bears the title An Echo of the Past. The human presence is rarely seen in his paintings, and at times that presence is shown to the detriment of the land. A well-respected artist among his peers, he was called the "dean" of Southern California's landscape painters.

Manuel Valencia (1856-1935) was a Northern California artist who specialized in landscapes and historical themes. He was a descendant of a member of the De Anza Expedition, which surveyed various parts of California in the late 1700s. In recompense for that service, the Valencia family held numerous land grants in the San Francisco Bay area and had a street named in its honor in San Francisco.

Largely self-taught, Valencia studied briefly with Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), a painter of missions in his own right, and attended a few classes in Mexico City. The great San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 caused Valencia to move out of the city and relocate south of San Francisco in San Jose.

Inside the Ruins of Carmel Mission shows the damage from neglect and abandonment in the decades following the Mexican secularization decrees of 1833. The Cemetery, Mission San Luis Rey (page 17) likewise shows the partially collapsed dome of a chapel next to the church.

Alson S. Clark (1876-1949) was born in Chicago and studied in New York under William Merritt Chase. In 1900 he went to Paris where he took lessons with James A. Whistler. From 1902 to 1914, Clark and his wife Medora spent most of their time between their home in Chicago and an apartment in Paris. Clark was a tireless traveler, painting in such diverse locales as France, Italy, Spain, England, Dalmatia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Panama and Mexico.

Clark served as an aerial photographer in the United States Navy during World War I. After the war he was advised to seek a warm climate to recuperate from a nagging ear affliction. He and Medora came to California in 1919, fell in love with the locale and bought a lot in Pasadena. When they returned with all their possessions on January 1, 1920, they hailed a taxi at Union Station and asked to be driven to Pasadena. The cab driver looked at them in astonishment and said it was impossible due to the Rose Parade. Nevertheless, five hours later they arrived at their new home.


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