The California Missions in Art: 1890 to 1930

by Jean Stern



Clark's first paintings after his return from service in World War I in 1919 were two small oil sketches of the San Gabriel mission. Mission San Gabriel is one of those. Clark was fascinated by architecture, and everywhere he went he painted examples of local architecture, from grand palaces to ordinary houses and streets. Not long after he and his wife settled in Pasadena, they made their first of many visits to the Capistrano mission. The old mission instantly became a subject of interest for Clark. Mission Cloisters, San Juan Capistrano is rendered with great affection. The golden light of late afternoon reflects in soft and gentle tones off the arcades and whitewashed walls of the old building. Ruins of San Juan Capistrano (page 11) focuses on the texture of the ancient walls. In Moonlight, San Juan Capistrano (page 109), Clark explores the ethereal setting by posing the mission in moonlight, giving it a stark, almost abstract simplicity.

Donna Schuster (1883-1953) was trained in Chicago at the Art Institute and at the Boston Museum School under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson. Her early works clearly show the soft, delicate brushwork of the Boston School. Her later studies with William Merritt Chase in 1912 influenced her toward a broader, more painterly brush stroke.

Schuster arrived in Los Angeles in 1914 and became an active member of the local art community, exhibiting widely and frequently and teaching at Otis Art Institute. An astute and daring painter, she shows in her work a broad range, from the elegant Impressionism of the Boston School, to some paintings with exceptionally bright and bold color harmonies, and even to starkly Modernist compositions. Schuster does not lend herself to simple classification. She experimented with a multitude of art styles, seeking inspiration at various times from Chase, Claude Monet, and from the California Modernist, Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973).

Lily Pond owes much to the influence of Claude Monet, particularly in the selection of water lilies as subject. However, the pond is in fact the fountain at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The composition of this painting eliminates all references to the background, but the silhouette of the mission is clearly seen reflected in the water.

Hungarian born Joseph Kleitsch (1882-1931) came to America in 1901 and established himself as a portrait painter. In 1912 he was commissioned to paint portraits of Mexican President Francisco Madero and his wife. On a visit to California in 1914, he stopped at the Mission San Juan Capistrano and painted Curiosity (page 82). A dedicated plein-air painter, Kleitsch was taking a break from the easel when two young girls came to see what the artist was doing.

Kleitsch returned to Southern California and settled in Laguna Beach in 1920. He took an active interest in the Mission San Juan Capistrano, producing a number of canvases in the early 1920s. The Cloisters (page 112) is an extraordinary painting of receding space and symmetrical forms. The scene down the corridor is framed by a series of arcs and perspective lines, creating an immense space that continually expands towards the viewer.

In 1924 Kleitsch painted Portrait of Father John O'Sullivan (page 64), the resident priest at the Capistrano mission. The work shows a pensive and resolute man set against a background of his beloved mission. Father O'Sullivan was instrumental in bringing the plight of the Capistrano mission to the public and is widely credited as "the man who saved the mission."

That same year, Kleitsch painted a superb view of the Capistrano mission gardens, looking towards the old town of San Juan Capistrano. San Juan Capistrano, 1924 (page 113) is one of the finest impressionist paintings produced in California. The surface is alive with a myriad of colorful daubs, giving the painting a feeling of immediacy and a brilliant sense of natural light. The composition does not center on the main buildings but rather turns away from them, showing only a glimpse of the soldiers' barracks on the right. The subject is indeed the light of California in all its brilliance.

Charles Percy Austin (1883-1948) was an artist who came to be associated with paintings of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. From about 1912, Austin began a long series of paintings of the Mission San Juan Capistrano that he exhibited frequently. He befriended Father John O'Sullivan and lived at the mission for extended periods while he painted. In 1930, he illustrated the book Capistrano Nights by Saunders and O'Sullivan.

The Capistrano mission owns several works by Austin, including San Juan Capistrano 1924, Padre Reading (page 67), and Mary Pickford's Wedding, 1924 (page 62). These were given to the mission by the artist. Austin's large painting, San Juan Capistrano, shows a padre feeding a parrot in the mission courtyard. The scene is encircled by the lush vegetation that typifies the popular image of California: a romantic and appealing land of flowers and light.

Arthur Hill Gilbert (1894-1970) was educated at Northwestern University and at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. In 1920, after his military service, he came to California and began his art studies. He enrolled at the Otis Art Institute and continued his training by taking classes in Paris and London.

In 1928 Gilbert moved to Monterey and became well known for his paintings of the picturesque trees, dunes and rugged coastline. In 1929 his painting Monterey Oaks won the coveted Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1930 he won two more significant awards, the Murphy and Ranger Prizes, and was elected an associate member of the National Academy.

While living in Southern California, Gilbert painted several works of the missions. Mission San Juan Capistrano is set beneath one of the arches looking across the courtyard to the "mission revival" gable. The mission and its romance are the subject of the painting, and the warm, peaceful sense of the California day, accented by the hanging bougainvillea vines, provides the setting for the mission. By contrast, Santa Barbara Mission is more a languorous California landscape than a painting of the mission. In his role as a plein-air painter, Gilbert treats the mission in the middle distance as an aspect of the landscape.

Philadelphian Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937) made his first visit to California in 1915 on the occasion of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. That winter he came to Los Angeles and spent the first part of 1916 painting in Southern California, including San Juan Capistrano and San Diego.

Cooper was fascinated with architecture. His world-wide travels took him to many exotic lands, and everywhere he painted scenes of buildings, streets, and local architectural monuments. Upon his return to the United States, he painted a number of impressionistic city scenes of New York, a series that brought him significant acclaim. His interest in the Mission San Juan Capistrano is therefore understandable: the missions are the archetypic architectural landmarks of California, and Capistrano has long been called the" Jewel of the Missions."

Always a plein-air Impressionist, Cooper's work is bathed in brilliant color and light. A small gouache of the fountain and campanario entitled Mission San Juan Capistrano, dated June 24, 1926, is a marvelous sketch, accomplished with only a few, well-chosen strokes. Two other paintings of Capistrano, Mission Courtyard and Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1916 are painted from the identical viewpoint. The smaller work in gouache shows the immediacy of the watercolor technique. The painting includes the padre and an altar boy in a doorway, as well as chickens in the yard and pigeons in the air; it is indeed a "passing moment" caught by the painter. The larger work in oil has a lot more developed color and form with a strong and intense feel of natural light, but little of the agility that the sketch has.


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